The Effects of the Great Society Programs: Interview with Jason Riley

By Caroline Skinner (SCR ’17), Former Interview Editor

Transcribed by Kyleigh Mann (CMC ‘18), Staff Writer


Jason Riley is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, and a commentator for Fox News. After joining the Journal in 1994, he was named a senior editorial writer in 2000 and a member of the editorial board in 2005. Riley writes opinion pieces on politics, economics, education, immigration, and race.


Riley is the author of Let Them In: The Case for Open Borders (2008), which argues for a more free-market-oriented U.S. immigration policy; and Please Stop Helping Us: How Liberals Make It Harder for Blacks to Succeed (2014), which discusses the track record of government efforts to help the black underclass. He has also worked for USA Today and the Buffalo News. Riley holds a B.A. in English from SUNY-Buffalo.[1]


CJLPP: Your talk at the Athenaeum focused on well-intentioned government efforts that have turned out to be more counterproductive than helpful in their fight against racial disparities. Could speak a bit about which policies you are referring to and how they’ve gone awry?


Riley: I’m basically talking about the Great Society programs launched in the 1960s under Lyndon Johnson and their attempts to help the black underclass in the war on poverty, affirmative action, anti-poverty programs and programs like that. I think they were well-intentioned, but in many cases put perverse incentives in place and led to unintended consequences. Instead of rethinking how to approach this, we’ve sort of just doubled down by just throwing more and more money at the problem. And that doesn’t seem to be working if you look at the poverty rate in the recent years, it has been right about where it was in the mid 1960s when the War on Poverty was launched. So, we don’t seem to have made much progress, and where you really see the shortfall is among the black underclass, where you see trends that were positive, that had some momentum in the decades prior to the Great Society, are now slowing down or in some cases retrogressing in the wake of the Great Society programs. So the black poor, in particular, have not fared well under these government programs.


CJLPP: Many consider racism today to take a different form from the past, one that is more institutionalized and I was wondering what your perspective on racism in the modern day is exactly.


Riley: Well my perspective is that it’s still with us. And I don’t expect to live to see the day when it’s not with us, but that’s a different question of whether racism is the main barrier to black progress today and whether it in it of itself explains or even mostly explains racial disparities. I think we too often automatically assume that without considering other possibilities, so I try and point out to what extent racism could be explaining something and to what extent something else could be explaining it. For example, if you take black poverty, the black poverty rate for married couples in America, for black married couples, it is in the single digits and it has been for more than twenty years. Black married couples are just as black as black single moms. Yet the poverty rate among black single moms is astronomical—is that a function of racism or is that function of family structure? That’s sort of where I’m headed with this assumption that we attribute any and all racial disparities to primarily racism. I don’t think it really holds up to scrutiny.


CJLPP: Following up on that same theme, what steps do you think both government and the individuals should take in order to combat these issues?


Riley: I think it’s much more contingent on what steps the individuals take. I think when it comes to government—it’s what government needs to stop doing more of. I think ultimately that with the black underclass, it comes down to the blacks helping themselves by developing the same attitudes and behaviors, I guess what economists call human capital, that other groups developed in order to rise socioeconomically in the U.S. and to the extent that a government program, however well-intentioned it might be, interferes with that necessary self development.

I think it’s doing more harm than good. If you have an antipoverty program that is discouraging work, doing more harm than good, or responsible rearing, or responsible child bearing, we need less of that in terms of urban policy. You may look at it as sympathetic, but ultimately you know that someone needs to develop a work ethic to rise out of poverty and stay out of poverty. If you’re paying people not to work or not providing enough incentive to go look for a job, you’re not doing that person any favors. So I think ultimately, this is going to be about black self-development. It’s not about reinventing the wheel here, because again if we look back at what was going on in black America prior to the Great Society interventions, if you look at what was going on in black America coming out of slavery, reconstruction, and through Jim Crow, we saw a tremendous amount of black progress taking place at a time when there was virulent racism and the government didn’t give a hoot about what was going on with blacks. You saw in terms of blacks rising out of poverty, in terms of black’s educational gains, in terms of blacks entering the skilled professions, tremendous progress taking place. And again, in the second half of that twentieth century you see either a slow down in these trends or in some cases a reversal in these trends. So I think this is about getting back to what was going on in black communities in the first half of the twentieth century and getting back to what explains the progress back then.

