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Issue No. 87 (April 15, 2006) -- Mark Satin, Editor

Just give them the money!

How to end poverty while reaching out to left and right

Poll after poll has shown that Americans would do something significant to end poverty -- IF that something were affordable and offered some possibility of real success.

But nobody seems to have an approach that’s viable and affordable now; and the approaches all seem to occupy different and fiercely competing ideological paths:

-- The Rich-Uncle-State Path, favored by radicals such as those in Randy Albelda and Ann Withorn, eds., Lost Ground (2002). Would provide ever-more people with ever-increasing amounts of welfare, few questions asked. Downside: cost. Also, encourages dependency, as innumerable studies have shown.

-- The Nanny-State Path, favored by liberals such as Peter Edelman (former Assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services under Clinton) and Michael B. Katz (author of The Price of Citizenship, 2001). (Great folks of course with roots in the 60s -- Edelman worked with Radical Middle advisor Len Duhl on the Robert Kennedy campaign in 1968, and Katz consulted with me on the Toronto Anti-Draft Programme in 1967-68.) Would provide a wide variety of carefully crafted economic benefits and social services to “qualified” poor people -- a much more targeted approach than that of the radicals, above, but (downside) for that reason arguably even more bureaucratic and expensive.

-- The Daddy-State Path, favored by big-government conservatives such as those in Lawrence Mead, ed., The New Paternalism: Supervisory Approaches to Poverty (1997). The subtitle says it all. Would put tough-love conditions on welfare (e.g., drug testing or attending night school) in order to improve poor people’s lives and teach middle class values . . . or at least enforce public order. Downside: cost. Also, is social engineering desirable, or even possible in a heavily bureaucratic context?

-- The Absent-Parent-State Path, favored by libertarians such as Ed Crane of the Cato Institute and -- until recently -- Charles Murray, author of Losing Ground (1984). Would eliminate most or all welfare state activities and rely on communities and charities to step in and do what’s really needed to help the poor. Downside: suppose they don’t? Also, politically infeasible, to put it mildly.

A healing path

Clearly, a new path is needed, one that builds on the best of what the four old paths had to offer but goes beyond them.

Several attempts to forge such a path have already been made by radical middle thinkers, ranging in approach from Harvard professor Christopher Jencks’s scholarly Rethinking Social Policy (1992) to Evangelicals for Social Action president Ron Sider’s passionate Just Generosity (1999). But they’ve all been pitched at too high a level of abstraction and / or idealism to have much impact on the public policy debate.

Last month a new path was proposed by a totally unexpected source -- Charles Murray -- in his new book In Our Hands: A Plan to Replace the Welfare State (2006). Murray is, of course, one of the creators of the old “Absent-Parent-State Path,” above, and is currently a chaired scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

Partly because of Murray’s stature in the Washington DC public policy community, his proposal has already begun catching the jaded eye of journalists and policy analysts across the U.S. (see RE:SOURCES section below).

Murray doesn’t have a term for his new path yet, so he calls it simply “the Plan.” But I like to call it the “Healing Path” since it takes every other Path's concerns into account, and since Murray himself proposed introducing the metaphor of healing into public-welfare discourse in his unjustly ignored and heavily Abraham-Maslow-influenced book from 1988, In Pursuit of Happiness and Good Government (not ignored by us, however -- see RE:SOURCES section at the end of HERE).

“I am a libertarian,” Murray writes, “but . . . there ought to be some way to extend a hand across the political divide between libertarians and social democrats, offering a compromise that provided generous assistance for dealing with human needs without entailing the suffocating and soulless welfare state.”

One only wishes that this veteran of three decades of partisan ideological warfare had expressed such sentiments before his 64th year on Earth.

Down the Healing Path

According to the Plan, everyone over the age of 21 would get a $10,000 / year grant from the government. For life.

It could be relatively cheaply and easily administered -- electronic deposits would be made on a monthly basis to our bank accounts.

To make sure well-off people wouldn't unduly benefit, a surtax would be levied on the grant once a person’s income reached $25,000 / year.

To pay for the grant, the Plan would eliminate all transfer payments (i.e., programs benefiting some citizens but not others), and Murray means ALL:  Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, welfare programs, social service programs, agricultural programs, “corporate welfare," the works.

On the basis of extensive calculations (described in some detail in the text and in various Appendices), Murray estimates that the Plan would cost about $350 billion more per year than we’re spending on transfer payments today. But we’d be spending less on the Plan after the first six years or so, since total government spending on transfer payments is rising many times faster than spending on the Plan is likely to rise.

In other words, the Healing Path would not only empower people financially (it’s hard to be poor when you’re given a $10,000-a-year leg to stand on). It would enable us to cut social spending in the not-so-long run. And that would make it at least possible for us to begin to bring federal spending under control, one of the looming national security threats that nobody wants to address (but see HERE).

