Profile: An underclass warrior: Geraldine Bedell on the American brains behind the Government's morality campaign

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The Independent Online
A MOTLEY collection of people gathered for lunch at a right-wing think-tank just before Christmas - the Chief Rabbi, the writer Piers Paul Read, the broadcaster Nick Ross, a couple of journalists, a Wandsworth councillor, and various academics, government statisticians and advisers. We were there to meet Charles Murray, the man who has provided much of the intellectual ballast for the Government's campaign against single mothers, the first substantive proposals of which are expected this week, Tim Yeo notwithstanding, with a plan to change the rules on housing for single mothers. Murray has persistently argued that lax welfare policy is responsible for creating a permanent and destabilising British underclass, riven by unemployability, crime, and most importantly, illegitimacy, and insists punitive measures are the only solution.

Charles Murray, an American who has imported his US-derived ideas freely, regardless of objections that Britain is different, was at the lunch at the Institute of Economic Affairs to sample the range of British opinion. He left to meet the director of the National Council for One-Parent Families; then he travelled up to Liverpool to talk to some of his underclass.

An attractive man of 50, with a warm, easy voice and an open, courteous manner, Charles Murray attended closely to the lunchtime arguments, and was unfailingly polite. Even those most antagonistic to his views judged him charming. But his theory of an emerging British underclass, and his solutions to it, have prompted outrage and fury. 'Dangerous' and 'pernicious' were among the words used to describe him afterwards. He cannot, however, be easily dismissed: he has provided intellectual ammunition for the Government's 'back to basics' campaign, and more surprisingly, has helped to lay the ground for President Clinton to talk of 'abolishing welfare as we know it'.

He first outlined his fears of a growing underclass in 1984, in Losing Ground: American Social Policy 1950-1980. 'He became enormously influential in the mid-Eighties, after Losing Ground,' recalls Christopher Jencks, professor of sociology at Northwestern University in Chicago. 'His theories were constantly being cited by Reaganites, and the book was seized on by liberals looking for an explanation of what the right was up to.' A Democratic administration has made less difference than might have been expected: Murray was recently cited by US News and World Report as one of the 32 men and women who dominate American policy formulation. According to Amitai Etzioni, an American who wrote a pamphlet on the family for Demos, the British think- tank: 'He is on all our talk shows - the number one conservative voice at the moment.'

Charles Murray's underclass is that group which used to be called the undeserving poor, its membership defined not by poverty, but by behaviour: by unkempt homes, by the inability of men to hold down jobs, by unruly, ill-schooled children, and, increasingly, by the willingness of women to have babies without marrying. Illegitimacy, says Murray, 'is the best predictor of an underclass in the making'.

Illegitimacy matters so much, he says, because children who have never had fathers lack discipline and role models. 'In a neighbourhood where few adult males are playing the traditional role of father, the most impressive man around is likely to teach all of the opposite lessons: sleep with as many women as you can, rip off the money you need and to hell with the rules, waste anyone who gets in your face.' Once there are enough such people in a neighbourhood, you have a serious social problem: 'a liberal society depends on virtue and self-restraint in the people, and the family, traditionally construed, is the place where the stuff of a free society is moulded.'

In the past, he argues, the family held together because women and children could not exist apart from it. 'The closest thing to a cultural constant throughout human history, until a few decades ago, has been that a single woman with a small child is not a viable economic unit; and that not being a viable economic unit, neither is the single woman with a child a legitimate social unit.' Abolish welfare payments to single mothers, he concludes, and they cease to be economically viable once more. The social stigma attached to single parenthood will then return: women will have abortions, turn to family or church to support them, or have their babies adopted.

Murray has been attacked for being too much given to assertion, not enough to hard evidence, and for offering insights developed in, and for, America, which are not always applicable to the vastly different situation here. Careful as he is to distance himself from an anti- feminist position, his proposals would in practice fatally undermine women's economic independence, and he is accused of promoting a profoundly misogynistic project. Poverty, inadequate child supervision and instability all appear to be related to lone parenthood, but the leap to a causal connection is a rash one. There is no guarantee that if single mothers were removed from the picture, the other elements would disappear too.

