Book That Links Low IQ to Race, Poverty Fuels Debate : Race: Authors say genetics along with environment account for intelligence-test gap between whites, blacks.


For more than a decade, conservative social theorist Charles Murray has made a living pushing the boundaries of politically acceptable debate about the welfare state. But nothing the contrarian thinker has written in the past drew the level of vitriol now engulfing “The Bell Curve,” his new best-selling book linking IQ to race and poverty.

Murray has spent the better part of the past two weeks fending off accusations that he and his late co-author, Richard J. Herrnstein, are reactionary racists. Yet only days ago, as he zipped along a Virginia highway toward his next talk show, Murray insisted that his book actually boosts the liberal cause.

“Here’s the great untold story of ‘The Bell Curve,’ ” Murray said. “Dick Herrnstein and I have uncovered more data to help the left than any other social scientists, data which may be used to argue for massive redistribution of income.”


That Murray now applies this Alice-in-Wonderland spin to his thesis--which argues that most low-IQ people are doomed to a life of poverty and possibly crime--is a measure of how the national debate over helping the poor promises to become curiouser and curiouser in the coming months.

Most of the hand-wringing punditry surrounding “The Bell Curve” has focused on the so-called Chapter 13 problem--an analysis by Murray and Herrnstein, who was a psychology professor at Harvard University, that genetics as well as environmental factors account for the 15-point gap between whites and blacks on IQ tests.

But the main thesis of this 845-page book--that IQ is largely destiny--is equally incendiary in a nation founded on egalitarianism, and it could further polarize Washington’s already strained political dialogue over how to better the plight of the nation’s poor.

“In the short run, it will make the debate more ugly,” said Robert Rector, who has helped fashion Republican welfare legislation from his post as senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

Conservatives, likely to be emboldened after Election Day with strong GOP gains in Congress, can use the book’s findings to make the case that government attempts to train the underclass to perform in the new global economy are doomed to failure. And if liberals want fodder for the argument that broad-based welfare reform designed to curb out-of-wedlock births smacks of eugenics, they can flip to page 548. There, Herrnstein and Murray claim that current U.S. welfare policies encourage the “wrong women” to have babies.

With 93 charts and graphs, and a 110-page appendix designed as a statistics primer, Murray and Herrnstein pummel the quintessentially American notion that all men and women are created equal, that any citizen can buy a piece of the dream through hard work and a healthy dose of street smarts. “The ideology of equality has done some good,” they write, “but most of its effects are bad.”


IQ tests, the authors contend, are the best predictors of a person’s success in life. America’s poor, its criminals, its school dropouts and unwed mothers typically have low cognitive abilities, Murray and Herrnstein write. They fret that the nation’s intellectual health is dropping because low-IQ people are having more babies than the “cognitive elite,” and because today’s immigrants have lower IQs than past waves of newcomers.

Furthermore, in an increasingly technology-driven society, they write, low-intelligence citizens “are becoming not just increasingly expendable in economic terms; they will . . . become a net drag.”

The refusal of U.S. policy-makers to come to grips with these truths, say Murray and Herrnstein, accounts for the spotty success of job training or educational programs such as Head Start. “Taken together,” they write, “the story of attempts to raise intelligence is one of high hopes, flamboyant claims, and disappointing results.”

Murray and Herrnstein set forth what could be described as the ultimate root-cause argument for troubles of the nation’s underclass: Poor people can’t make it because they’re stupid. And those who work in poverty programs worry that the book will feed a do-nothing attitude on the part of a public already cynical about government intervention.

“The risk is that we lose sight of the potential of people to change,” said Judith M. Gueron, president of New York’s Manpower Demonstration Research Corp., which designs and tests education and job-training programs for the disadvantaged. “People move in and out of poverty. They move in and out of employment. We’re in the midst of a very mean-spirited debate about welfare and poverty, and this argument risks fueling that.”

“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.


While Murray and Herrnstein assert that their arguments are in the mainstream of social science, there remains in academia much disagreement about the use and effectiveness of IQ tests in measuring innate intelligence. Critics say the pair overstate the genetic component while ignoring or dismissing important environmental factors. These critics add that Herrnstein and Murray are on the shakiest empirical ground when they assert a genetic component in the 15-point IQ test difference between blacks and whites. They used that claim to criticize affirmative action in both education and hiring.

Others, including some religious conservatives, are unnerved by the pair’s fixation with intelligence at the expense of other human traits. “We are created in the image of God, who doesn’t make those kinds of distinctions,” said Empower America’s Wehner. “IQ doesn’t measure character or perseverance or loyalty.”

