56/365 Investigating Ch. 1 of ‘Losing Ground’ by Charles A. Murray

As part of this week’s reading for my policy course, we’ve been asked to take a look at Charles Murray’s seminal tome, Losing GroundWhile my reaction to the text is different than my reading of Dewey’s Experience & Educationit seemed this might be a good chance to put another side of the argument into perspective.

Murray opens Losing Ground by first describing America’s general blindness to poverty leading up to to the 1960s, referencing few mentions of impoverished Americans in periodicals and research of the day. It was a problem (45 million or 30 percent of America’s population) but not one garnering much attention. I can’t help reading thinking perhaps Murray’s looking to Life magazine as the barometer of knowledge and awareness of poverty as perhaps coming short. Surely, those 45 million were aware of their poverty. Perhaps they too were surprised that one of the nation’s most widely circulated magazines wasn’t mentioning the failure of America’s post-war boom to help everyone attain prosperity. Then again, given our more contemporary willful blindness to poverty, maybe no one was surprised.

The meat of Murray’s first chapter, though, has to do with President Kennedy’s departure from tradition in suggesting the federal government put institutions in place that transferred welfare from “a hand” to “a hand up” and President Johnson’s subsequent expansion of this principal.

Murray closes the first chapter with this:

Johnson lost no time in implementing the Kennedy rhetoric. The initial antipoverty bill was written, debated, passed, and signed-in August 1964 -within Johnson’s first nine months in office. The bill was a faithful attempt to follow the “hand, not a handout” script. It provided for job training, part-time jobs for teenagers and college students, community antipoverty projects, loans to low-income farmers and businessmen, and the establishment of VISTA, the domestic Peace Corps. There was not a handout in the lot. Johnson was careful to point this out at the signing ceremony, incorporating into his remarks the cheerful prediction that “the days of the dole in this country are numbered.”14

Charles Murray. Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950-1980, 10th Anniversary Edition (Kindle Locations 406-409). Kindle Edition.

My note in the margin here is more about what Murray’s not saying than the argument he’s explicitly making. Textually, he’s reporting what happened. In the subtext, he feels to be coughing under his breath saying, “And that’s when it all started to go to hell.”

It was difficult to align this subtext with my personal experience working alongside the modern-day equivalents of these programs and seeing the good they’ve done in communities and the capacity they have built in their participants.

More on Ch. 2 soon.

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