The welfare reforms of the past 15 years, including the changes announced here last week by those grateful beneficiaries of the welfare state John Key and Paula Bennett, owe much to Charles Murray, the American author and libertarian political scientist.

Credited by Tom Wolfe as the "intellectual force" behind the Clinton Administration's 1996 welfare reforms, Murray is probably best known for his book The Bell Curve (1994), which argued that the racial and class divisions in society were the result of genetic differences in intelligence.

It posited that low IQ, not socio-economic status or education, explained the gaps between blacks and Latinos and whites and Asians. Ergo, government programmes aimed at closing the gaps were a waste of time and money.

Back in 1984, in his influential book Losing Ground, Murray had made a similar case against the futility of state efforts to relieve poverty. It laid the groundwork for sweeping welfare reform in the United States - and on which our own "make work pay" reforms have been based.


He argued the welfare state was making poverty worse and contributing to moral decline and the unravelling of the social fabric. Welfare destroyed "character" by fostering an unhealthy dependence on the state and rewarding the kind of undesirable behaviour that kept the poor poor. The proof was the rise of single motherhood and the decline of marriage in black communities.

As Joan Walsh writes in Salon, America "sponsored a massive social experiment based on Murray's claims: we ended welfare as we knew it".

The experiment was deemed a success but analysts now attribute much of the improvement to the booming economy of the 1990s.

As we've seen here, people moved off welfare and into jobs when there were more jobs to be had and when the combination of tax credits and childcare subsidies made work economically feasible.

But those gains appear to have been short-lived. According to a recent analysis by the non-partisan Economic Policy Institute, virtually all of the decline in poverty achieved during the 1990s has been wiped out in the past 10 years as the economy nosedived.

As Margaret Simms of the Urban Institute told Tom Zeller Jnr in the Huffington Post, "what we wound up with was a safety net that was mostly geared towards work, and when work isn't available, that safety net doesn't work very well".

It seems the reforms succeeded in moving people off the welfare rolls, but not necessarily out of poverty. Meanwhile, the scourge of single motherhood that rampant welfare was supposed to have unleashed continued to climb. Could it be the problem wasn't welfare per se, and that there were other forces at work?

In his new book, Coming Apart, Murray argues the problem facing America is "cultural inequality". Like everyone else, he sees a great divide in American society, but he attributes the gulf to differences in values, rather than economic and social forces.

Training his sights on white America, Murray contends that poor and working-class whites who make up 30 per cent of white America are losing ground, not because of stagnating wages or the loss of manufacturing jobs or economic decline, but because they're turning away from what he calls the four "founding virtues" - industriousness, honesty, marriage, and religion.

Murray finds these virtues alive and well among the highly educated and prosperous elite who make up the top 20 per cent. Not surprisingly, these folk are fond of their well-rewarded work. Somewhat surprisingly, they're church-going traditionalists with high marriage rates and low divorce rates.

It seems that having had their brief flirtation with the wild side during the heady 1960s and 1970s, they had quietly returned to traditional values and practices. Unfortunately, they forgot to tell the "underclass" whose low IQs seem to have prevented them from figuring out that single parenthood is a fast track to poverty, and that having a job and being married would make them richer and happier.

Which brings us back to poverty as a failure of character.

It's not hard to pick holes in Murray's arguments, and many have. One can find numerous examples that run counter to the image of the virtuous rich without breaking into a sweat, not only in the business and gossip pages, but in scientific journals such as the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which last week announced findings that suggest the more wealth and status an individual has, the more likely he is to be unethical, rude and, yes, greedy.

There's good evidence for the marriage divide described by Murray, even if he's wrong about why it exists.

According to research by the MacArthur Foundation in the US and published in the 2010 book Not Quite Adults, the starkest divide between young people - deemed either "swimmers" or "treaders" depending on their "diverging destinies" - was their approach to marriage and childbearing.

Researchers didn't find a values gap - in fact, for most young people, marriage is still exalted as the ideal. Across income levels and the diverse circumstances that will bear on their life chances, the happy ending most envisage for themselves is remarkably consistent. They won't all get it, despite their best efforts, for a number of reasons best left to another column.

But, as Not Quite Adults concludes: "The research is clear: ... nothing cements diverging destinies, and forecloses futures, like early marriages, and especially, early childbirth."