Just when we are starting to come to grips with the special problems -- intergenerational poverty, teen-age child-bearing, fatherless households and rampant unemployment -- of the black underclass; just when middle-class blacks especially are groping for explanations and remedies for the special problems, along comes Charles Murray to tell us that the problems are neither all that special nor all that black.
The problem, he says, is not race but class. And while it affects blacks disproportionately, it is affecting whites at a growing rate. For instance: the illegitimacy rate among American whites today is roughly what it was among blacks 20 years ago, when Daniel Moynihan wrote his unsettling report on the disintegration of black families.
Murray, a senior research fellow at the Mahattan Institute for Policy Research, set the social policy boiling a while ago with his controversial book, "Losing Ground." He may do it again with a piece in the March 28 National Review: "White Welfare, White Families, 'White Trash.'
His points include these: that it is a mistake to discuss the problem of family breakdown in terms of black families, black values, black leadership and black solutions; that it is misleading to seek explanations in terms of some national plunge into immorality; that poverty is more result than cause of the phenomenon.
For Murray, the essential element is class, and the reason we have been drawn to the racial analysis is that nobody, including the Census Bureau, looks at the data in terms of class.
Well, almost nobody. Ohio does, and it is to that state that Murray turned for his latest analysis.
His findings are illuminating. Consider the contrast between affluent Shaker Heights (where the median white family income is $30,000, and half the white adults are college educated) and economically depressed Portsmouth (where whites have a median income of $14,700 and a one-in-10 college-attendance rate).
The illegitimacy rate in Shaker Heights is 1 percent of all live births; in Portsmouth it is 25 percent. (When Moynihan wrote his report, the rate for blacks was about 20 percent.)
These numbers, which he says are typical of communities across the state, tend to shoot down the two major explanations of what has caused the illegitimacy problem: the special, race-impacted circumstances of blacks and what Murray calls the "Farrah Fawcett Hypothesis."
The first flies in the face of the data on Portsmouth whites. And what of the second?
"Movie stars like Farrah Fawcett and Jessica Lange have children without husbands, and no one minds. It is socially acceptable in a way that it wasn't 30 years ago: ergo, more illegitimate births." Right?
Wrong. Look at Shaker Heights.
Murray cautions that he is talking about family structure, not morality. "Perhaps affluent communities in Ohio have as much promiscuity and divorce as anyone (I did not investigate that question), but they do not have much problem with single-parent families, and they generally have a negligible problem with illegitimacy."
In short, the Ohio data call attention to a phenomenon that had been obscured by the absence of data on socioeconomics and illegitimacy: that there is a white underclass as surely as there is a black underclass; that there are striking similarities between them; that class, not race, is the more reasonable explanation.
Murray does not offer a solution to the problem, only a view that both races are divided into two groups: those who can cope and those who can't.
"Some poor people work hard, support their families, educate their children, and somehow get along even when times are bad. Other poor people are chronically unemployed, unable to care for their children or oversee their development and perpetually in need of someone to rescue them from disaster."
Since whites don't have the built-in excuses routinely used to explain black illegitimacy, "straighter thinking" becomes possible. In other words, if an effective approach can be devised for dealing with the white underclass, "we will begin to come up with better solutions for everyone."