60/365 Investigating Ch. 12 of ‘Losing Ground’ by Charles A. Murray

This week’s reading takes us back to Losing Ground by Charles Murray. While the opening chapters bordered on the ridiculous in their cherry picking of facts, avoidance of sources and generally fallacious arguments, these final chapters were particularly frustrating. Surely conservative thinkers have a stronger argument to make than Murray’s.

In chapters 12, Murray continues to use an interesting approach to analyzing changes in American poverty beginning in the early-to-mid 1960s and using the 1950s as a basis of comparison. He decides not to look at the whole history. In the opening to Ch. 12, Murray writes, “It is not necessary to invoke the Zeitgeist of the 1960s, or changes in the work ethic, or racial differences, or the complexities of postindustrial economies, in order to explain increasing unemployment among the young, increased dropout from the labor force, or higher rates of illegitimacy and welfare dependency“ (p. 154). Here, as in earlier chapters, Murray is discounting the importance of other forces that may have been at work in shifting poverty rates and one of his main premises – that America started thinking differently about what it means to be poor.

While I understand the careless and ambiguous approach to data, charts, graphs, etc. could be particularly pernicious, this declaration of consideration of only pieces of the culture and society he’s decided to include undermines his entire argument. What’s more, Murray furthers his myopic analysis on the next page, writing, “Let us drop the racial baggage that goes with the American context and make the point first in a less emotional setting”  (p. 155). He then presents an example set in a developing nation as though his invocation of race in would not be in his readers’ minds. It is akin to telling someone not to picture an elephant. While this may be as easy for Murray as putting the sentence to the page, for those he writes about, separating race from any aspect of the American experience is not nearly so easy. It can be taken as more evidence to support the claim stated in last week’s class that Murray’s argument is meant more as permission for those feeling white guilt to let those feelings go. “It’s not about race, “ he writes in one form or another throughout the text. Yet, to deny race or drop the emotional baggage it includes only works to highlight Murray’s ignorance (fabricated or authentic) of the multitude of factors involved in poverty and class in America.

The crux of his argument in Ch. 12, though, is the story of Harold and Phyllis and Murray’s explanation of how these two might navigate having a child together in 1960 versus 1970 and their options in attempting to make ends meet. In presenting these characters, Murray takes great pains to work against the stereotype of a welfare recipient his target readership would likely hold. Through all of his detail, Murray’s subtext seems to be shouting, “No, they’re white, so you wouldn’t expect them to be on welfare.” This fact aside, Murray’s stated purpose is to have us ask, “[W]hat course of action makes sense?” (p. 157). Here, he asks us not only to strip away the cultural factors that might play a role in Harold and Phyllis’ decisions, but to strip away aspects of their humanity as well.[1] They will be driven by the logic of the math. Aside from removing any intrinsic will to work a job, Murray returns to his old tricks involving explaining the math of the situation. The explanation of Harold and Phyllis’ options in 1970 is particularly slippery, moving back and forth between the real amounts in 1970 and their 1980 equivalents. A reader could easily lose their way through the description to walk away with the idea that Harold and Phyllis were receiving a few hundred dollars per week through welfare benefits.

Murray’s prejudice is further displayed in his explanation of Phyllis’ decision to keep the baby. He removes all sense of agency and independence from his subject when he implies her two choices for “economic insurance” are either the government support her baby elicits or the support of a husband. It’s a disturbing image that also works against the bootstrap endgame Murray has been working toward throughout the book. Evidently, only men can pick themselves up out of poverty, and women can pick themselves up by latching on to a man on his way up.

In the end, it is not inconceivable that a couple who found themselves in the shoes of 1970 Harold and Phyllis could approach their situation in the calculated mathematical manner Murray describes. That this would be the case for all is not only unlikely, but highly insulting as well.

[1] This is to say nothing of the normalized assumptions about the benefits of the couple living together, which is presented devoid of any nuance of analysis of whether the economic best choice is also best for the socio-emotional needs of all three.

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