Losing Ground (book)

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Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950–1980
Losing Ground.jpg
Cover of the first edition
AuthorCharles Murray
CountryUnited States
SubjectWelfare state
PublishedNovember 1984 (hardback)
January 1994 (paperback)
Media typePrint

Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950–1980 is a 1984 book about the effectiveness of welfare state policies in the United States between 1950 and 1980 by political scientist Charles Murray.[2] It has been listed as one of the most influential books on policy and social science in the United States in the 20th century. It has created controversy because of its policy proposals.[3][4]


Murray wrote the book while a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, then under the aegis of Irving Kristol. The Manhattan Institute funded his work on the book and also promoted it.[5] Joan Kennedy Taylor of the Manhattan Institute is credited with having brought the book into publication.[6]


Murray's main thesis is that social welfare programs, as they have historically been implemented in the United States, tend to increase poverty rather than decrease it because they create incentives rewarding short-sighted behavior not conducive to escaping poverty in the long term.[3][4][7][8]


Book reviews[edit]

Christopher Jencks wrote a detailed review of the book in the May 9, 1985 issue of the New York Review of Books.[9] Murray responded to Jencks' critique, to which Jencks responded.[10]

The Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin–Madison published a special report with the views of poverty researchers affiliated with the Institute on Murray's claims. A 12-page summary was also published in their Focus magazine.[11]

Later discussion[edit]

In 1985, a few months after the book's release, an op-ed in the New York Times called it a budget-cutter's bible, also saying the book's "proposition may be as deeply flawed as it is startling, unlikely to survive scrutiny."[7]

In a December 1993 interview with NBC News, then U.S. President Bill Clinton wrote of Murray and Losing Ground: "He did the country a great service. I mean, he and I have often disagreed, but I think his analysis is essentially right. ... There's no question that it would work. But the question is ... Is it morally right?"[12]

In 2006, an article by Michael Barone for the US News & World Report wrote of the book: "It undermined the case that welfare was a moral obligation by showing that welfare created a moral disaster. It got people thinking that there must be another way. It inspired policy experimentation, which spawned political imitation. First in the states, and then nationally, welfare reform became one of the public policy successes of the 1990s."[13]

In his 2009 book Prisons of Poverty, sociologist Loïc Wacquant criticises the book for "misinterpreting" data to "demonstrate" that rising poverty levels after the 1960s were caused by the emergence of the social welfare state.[14]


  1. ^ Amazon, "Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950-1980, 10th Anniversary Edition", Amazon
  2. ^ Murray, Charles. Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950–1980. Basic Books. ISBN 978-0465042333.
  3. ^ a b "Losing Ground, by Charles Murray". Conservative Monitor.
  4. ^ a b Parker, J. A. (May 1988). "Losing Ground, by Charles Murray". Reason Magazine.
  5. ^ Alterman, Eric (November 4, 1999). "The 'Right' Books and Big Ideas". The Nation. Retrieved February 19, 2014.
  6. ^ Walker, Jesse (October 30, 2005). "Joan Kennedy Taylor, RIP". Reason Magazine. Retrieved February 19, 2014.
  7. ^ a b "Losing More Ground". New York Times. February 3, 1985. Retrieved February 19, 2014.
  8. ^ Doherty, Brian (2008). "Murray, Charles (1943–)". In Hamowy, Ronald (ed.). The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE; Cato Institute. pp. 344–45. doi:10.4135/9781412965811.n211. ISBN 978-1412965804. OCLC 750831024. Murray demonstrated that ... income transfer programs ... made them worse off.
  9. ^ Jencks, Christopher (May 9, 1985). "How Poor Are the Poor?". New York Review of Books. Retrieved February 19, 2014.
  10. ^ Murray, Charles; Jencks, Christopher (October 24, 1985). "'Losing Ground': An Exchange". Retrieved February 19, 2014.
  11. ^ "Are We Losing Ground?" (PDF). Focus. 8 (3). 1985. Retrieved February 19, 2014.
  12. ^ "Welfare Reform Working Group, Talking Points: Response to Charles Murray" (PDF). Clinton Library. May 3, 1994. Retrieved February 19, 2014.
  13. ^ "Charles Murray: Abolish the welfare state". US News & World Report. March 29, 2006. Retrieved February 19, 2014.
  14. ^ Loïc Wacquant, Prisons of Poverty, (University of Minnesota Press 2009), ISBN 0816639019, pp. 11–12

External links[edit]