Four ideas for dealing with poverty, from the man who inspired the welfare reform movement

Sep 12, 2012

Charles Murray may not be a household name. But the libertarian author and commentator has had a major effect on our nation's approach to poverty. His ideas helped shape the landmark 1996 welfare reform act. He's also a figure of controversy, particularly for those on the left.

Murray has a new book out, called Coming Apart. It's about the growing split in American between the haves and the have-nots. I sat down with him yesterday for a wide-ranging conversation. Here's the full audio of the nearly 30 minute interview. For those that don't have time to sit through that, you can click on the player above for a shortened version, including these four key ideas from Murray:

1. Not every child should go to college.

"Education should bring each child to adulthood having discovered things he or she loves to do and having learned how to do them well," Murray says. "And what that does mean is you do not take a youngster who is really really good with his hands, really really good at fixing things, but has low verbal skills, you don't try to make an English major out of him. You build on his or her strengths, and that's precisely what the education system refuses to do."

2. The right and the left agree that the country is growing more divided along class lines. They don't agree on why, or what to do about it.

"I think people on the left are a lot more worried about income inequality than I am," Murray says. "I'm worried about cultural divergence in America's civic culture. I think that my focus on human flourishing, in terms of the domains of family, community, vocation and faith - which I argue are the domains within which people  achieve deep satisfactions in life - is somewhat different than the near-obsession with just simple income inequality. So, in those regards we're different. In terms of causes .. the 1960s have a lot to answer for. We changed the rules of the game that created a lot of the problems we have now. Others will make the argument about globalization, that the good jobs have gone away and the rest of it. I think I'm right. You know what, it doesn't make much difference any more because you can't unwind whatever the original causes were." 

3. If we continue on our current path, America will be stuck with a ruling elite, and a permanent lower class, where people are trapped across generations.

"We have alternative futures and one is pretty close to the way you described it," Murray says of my characterization of the possible route ahead. "And if you asked me to bet, I would say that's the most likely. And so the question is, can you resuscitate an American civic culture which prided itself on being engaged in the life of the community, which prided itself on an egalitarianism in terms of human dignity. And that's why I'm a libertarian because I think the only way you get back to that is to get the government the hell out of the things that have destroyed that civic culture." 

4. Government social programs get in the way of "natural incentives."

"To tell you the truth, a working class, a middle-class community doesn't need these overeducated elitist snobs in order to function. But it does need the kinds of natural incentives to form a vital community, which the welfare state ravages."