Saturday, October 01, 2005

Charles Murray - the Poor versus the Underclass

Charles Murray looks at the poverty we saw in New Orleans and raises the distinction between the poor and the underclass. Being poor means having low income and assets. The way out of poverty is well known - work. People who work do not remain poor. In the hurricane aftermath in New Orleans the poor did what they could to take care of themselves. But there were people who looted and women who didn't do what they could, but waited for someone else to provide for them. These people are the underclass. Murry covers this in the Wall Street Journal on 9/29. Here it is hosted at the American Enterprise Institute.
We in the better parts of town haven't had to deal with the underclass for many years, having successfully erected screens that keep them from troubling us. We no longer have to send our children to school with their children. Except in the most progressive cities, the homeless have been taken off the streets. And most importantly, we have dealt with crime. This has led to a curious paradox: falling crime and a growing underclass.
The big problem is unsocialized young men. The first mark is crime.
The underclass has been growing. The crime rate has been dropping for 13 years. But the proportion of young men who grow up unsocialized and who, given the opportunity, commit crimes, has not. A rough operational measure of criminality is the percentage of the population under correctional supervision. This is less sensitive to changes in correctional fashion than imprisonment rates, since people convicted of a crime get some sort of correctional supervision regardless of the political climate. When Ronald Reagan took office, 0.9% of the population was under correctional supervision. That figure has continued to rise. When crime began to fall in 1992, it stood at 1.9%. In 2003 it was 2.4%. Crime has dropped, but criminality has continued to rise
The other symptom of the underclass is young men who choose no to work.
Among black males ages 20-24, for example, the percentage who were not working or looking for work when the first numbers were gathered in 1954 was 9%. That figure grew during the 1960s and 1970s, stabilizing at around 20% during the 1980s. The proportion rose again, reaching 30% in 1999, a year when employers were frantically seeking workers for every level of job. The dropout rate among young white males is lower, but has been increasing faster than among blacks. These increases are not explained by changes in college enrollment or any other benign cause. Large numbers of healthy young men, at ages when labor force participation used to be close to universal, have dropped out.
Why has the underclass grown during this time of increasing prosperity?
In large part, I would argue, because the proportion of young males who have grown up without fathers has also risen relentlessly. The indicator here is the illegitimacy ratio--the percentage of live births that occur to single women. It was a minuscule 4% in the early 1950s, and it has risen substantially in every subsequent decade. The ratio reached the 25% milestone in 1988 and the 33% milestone in 1999. As of 2003, the figure was 35%--of all births, including whites. The black illegitimacy ratio in 2003 was 68%. By way of comparison: The illegitimacy ratio that caused Daniel Patrick Moynihan to proclaim the breakdown of the black family in the early 1960s was 24%.
Does he think our government can improve this situation? Not by doing the things that have already failed - at huge expense.
Hurricane Katrina temporarily blew away the screens that we have erected to keep the underclass out of sight and out of mind. We are now to be treated to a flurry of government efforts from politicians who are shocked, shocked, by what they saw. What comes next is depressingly predictable. Five years from now, the official evaluations will report that there were no statistically significant differences between the subsequent lives of people who got the government help and the lives of people in a control group. Newspapers will not carry that story, because no one will be interested any longer. No one will be interested because we will have long since replaced the screens, and long since forgotten.

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