Charles Murray's assertions about the underlcass in Britain do not stand up to scrutiny, says AH Halsey. Social policy should instead focus on how to make citizen's income feasibleby AH Halsey / April 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
It is a fundament of liberalism, shared by ethical socialists and “wet” conservatives that, when faced with outrageous opinion, one seeks to expand and not to suppress free speech. No doubt there are debatable limits to what liberals will tolerate-for example, the advocacy of pornography or racism-but Charles Murray’s writing is located within those limits. It requires serious, if condemnatory review, rather than censorship. Murray aspires to be a Billy Graham of the social sciences; so does David Green who wants to make discussion of the “underclass” available for teaching to undergraduates via a new booklet published by the Institute of Economic Affairs-although why he should imagine that an offering so disjointed and repetitive will advance the cause of teaching is unclear. It runs to 180 pages of which only 30 pages-the useful introduction by Ruth Lister and the “statistical update” by Alan Buckingham-are new.
Green’s forewords to both of Murray’s essays (1989 and 1994), although couched in neutral terms, clearly support Murray who is described as “good-humoured,” while Nicholas Deakin’s commentary is castigated as “disdainful in tone, a tradition of social policy writing popularised by Richard Titmuss.” Deakin’s essay, on the imperfection of the statistical measures of an “underclass,” is in fact courteous and thoughtful. The slur on Titmuss is easily countered by any acquaintance with his elegant history of social policy in the second world war (Problems of Social Policy) and his monumental study of blood transfusion (The Gift Relationship: From Human Blood to Social Policy).
Meanwhile, Murray moralises against the “new rabble.” In his first essay, they were labelled as workshy, drug addicted and criminal males only casually connected to single mothers. In the second essay, the emphasis is more exclusively on illegitimacy. Social policy analysts (unnamed), Murray tells us, suddenly in the 1960s looked at the poor in a new way. “Henceforth the poor were to be homogenised… There was no such thing as the ne’er do well poor person.” But students of the history of social policy will know that the distinction has a continuous history from Elizabethan “sturdy beggars” through Victorian “undeserving poor” to wartime “spivs” and contemporary “spongers.” Murray’s moralising strikes me as Victorian. The phrase “ne’er-do-well” was used by another Victorian, Beatrice Webb, in a letter to her father in 1883 about discovering a wage earning family among her kith and kin.
“You would have laughed, father, to see me sitting amongst four or five mill-hands… I was surprised at their fair-mindedness, and at the kindliness of their view of men and things… The old man and his daughter with whom we are staying, are a veritable study of Puritan life on its more kindly side… I can’t help thinking that it would be well if politicians would live among the various classes they legislate for, and find out what are their wishes and ideas… Of course, it would be absurd to generalise from such a narrow basis: but mere philanthropists are apt to overlook the existence of an independent working class, and when they talk sentimentally of the ‘people’ they really mean the ‘ne’er-do-wells.'”
But what exactly is Murray’s thesis? What is the underclass and is it a growing threat to Britain? After reading this pamphlet I am unclear about the thesis, unsure which of several competing definitions to use and therefore uncertain about the threat. Murray himself has no doubt as to the trend. His first essay talks of “the emerging British underclass” and five years later he asserts that “the crisis deepens.” He says “Britain does have an underclass… growing rapidly. Within the next decade it will probably become as large (proportionately) as the US’s underclass. It could easily become larger.” Yet 15 pages later he writes that “trying to take a head count is a waste of time.” What sort of social science is this? One might well abandon the discussion if Murray’s three criteria-crime, drop-out from the labour force and illegitimacy-were not massive indicators of social disaster.
Buckingham’s “statistical update” is updatable. More recent records show, contrary to Murray’s thesis, that while (as Melanie Phillips insists) the breakdown of the family is a feature of all social classes, teenage conceptions have fallen since 1990. Total unemployment continues a steady downward trend (to 1.8m in January 1997, 6.5 per cent of the labour force). Crimes reported to the police have fallen since 1992. Of course, all three of Murray’s measures remain high, but they are not monopolised by a particular class. They afflict all of us.
We can therefore consign the concept of “the underclass” to the realm of the unscientific and turn to such serious writers as William Julius Wilson, Frank Field, Ralf Dahrendorf, Ronald Dore and James Meade for competing solutions to the distinguishable problems of poverty and wickedness.
Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed by divine social policy. “The Lord rained burning sulphur on them” (Genesis 19 : 23). We are not now allowed such simplistic and brutal solutions. Gentler remedies, for example Dahrendorf’s Charisma Inc, might penetrate directly into the lives of the demoralised. Dore takes a more pessimistic view of human nature, but refuses to give up and wants to transfer Japanese kindness into employment policy. He also commends Japan’s elitist civil servants, for all their arrogance, and points out that a little elitism is compatible with a larger koinonia (the fellowship of sharing). I, too, have advocated reform of moral education and called for using the third age to enable schools to teach parenting functions in a society of single mothers, as the “public” schools once did for the sons of fathers serving the empire. There are variations among analysts in the optimism they bring to the problem of remoralisation. Some at least do not share Murray’s apocalyptic views either of sinners or of government. They, and I, have faith in the possibility of a more compassionate society. Ethical socialists confront wickedness with the confidence that government has the duty to provide optimal circumstances and individuals the duty to do their utmost to be good citizens under all circumstances, favourable or not.
Whereas economic liberals seek economic solutions to original human sin, and Murray sees unmitigated disaster in all state interventions, the mainstream tradition of social policy accords potency to politics and sees past, present and future as the outcome of interaction between economy and polity. A distinction is drawn between provisions (the economy) and entitlements (the polity); Amartya Sen first applied it to the paradox of Indian famines and Dahrendorf has brilliantly elaborated it into the wider problem of The Modern Social Conflict, using citizenship to reconcile entitlements with provisions, and in the process solving both conflict and anomie. Here, surely is our agenda; seeking an optimal balance between liberty, equality and social consensus.
Policy prescriptions against poverty are currently out of fashion. They will be crowded out of the election debate by party preoccupation with Europe and constitutional reform. Yet an incoming Labour government is poised potentially to prosper from a new era-a combination of technological advance into unprecedented economic productivity and the corresponding need to reshape our institutions for the more equitable sharing of wealth. Just as science and technology took us from agrarian to industrial life, so information technology will take us, is taking us, to a new era in which manufacturing labour withers away. The challenge is political-how to effect a parallel transformation in our arrangements for the distribution of income from its traditional basis in property and paid employment to a new basis in citizenship.
The challenge set by technical transformation is that of regaining full employment. The path has been mapped by James Meade who, before he died, advised us to replace zero inflation as the central goal of policy with full activity, a reversal of income distribution from the poor to the rich, a progressive taxation system and a move towards citizen’s income.
Meade recognised that his agathotopian (not utopian) policy required reduction of real wages, a more leisured employment and steeper progression of income tax. Others, notably AB Atkinson (Incomes and the Welfare State, 1996), have followed Meade’s lead, although Atkinson would modify the citizen’s income scheme with a participation test and Dahrendorf prefers the variant of a negative income tax. All aim to switch basic income from work to legal residence.
Thus the basic income would be paid to every man, woman or child either by tax credit or cash without means test and its accompanying bureaucracy. The adaptation to the new age could not be effected overnight. It would turn on how fast the electorate could be persuaded to return to progressive taxation, not to the steepness of the 1970s but to, say, a 50 per cent tax on earnings over ?60,000 a year. This year a tax-neutral intermediate basic income would be only about ?18 per week. The goal might be to increase it to about ?80 in 30 years.
So Atkinson sees it as a complement to, not an immediate substitute for, income from employment or benefit from the state. It is a feasible scheme. The cost would be huge, but largely offset by the removal of income tax allowances and most other welfare benefits. Together with a withdrawal surcharge on the lower slices of earned income the scheme is both egalitarian and preserves work incentives. Under our present arrangements many unemployed people are trapped in their poverty by a pound for pound reduction of benefit for earnings. In short the scheme would tackle unemployment, facilitate economic growth, strengthen family life, ensure a less divided society and cut down administrative costs. It would end debate on the underclass. Although the wicked will always be with us such a reform would provide less incentive to crime, drop-out and family breakdown. Political energy could then flow into devising more opportunities for citizen participation and social scientists, including Murray, would again be fully engaged in innocent employment. Charles Murray and the underclass: the developing debate
Ruth Lister (ed)
Institute of Economic Affairs, 1996