DN Editorial: Fishtown blues; Sociologist's book blames poverty on the poor

Posted: February 20, 2012

IN HIS new book, "Coming Apart," sociologist Charles Murray does for working-class whites what he did for poor blacks in his 1984 book, "Losing Ground." He blames them for their own troubles.

And this time it's personal. To make his argument, Murray creates a fictional, white working- class area that he names Fishtown after the real Philadelphia neighborhood. Once the home of hard-working men and the families they supported, the current Fishtown is inhabited by male slackers who no longer want to work hard. Marriage rates have plummeted, crime is up and fewer people go to church.

In "Losing Ground," Murray claimed that government anti-poverty programs actually increased poverty because they rewarded laziness and promoted out-of-wedlock births. His analysis provided Ronald Reagan with support for the myth of the black welfare queen and her Cadillac. And the hundreds of thousands of dollars that Murray got from conservative foundations to support his research had nothing to do with the fact that his data always supported their ideology.

Despite widescale debunking of his "scholarship," Murray's arguments were used to justify "ending welfare as we knew it" in 1997 - a joint endeavor of both Republicans and Democrats.

So now, 15 years later, what are we to make of the fact that the same problems supposedly caused by welfare now affect large swaths of the white working class of both the real and fictional Fishtown? For his part, Murray insists it's not a lack of jobs, even though the factories that once allowed men to provide a decent living for their families are all gone and the power of labor unions to protect wages, benefits and job security has declined. Instead, the disintegration of the white working class is due to their abandonment of the "founding virtues" - industriousness, honesty, marriage and religion. In short, it's their own fault.

Amazingly, that's pretty much the explanation advanced by Republican presidential candidates like Mitt Romney. He regularly rails against an "Entitlement Society" that supposedly leads inexorably to "passivity and sloth."

Once again, the actual facts say otherwise. A study released last week by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that 90 percent of all "entitlement" programs - Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, food stamps, the Earned Income Tax Credit - goes to the elderly, the disabled or, in the case of the EITC, people who are working hard for low wages. That is, government benefits have not caused "passivity and sloth." Besides, the Center points out, most of the aid that goes to "able-bodied" people are programs like unemployment benefits, which by definition means the recipients have significant work histories. The crisis facing all the Fishtowns is real and urgent and it requires public policy grounded in fact, not myth.

We need more from those who would lead us than sermons about morality and hard work.

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