Not just a free-for-all

I live in inner-city Oakland now; my block is full of Section 8 tenants. I respect & care deeply about some of my new neighbors, but I can readily imagine what some of them would do with the “free money” they’d receive under the Plan. They certainly wouldn’t use it to pay for health care or for their retirement. In fact, probably I wouldn’t use it for those essentials either!

It it to Murray’s great credit that -- despite his libertarian, let-them-fend-for-themselves instincts -- he’s built human imperfection into his Plan. (That’s one reason it’s a Healing Path.)

For example, he’d require everyone to use part of their grant to buy health insurance -- gritting his teeth, he even admits he’d have the government withhold those monies (probably around $250 / month) from the monthly paychecks.

And how does he figure $250 / month? Well, this once strongly libertarian-identified thinker, author of the book What It Means to Be a Libertarian (1997), now wants to “legally obligate medical insurers to treat the entire population as a single pool,” and that would probably run to $3,000 per person per year.

(At the same time, Murray wants to reform tort law so low-cost medical clinics could open their doors throughout the land and be immune from esoteric lawsuits. That’s the kind of libertarianism New Age radicals like Ivan Illich and John Holt used to support.)

Another way Murray addresses human imperfection is by (grudgingly) conceding that “the Plan could be modified to stipulate that some percentage of the grant be deposited in a retirement account of diversified stocks and bonds.”

It’s not his first choice -- he doesn’t want to “reduce the ability of people to pursue their dreams for how to live their lives.” But he reluctantly concedes that mandatory retirement accounts would in fact keep some people (generally the neediest) from having to retire on the $10,000 / year grant alone.

He even announces himself open to considering certain “legal restrictions on how the recipient uses” the grants (which would make them resemble the Stakeholder Accounts promoted by the New America Foundation through its Asset Building Program, Anne Alstott and Bruce Ackerman in their book The Stakeholder Society, 1999, me in my book Radical Middle, 2004, and others).

Again and again in Murray’s book, sensitivity to human need and on-the-ground reality trumps ideology. It’s the radical middle way.

Hidden benefits of the Healing Path

The Plan wouldn’t just eliminate material poverty and help get the budget under control. It would also help eliminate spiritual poverty. It would help us pursue happiness.

That’s Murray’s point -- he devotes a big chunk of his book to it -- though you’d swear it came from Gregg Easterbrook’s recent book on the importance of non-monetary satisfactions, reviewed HERE.

According to Murray (more or less following Abraham Maslow, whom he footnotes), the five “raw materials” for happiness are

  • enough material resources,
  • enough safety,
  • intimate relationships with other human beings,
  • vocation, and
  • self-respect,

and the Healing Path addresses the last three elements just as much as it addresses the first two.  For example:

-- It would make marriage easier for poor people, since the grants would go to all individuals over 21 regardless of their marital status;

-- It would help us find our true vocations, since the grants would make it easier for us to change jobs and easier to accumulate the capital to pursue our dreams;

-- It would make civil society more vital, since the disappearance of the welfare bureaucracy would encourage (and even require!) us to pay more attention to the lives of our poorer neighbors. In other words, under the Healing Path it won’t be enough to talk about community in the feel-good way that social conservatives and Harper's Magazine liberals often do. We’d actually have to put our shoulders to the wheel and help create and sustain a nation of caring communities.  We’d have to develop and practice what Aristotle called virtue, without which (he argued) we’re doomed.

The great achievement

The great achievement of Murray’s book is not just that it presents a creative and well-argued solution to a massive social problem. It’s that his solution integrates everyone’s fundamental commitments:

From the radicals of the Rich-Uncle Path, he takes the commitment to providing generous (not just token) assistance to the poor.

From the liberals of the Nanny Path, he takes the commitment to providing a solution that meets the actually-existing needs of the poor.

From the social conservatives of the Daddy Path, he takes the commitment to ensuring that the poor actually use their benefits to enhance their condition.

And from the libertarians of the Absent-Parent Path, he takes the commitment to drastically curtailing the reach of the suffocating welfare state.

By privileging all these commitments, Murray has turned himself from an ideologue into a healer -- into what my friend Mark Gerzon (in his forthcoming book Leading Through Conflict, Harvard University Press, 2006) calls a mediator-leader, “leaders who transform conflict so that everyone can move forward together.”

There is no assurance that we will, of course. But on the issue of poverty reduction, Charles Murray has at last and unforgettably put that possibility “in our hands.”



Murray’s book has been out less than a month, but the sharks are hungry. For an attack from the left, see the article by American Prospect fellow Ezra Klein, Mr. Big: Charles Murray’s Nuttiest Idea Yet,” The New Republic, April 7, 2006.  For an assault from the center, see Clive Crook, Why Murray’s Big Idea Won’t Work,” The Atlantic Online (originally National Journal), April 4, 2006.  For some borderline-cynical questions from the right, see Kathryn Jean Lopez’s interview with Murray, Moving Ground,” National Review Online (March 27, 2006).


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