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Poverty in the US: why hasn't it disappeared?

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Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950-1980, by Charles Murray. New York: Basic Books, 1984. $23.95. America has been losing the war on poverty, argues Charles Murray in his controversial new book, ``Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950-1980.'' More precisely, he says that the programs associated with President Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty (e.g., Job Corps, Comprehensive Employment Training Act), along with the welfare programs initiated during the New Deal but considerably liberalized since the 1930s (e.g., Aid to Families with Dependent Children, Unemployment Insurance), have actually caused or contributed to the myriad social problems which plague the poor neighborhoods of America's cities. Mr. Murray notes that even though the years between 1950 and 1980 were marked by economic growth, and although we as a nation poured an unprecedented amount of money into the effort to eradicate poverty, especially after 1965, progress against poverty -- measured by the decline in the proportion of our citizenry living below the official poverty line -- actually was greatest before 1965, and had stopped by around 1970.

Further, other social problems the poverty programs were trying to wipe out have actually been exacerbated by their effects. Is Murray right? There are two parts to the question. First, has our social policy been an unmitigated failure? Second, if there are areas of failure, or lack of progress, is the explanation offered by Murray the correct one? I believe the answer to both is ``no.'' Here's why:

While Murray paints a picture of unrelieved bleakness in describing trends among the poor, the facts about their condition are more complex than he suggests. There has in fact been little or no progress in bringing down the poverty rate since the late '60s. But very little of the social expenditures for the nonelderly and nondisabled has gone for cash assistance. Instead, most of the aid we offer the working-aged poor is in the form of in-kind benefits like medical care and food stamps. And there have been improvements in the problems these programs were designed to deal with.


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