What Causes Poverty - AEI

Charles Murray on Culture vs. Economics

From the book "This Way Up"

Tamar Jacoby:

It's an age-old debate between the left and the right. The left says poverty—inner-city poverty and working-class poverty—is mostly about economics. The right says culture has at least as much to do with it. You're a longtime proponent of the cultural explanation. Can you spell that out for us?

Charles Murray:

I believe—I've believed for 40 years—that the reforms of the 1960s and the sexual revolution combined to create a perfect storm. And that storm changed the rules of the game for poor people—especially young poor people. In 1960, if you were male, working age, and not physically disabled, you were in the labor force. You were either working or you were looking for work. If you were a woman in your 20s, you were probably already married and had children.

Now let's be clear—this is not the natural state of affairs. Your late teens are not the time you want to get up every day and go to work at the same time even if you don't feel like it. If you're a guy, it's certainly not the time when you naturally say, "I think I want to get married."

And yet, into the '60s, there were norms. And those norms held, almost universally.

But then, at some point in the '60s, the rules changed.

By 1970, it had become much easier if you were a guy to commit a crime, get caught for it, and still not go to jail. It was much easier to slide through school, even if you were a troublemaker, and end up with a diploma without having learned anything or having faced any pressure to learn something.If you were a young woman at the end of the 1960s, if you had a baby, you were not the only girl in your high school class who had one. There were probably half a dozen others. The stigma was pretty much gone. You could afford to take care of the child without a husband. And you could live with a boyfriend, which you couldn't have done before.

Meanwhile—the other element of the perfect storm—there was the sexual revolution. The pill was first put on sale in 1960. For the first time in human history, women had a safe, convenient way to have sexual intercourse even if the guy did nothing to protect against pregnancy. Naturally, this had a huge effect on family formation.


So let me play devil's advocate. I say it's not an either/or. Okay, culture plays a huge role. But doesn't economics have at least as much to do with it?

The US lost 5.6 million manufacturing jobs between 2000 and 2010—30 percent of manufacturing employment. The guy who used to make $25 an hour in a fabricating plant now has to work at Wendy's for minimum wage. And this in turn drives other changes—cultural changes.

When you can't find a job that pays what you're used to, you drop out of the labor force. And then the women in your community are much less interested in marrying you. And pretty soon, those women are raising kids on their own, etc., etc.

In this theory, economics and culture intertwine and drive each other. Is there anything to that?


I'm not denying that these things have occurred. I'm not denying that they have interacted. But I wish people would take a closer look at the timing.

The problems we're talking about start in the last half of the '60s. That's when labor force participation started to decline, when out-of-wedlock births started to rise, when crime rose. But in the last half of the '60s, the jobs hadn't left.

The economy was red hot.

And as we've seen in the years since, things don't get much better when the economy improves. We had a natural experiment in the late 1990s. There were "help wanted" signs everywhere. You could work as many hours a week as you wanted, even if you had low skills and little education. Even then, employers were begging for welders and electricians and cabinetmakers—and they were willing to pay $25 to $30 an hour.

What happened? White male labor force participation stopped declining for a couple years. But it did not go back up. People did not flock back into the labor force. There was no turnaround.


It's very hard to put Humpty Dumpty back together again?


Exactly. Some of the most depressing research has to do with chronic unemployment. Once you've been out of the labor force for a while, getting back in is really hard.


So this brings us to policy. What can we do about this? I guess that's one reason I cling to economic causality along with cultural causality. Culture is so hard to change.


We've been trying 20, 30, 40 years—policy intervention after policy intervention. And most of what we've tried hasn't worked or worked only around the edges.


What about reasserting the norms? Moral suasion—by government or civil society—could that work?


I think there should be a lot more of it. As we know, the educated middle class has been doing better and better in recent years—economically and maintaining the old norms. But that new upper class has been AWOL in the culture wars.

They get married. They work long hours. They're engaged in their communities. But they don't say, "This would be a good idea for other people as well." They're nonjudgmental. They don't preach what they practice.

I don't mean people should get bullhorns and go down to working-class neighborhoods and yell. That's not how it worked in the 1950s.

But the norms were in the air. Values were promulgated by people at the top of society as a matter of course.

It's about policymakers and people who write TV shows and people who make movies. They need to start saying, "You know, it's really a good thing for kids if their parents are married. It's really important that guys get into the labor force and stay there."


We do sometimes change cultural norms. In our lifetimes, society succeeded in creating a new norm around smoking—and a lot of people stopped smoking.


That's right. I'm not sure it would be that simple. But I won't argue with you.

I know you'd like to hear something more optimistic, and I wish I could help you. But the one thing I'll say is that American history does seem to go in cycles.

We have a history of revivals—of what used to be called "reawakenings." In the past, they were religious. We had three or four of them. And each one had huge effects across the culture. The civil rights movement was also a kind of great awakening—an about-face in our values over just 10 years.


And you think that kind of thing could happen again?


Well, let's just say there's a lot less resistance today to some of the things we've been talking about—reasserting norms about marriage and family and work—than there was 20 or 30 years ago. Back then, I could not have said many of the things I've said today without getting hissed by the audience. So I think there is some potential for a cultural revival.

What are the odds? I don't know. But they're greater than zero. And given how little we know about how to effect change programmatically, with government interventions, I say we'd better go with the only game in town. I think that's culture.

These remarks are excerpted from a conversation at the December 2016 "This Way Up" summit, a gathering of conservative thinkers and practitioners concerned about poverty and economic mobility cosponsored by Opportunity America, AEI, the Manhattan Institute, and eight other organizations.

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