Ironically, it was Murray who paved a moral high road for conservatives pushing welfare reform.

His first contribution was the 1984 book “Losing Ground,” which portrayed poor single women who had babies and then collected welfare checks as citizens making rational decisions in the face of an irrational social welfare policy. That was followed last year by an influential Wall Street Journal opinion piece that gave conservatives cover on the race issue by arguing that welfare reform was not just about black unwed mothers: Welfare was fostering a growing white underclass as well.

The Iowa-born Murray, a Harvard graduate who insists he doesn’t know his own IQ, spent the bulk of the 1960s in rural Thai villages, first helping the poor as a Peace Corps volunteer and later, as the Vietnam War heated up, conducting counterinsurgency research. He spent most of the 1970s studying the results of various social programs, particularly those aimed at criminal justice.

His writings in the past decade are infused with his own experiences in the Thai countryside, as well as those from his current home town, a rural hamlet nestled in Maryland’s picturesque hills. Murray’s bottom-line belief is that America could regain its moorings if government stepped aside and allowed natural social pressures-- the kind found in these small-town settings--to mold its residents into upstanding and informed citizens.


On welfare, Murray has been able to push the bounds of respectable political debate. He and other like-minded thinkers encouraged conservatives to make the case that dismantling a welfare state that distorted incentives--ultimately hurting the poor--was a compassionate position.

Liberals, meanwhile, grew more comfortable discussing an out-of-wedlock birthrate that today hovers around 30%. Even President Clinton last year said he agreed with Murray’s analysis that welfare played a role in the breakdown of the family, although he stressed that he disagreed with Murray’s prescription to end welfare.

Asked about Murray’s latest work at a press conference earlier this month, Clinton said: “I disagree with the proposition that there are inherent racially based differences in the capacity of the American people to reach their full potential. . . . It goes against our entire history and our whole tradition.”

In contrast to Murray’s earlier writings, “The Bell Curve” takes a harsh view of the poor, asserting that their generally low cognitive abilities lead to, at best, short-sighted judgment calls and poor parenting and, at worst, to criminality. The authors’ rhetoric about poor single mothers is particularly sharp.

“The greatest problems afflict children unlucky enough to be born to and reared by unmarried mothers who are below average in intelligence--about 20% of children currently being born,” Herrnstein and Murray write. “They tend to do badly, socially and economically. . . . Inadequate nutrition, physical abuse, emotional neglect, lack of intellectual stimulation, a chaotic home environment . . . are very difficult to improve from outside the home when the single mother is incompetent. Incompetent mothers are highly concentrated among the least intelligent, and their numbers are growing.”

Murray says he wants his book to force policy-makers to take a more candid look at the limitations of social programs. “Let’s be realistic,” he said. “There has been a lot of wishful thinking that everyone can be trained for $18-an-hour jobs. We’d better start thinking hard about how to create satisfying lives” outside the workplace.


Murray supports returning social services to neighborhoods, where citizens can find fulfilling roles in life helping each other. He supports simplifying the criminal justice system--with fixed and clearly stated punishments--so that people with low mental abilities can follow a brightly lit “moral compass.” And he favors shifting immigration law to emphasize competency rather than U.S. family connections in determining who can legally enter the country.

In a twist typical of this unpredictable conservative, Murray also asserts that the country needs to adopt more measures to prop up the value of the dead-end jobs that are left for the growing population of low-IQ poor. He cites the expansion of the earned income tax credit and a negative income tax--both of which boost the incomes of the working poor--as two options. “Some sort of redistribution is here to stay,” he and Herrnstein write.

The media reaction to “The Bell Curve” has been overwhelmingly negative, with most editorialists denouncing the book as dangerous pseudoscience. The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times Book Review published positive reviews, but the New Republic experienced a near revolt among its staff over a decision to print a summary of the authors’ arguments on race. The magazine’s editors responded to the rebellion by surrounding the article with 17 short commentaries, nearly all of them trashing the book.

Herrnstein, who enjoyed a career as a prominent Harvard scholar despite the controversy surrounding his early 1970s work on IQ, died of cancer last summer. That leaves Murray alone to pick up the fragments of the political grenade he has tossed.

“Waking up to accusations in the paper every day that you’re a racist loses its charm,” he said caustically. “I’m surprised by the wall-to-wall vilification--yes, that’s the right word, vilification. The shrillness and hysteria are more marked than I would have thought. You have to give us some credit for good faith. I expected abusive phone calls. I expected hate mail. I did not expect so many people who present themselves as thoughtful intellectuals to knowingly misrepresent the book.”