I think there were a number of things going on—one is that you had stronger families, more two-parent households, and you had much less violence in these neighborhoods than you have today. People look at these crime rates like Chicago and think its always been that way, well it has not always been that way, you go back to the first half of the twentieth century when you had a lot more poor blacks and you still did not have this violence in these communities. This whole idea that poverty explains the violence, oh no, go look at the black crime rate in 1960s when you had a lot more poor blacks, and look at it today. We need again to be careful about these causal links that we very casually make sometimes. Again, I think it will come down to the government being a little more humble in its approach, learning from the past and getting out of the way so that the self development that I think is so essential can take place.


CJLPP: Could you speak a bit about your book Stop Helping Us: How Liberals Make it Harder for Blacks to Succeed? In what ways do you think liberals hinder the black community?


Riley: It’s just a type of thinking and the way the left has gone about trying to help blacks, it’s again putting in place perverse incentives that discourage this development of the human capital I was discussing. An example of well-intentioned policies that I think have not worked as well as intended, since we’re on a college campus, is affirmative action in higher education. This was a policy launched in the late 1960s as part of the Great Society program and then really started taking effect in the 1970s. It started out as taking qualified black students and placing them in universities where they had historically been denied access, but these were black students that met the credentials of the other kids at the school. But that wasn’t good enough for the left—they wanted more parity in outcomes—so they wanted college campus percentage of blacks to reflect society’s percentage of blacks. When they didn’t see that, they thought we needed to get more blacks into these schools even if we have to lower standards for some of them to get in, and this has been disastrous.

So you have a policy put in place to increase the ranks of college graduates, to increase the ranks of the black middle class, and what does the track records show now that we’re 40 years into this social engineering? Well we now know that the University of California system back in the 1996 ended race based college admissions, after that, black college graduation rates went up in California by more than fifty percent. This included even the more difficult disciplines of math, and science, and engineering, which again went up by more than 50 percent. So a policy that had been put in place to help increase the number of black college graduates was in practice reducing the number of black doctors, scientists, and lawyers than we would have had in the absence of the policy. Why was that happening? After Prop 209 passed, blacks started doing what whites and Asian kids do, which is to attend schools where they can handle the work, and as a result more of them were graduating, which is what we want. So, what affirmative action had done is created this mismatch effect.

A good example of this is a study done at MIT some years ago where the black kids that had been admitted to MIT had scored in the top 10 percent of all kids in the country on the math section of the SAT—we’re talking about some very bright kids here—but they were in the bottom 10 percent among their peers at MIT. So kids who would have been hitting it out of the park at a less selective institution, were struggling at MIT. And as a result, more of them were dropping out or struggling with their grades and switching in to easier majors, but this was not a priority for MIT. MIT’s priority was getting that racial mixture right freshman year in college, and whether or not these kids graduated as a secondary concern for MIT. They wanted that catalogue to look like America, and but did it help blacks? And so many of these liberal policies have run that course they’ve made whites feel very good about themselves in helping, and less concerned about the impact on the people they’re trying to help, particularly in the long term. So, I think affirmative action would be one example of that. Well intentioned, yes, but you need more than good intentions


CJLPP: Schools such as the Claremont Colleges have seen a rise across the country of students mobilizing against prejudice in protests for women’s rights, most recently, and Black Lives Matter. Do you think these have been productive for the movements? If you had a chance to speak with and advise these students, what would you tell them?


Riley: Go to class, learn something. Well, I think you have two things going on college campuses; one is in some ways a product of the other. You have some free speech issues going on on-campus that really transcend race, people being shouted down like with the situation at Berkeley. All over the country, you have an environment where speech is being policed and kids are being taught that you don’t debate your critics, but that you muzzle them, and I think this is a very disturbing trend. I see it not getting better, but getting worse, and I think that’s something that really transcends race. The other thing in terms is social protest, Black Lives Matter and that sort of thing, I think to the extent that its affected college campuses, some of that may have to do with what I was just talking about, affirmative action, this mismatching of kids in schools and the tensions that it’s created, and its not just black-white anymore. What you’ve seen in recent years are Asian students becoming very mobilized, and not just Asian students but Asian lawmakers.

If you go back to Prop 209 for example, a couple years ago out here the Democrats in the state legislature found themselves with a super majority both in the Senate and the Assembly, with a Democratic governor as well. So, they could do pretty much anything they wanted with very little resistance and so they started grabbing policy ideas off the shelf, stuff that had been out of reach for a while, and they started pushing everything. One of them was to reverse Prop 209, which meant allowing color conscious college admissions, and Asian lawmakers pushed back against that. That’s because after Prop 209 passed, Asian enrollment at the most selective schools in the system—Berkeley and UCLA—went way down. Even though for decades these schools said they weren’t capping Asian enrollment, they swore they weren’t, yet after they could no longer take race into account then Asian enrollment spiked. So when the topic came to returning to this system, the Asian lawmakers said “No, our constituents are getting screwed by this policy, and we are not going back to this old system.” They stopped it, and that was significant because for years a lot of Asian interest groups had reflectively sided with blacks and Hispanics on these social issues, these activist issues, and they broke. Right now, you have Harvard being sued over its affirmative action policies by plaintiffs who are Asian, saying, “our numbers are artificially capped, you know it,” and they’ve used stats showing that while the Asian population in the U.S. has been going up, somehow Harvard’s freshman class always has the same percentage of Asians. Harvard denied it, but in practice it looks like suspiciously Asian applicants to Harvard are really just competing with each other Asian applicants.