Yet despite the scope of the criticism, Murray's arguments continue to resonate intellectually and emotionally, even for some people on the left, chiefly because they reintroduce morality and a notion of sacrifice into discussion of how we organise ourselves. 'You can't run a polity without any moral ideas at all,' notes Christopher Jencks, an opponent of Murray: 'intellectually, that's his strongest appeal.'

Murray's assault on the underclass is fundamentally an assault on moral relativism and an appeal for common values. Nick Ross argued forcibly and effectively against Murray over lunch, on the grounds that his morality sounded as if it were designed for the benefit of the already comfortable and middle class. But as he said afterwards: 'It is difficult to argue against him without sounding as if you are arguing against morality.'

CHARLES MURRAY was born and grew up in Newton, Iowa, a rural community which prides itself on its cohesion and good schools. Both served him well, and he went on to take a BA in history at Harvard, and a PhD in political science at the Massachussetts Institute of Technology. Rather more left wing then than he is now, he became a Peace Corps volunteer in rural Thailand, married a Thai woman, and stayed six years. They divorced in 1981: little is known of her by his friends, but they had two daughters, now in their early twenties, who live with Murray and his second wife.

Back in America, he became a researcher with a private social science research organisation, American Institutes for Research, evaluating welfare programmes. In 1983 he married Catherine Cox, a writer whom he had known as a child. 'She works - a bit,' says David Green, director of the health and welfare unit at the IEA. They have a daughter, eight, and a son, four, and live in Burkittsville, Maryland. 'He and Catherine are the couple most in love among those I know,' says his colleague Michael Novak.

In 1981, Murray moved to the right-wing think-tank, the Manhattan Institute for Public Policy Research. In 1984 he published Losing Ground, and in 1988, a more philosophical book, In Pursuit: Of Happiness and Good Government. His preoccupations have made him interesting to the IEA, which hopes to go on publishing his writings about Britain. 'He has been very influential on our work,' says David Green. 'Our underlying focus is on the virtues which are indispensable to liberty, and the institutions which, without coercion, foster those virtues.'

Murray was vilified for Losing Ground, but since then, even liberal opinion in America has moved significantly in his direction. He is not the only person writing on these themes, but he is undoubtedly one of the most effective. 'There is widespread belief now in the existence of a dependency culture,' says Christopher Jencks. 'Any welfare proposals have got to include some work requirement.' Meanwhile, a Murray article in the Wall Street Journal a couple of months ago arguing that the underclass was no longer primarily a black phenomenon - indeed, was spreading fastest among the white population - was received as favourably by left-wing columnists as by the right.

In Britain, Murray's fame derives chiefly from having floated his ideas of a British underclass in the making in the Sunday Times in 1989. Even hardline Republicans in America rarely subscribe to his view that illegitimacy is the key to everything. And the black sociologist William Julius Wilson has done much to undermine his arguments, with an analysis of marriageable men (defined as being alive, not in prison, and having a job) in inner city ghettoes - of whom, it turns out, there are remarkably few. This is what has altered, rather than the rate of pregnancy and birth among young women, which has remained constant. Wilson has also investigated the effects of different benefit systems in different states, and shown that lower benefits have no effect on birthrate.

Murray spent much of his time in Britain arguing his case that bringing a child into the world was the most important thing anyone could do, and should not be undertaken by those who were not financially, intellectually and emotionally equipped for it. He may well have been using the lunches and seminars to prove that the British opposition was hopelessly mired in moral relativism, and unwilling to engage with his ethical debate. But perhaps there are more immoral things than having a child knowing you will have to live on welfare - to force a woman to have her child aborted, say, or adopted, on the grounds that you consider her unfit.

'Murray argues that we are all victims of a dependency culture. We are also victims of an independency culture,' says Nick Ross. 'Libertarians have to take their share of the blame, for fostering an atmosphere of anonymity and licence, in which any inquiry about your neighbours is treated as noseyness.'

There is profound and widespread concern about crime, filthy streets, and disintegrating families, and Murray taps into this. He blames a group of people who are already victimised, not least by structural economic changes such as growing male unemployment. All the same, he does have important lessons for his opponents: if they are to have his impact, they will have to find a competing morality, which similarly acknowledges the importance of sacrifice and commitment, and which they can sell with similar conviction.

(Photograph omitted)