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Study Notes

Classic Texts: Charles Murray "Losing Ground" 1984


Last updated 27 Apr 2019

Charles Murray comes from a New Right perspective and explored and developed the idea of an underclass.

Murray's book was about American society, although he did later visit Britain and suggest the same thing was happening here. He argued that government policies were helping to create an underclass of people who did not work and depended on welfare benefits.

His argument is that policies that were intended to help the poor actually made the situation worse. For example, benefits for lone parents provide a perverse incentive for girls to get pregnant and for fathers not to stay and take responsibility for their children. To get welfare payments and qualify for social housing, girls would become single parents. Those children would then be brought up without a male role model and without any role model who went to work. They would then grow up believing it was normal not to work, and the girls would aspire to be young parents and the boys would not expect to have to work or be responsible parents.

For Murray, a whole class had emerged with generations who were in a welfare or poverty trap: they did not have an incentive to work and nor did they have the skills or values associated with work or enterprise.

Murray argued that this was not just a problem for the individuals involved but for the whole of society. First, supporting this underclass cost a lot of taxpayers’ money but he also argued that it led to dysfunctional communities and a dysfunctional society with increased risk of crime, etc.

Critics of Murray suggest that he "blames the victim" - essentially blaming the poor for their own poverty. (He would respond that he did not blame the poor but instead blamed well-meaning governments). Others suggest certain economic policies cause unemployment (some would suggest economic policies preferred by the New Right!) rather than welfare policies. Some countries with much more generous welfare systems than the USA in the 1980s had much lower levels of unemployment (e.g. Sweden).

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