"It's an incendiary book," said University of Pennsylvania sociologist Elijah Anderson, author of the 1990 inner-city study "Streetwise." "It gives aid and comfort to people who are privileged and encourages them to do nothing. It lets them off the hook. That's very dangerous." Anderson adds that Murray fails to examine the flight of jobs from the inner city as a major component of the poor's troubles.
But at the other end of the political spectrum, "The Bell Curve"--with 200,000 copies in print and more to come--is political poison oak for conservatives who signed onto Murray's last incendiary cause: attacking high rates of out-of-wedlock births by cutting off welfare payments to single mothers.
"There's no question that the proposals Murray makes on welfare are undercut by 'The Bell Curve,' " said Peter Wehner, policy director of Empower America, the William J. Bennett-Jack Kemp think tank that has backed welfare reform aimed at curbing out-of-wedlock births. "It's an inviting target for critics of his welfare proposals. But the welfare debate needs to be taken on its own merits."
While Murray and Herrnstein carefully distance themselves from the eugenics movement that earlier this century rationalized forced sterilizations and the Nazi Holocaust, the authors claim that America is suffering under "dysgenic pressure"--the collective lowering of its intellectual potential because of immigration and higher fertility rates among the low-IQ poor.
With that assertion hanging in the air, politicians who openly fret about out-of-wedlock births among the poor--a concern that for the better part of a decade has underpinned Murray's own proposals to end federal welfare--are treading into risky political territory.
"They have a very difficult mess in their back yard," a key congressional source said of lawmakers backing proposals to cut off welfare to unwed mothers. Despite Murray's protestations to the contrary, this source adds, the policy of ending government payments to poor single women who have children "is consistent with a eugenics program."
The Heritage Foundation's Rector agrees that "people will try to derail some policies by saying it's eugenics. But I don't think over the long term it will bear fruit." Rector adds that "The Bell Curve's" findings only demonstrate that "conventional marriage and family is all the more important" for low-IQ men and women in poverty, yet current welfare policies have undermined the family.
Reducing births to unwed mothers is at the heart of the Republican approach to reform welfare in its much-touted "contract with America." The legislation it promotes would prohibit cash payments but permit direct services to single mothers younger than 18, and would enable states to extend that rule to the age of 20.
Welfare reform is expected to be a top priority for the Clinton Administration next year. And while Murray's book makes conservative opponents inviting targets for name-calling, private comments by Administration officials suggest that they aren't eager to gain political capital by equating the removal of children born out of wedlock from the welfare rolls with eugenics. That's largely because the President also hopes to address births outside of marriage by allowing states to cap payments for additional children, although the main focus of the White House welfare proposal is a work requirement.
Instead, sources in the Administration and on Capitol Hill predict that the worst denunciations will emanate from groups further to the left, who already have denounced family caps and welfare cuts aimed at children born out of wedlock as "social engineering." Martha Davis, senior staff attorney at the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund, declined comment on "The Bell Curve" until she had read it, but noted that targeting the reproductive capacity of one population invites comparisons to eugenics.
Murray insists his newest book won't throw more gasoline on the welfare debate. "I don't buy the notion that this will be seized on for nefarious purpose," he said. "If you want to end welfare, do it for reasons other than IQ. The only way IQ is relevant is in thinking about what kinds of reforms will or will not work."
Murray's conclusion that society's less fortunate do poorly on IQ tests will come as no surprise to those working in the field, poverty experts say. But advocates of the poor prefer to use euphemisms like "low-skilled" that suggest a person's abilities are not predetermined and can improve with outside guidance.
Gueron of the Manpower Demonstration Research Corp. accedes that job-training programs historically have mixed results. However, looking at the results of short-term interventions doesn't tell the full story, she adds. "A six-month training program is not the same thing as enrolling children in quality education for 12 years," she said.