So this is really changing the dynamics on campus, I think there is this realization that if you are reserving slots for one group, you are automatically cutting off another group. You cannot have it both ways, and there’s this conflict between this racial parity, the outcome you want, and equal opportunity, and they are just completely incompatible. It’s coming to a head, and I think some of these protests you’re seeing on campus is a reflection of that. That’s why I think, it’s partly free speech stuff and where we are today and the country on that issue, but also racial tensions due to some of these policies in place.


CJLPP: What would you say to those who argue that “free speech” is a constitutional right, and therefore “free speech” is only protected from infringement by the government, and not by citizens?


Riley: Yes, and that’s true. The first amendment restricts the government from infringing on people’s right to speak, and that campus environment is not a democracy. The administrators are in place, and you have to abide by the rules. They can kick you out and that is not infringement on your free speech. However, there has been a tradition in this country, a free speech movement that started at Berkeley 50 years ago that pushed for tolerance for people speaking out. The real issue there is not free speech in the constitutional sense, it’s the message young people are getting that college is supposed to be a place where you’re opening new ideas, you’re exposing new ideas, you’re sharpening your critical thinking skills, and you’re made uncomfortable by being forced to learn the difference between a slogan and an argument. Furthermore, when someone says something you don’t like you tell them why, you don’t just tell them that you’re offended and expect them to shut up—and we’re moving away from all that, and that’s the speech issue we’re talking about. I don’t think anyone is talking about the constitutional issue here, as this is not the government, but I think what were really talking about is what these micro-aggressions and safe spaces are doing to the campus environment, and whether they’re productive developments or whether they’re not doing students any favors. Because out in the real world, there are no safe spaces and trigger warnings and so, are we preparing students for the real world, or are we keeping coddling them in a way that is not particularly helpful?


CJLPP: Some members of the African American community have been critical of Obama’s presidency, while others were quite supportive. How do you think the black community fared overall under the Obama presidency?


Riley: I think in traditional measures, not well. If you’re talking about employment or poverty rates or home ownership, or incomes, by those measures—no, blacks are either backwards or sideways, under Obama. Partly, that has to do with the recession he inherited from his predecessor, Bush, but also not entirely, some of these retrogressions were in absolute terms and some were relative to whites. In other words, everyone’s unemployment rates went up but blacks went up further and so in some cases you have a widening of the unemployment gap under Obama, so by those measures, no, the black community did not do well.

What Obama provided for the black community was really more of a psychological victory, bragging rights for eight years, which is not nothing. He signified what was possible in this country, signified racial progress, and the idea that his presidency was historic by definition—but you know psychological victories don’t pay the rent. They don’t close the achievement gap in schools and they don’t lower our black crime rates. So on a practical level, I think the lesson is that a black president is all well and good, but the problems facing low-income blacks today are not due to lack of political power. They weren’t beforehand, and now we know even a black president is not going to solve them.

These racial gaps aren’t there due to lack of political clout, and I would again use the other groups as an example. For example, Asians who are hitting it out of the park in terms of incomes, representation in professions, home ownership rates, educational attainment, but how much political clout do Asians have in America? Very little. So this idea was to—and this is a much more serious point because the civil rights movement’s strategy was to gain black political clout, from the 1960s on—elect more black officials at the local state and national level so that black socioeconomic progress will follow naturally. Obama’s election was the culmination of that strategy, and yet we’ve only seen so much progress socioeconomically. Blacks have tons of political clout, blacks have run major cities in the U.S. and we’re doing so as far back as the 1970s and 1980s, in cities like Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Los Angeles. So this whole strategy of pursuing black political power and assuming the rest will take care of itself was mistaken, and I think Obama’s election and presidency is more evidence of that. What ails the black community are not necessarily political problems, they’re much more cultural—cultural issues that need to be confronted—and unfortunately there’s a reluctance to talk about black cultural deficiencies. That’s sort of a taboo subject and I think that has got to change.


CJLPP: Thank you for taking the time to speak with us today. We appreciate your time and expertise.

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