Editor's note: with the death of Nathan Glazer on January 19, 2019, we have lost the last of a group of public intellectuals who reshaped how we think about whether domestic social programs actually work. Along with his fellow former leftists Irving Kristol and Daniel Bell, Glazer, through the pathbreaking journal The Public Interest, introduced constructive skepticism of public policy based on an understanding of sociology, history, and politics. A founding member of the City Journal editorial board, Glazer died at his home in Cambridge, Mass. at the age of 95. This article on his work was published in 2011.

The Obama administration is entering a field not cultivated on a major scale since the 1960s: social policy. Unlike safety-net entitlements, such as health insurance and cash welfare, social policy—or social engineering, to use the more critical term—uses government action to try to change and improve people and their neighborhoods. For instance, the Obama administration’s Promise Neighborhoods are supposed to replicate, in 21 cities, what the Harlem Children’s Zone has done in Manhattan—to “create plans to provide cradle-to-career services that improve the educational achievement and healthy development of children,” as a White House press release modestly puts it. The administration’s Social Innovation Fund seeks to promote “youth development, economic opportunity or healthy futures” by identifying dozens of small private programs—in areas like job training, nutrition, exercise, and after-school reading and math help—and using federal dollars to expand them to additional sites and cities.

These initiatives bring to mind the Great Society years, when the federal government, trying to improve citizens from coast to coast, decided to do it by enormously expanding smaller, more localized nonprofit programs. The theory was that this approach would avoid the faceless bureaucratism that characterized government-run enterprises. The Model Cities project, for example, was born when Lyndon Johnson decided to “add three zeroes,” as Ford Foundation executive Paul Ylvisaker once told me, to a Ford program called Gray Areas, in which citizen boards would somehow use foundation funds to reverse the decline of poor neighborhoods. Other Great Society projects that tried to implement social policy through new or existing nonprofit organizations included Head Start, which sought to improve early-childhood education, and Community Action Programs, which offered a variety of services, including job training, adult literacy, and nutrition education.

President Obama’s revival of an ambitious social policy agenda makes this a good time to reexamine the work of one of the most brilliant critics of the first wave: Nathan Glazer, now 88, a Harvard sociologist and one of the last of the founding generation of neoconservatives (a term often applied to him, though he has never really embraced it). In his bluntly titled 1988 book, The Limits of Social Policy, Glazer examined two decades’ worth of programs and reached a sobering conclusion: “Against the view that to every problem there is a solution, I came to believe that we can have only partial and less than wholly satisfying answers to the social problems in question. Whereas the prevailing wisdom was that social policies would make steady progress in nibbling away at the agenda of problems set by the forces of industrialization and urbanization, I came to believe that although social policy had ameliorated some of the problems we had inherited, it had also given rise to other problems no less grave in their effect on human happiness.”

What gave that conclusion special power was the intellectual journey that Glazer took to reach it. Well after his days as a student Trotskyite at the CCNY of the 1940s, Glazer’s work displayed the hallmarks of cultural liberalism. He first came to prominence as a junior coauthor of David Riesman’s landmark sociological analysis of 1950s America, The Lonely Crowd—a book that coined the terms “inner-directed” and “other-directed” and was understood as critical of the era’s purported conformity.

In 1963, the future neocon published his own landmark study, Beyond the Melting Pot (with Daniel Patrick Moynihan as his junior coauthor), which argued that the broader American identity hadn’t swamped the individual ethnic identities of New York’s Jews, Italians, Irish, “Negroes,” and Puerto Ricans. The book laid the groundwork for a multicultural view of American society; indeed, the left-liberal journalist Richard Rovere called it “perhaps the most perceptive inquiry into American minorities ever made.” So if, as Martin Peretz has famously suggested, neoconservatism is a conversation with liberalism, Glazer has held that conversation not just with other intellectuals but with himself.

But even in Beyond the Melting Pot, one can detect traces of a scholar willing to question traditional liberal assumptions. In his chapter on New York’s blacks, Glazer wrote that


the rate of illegitimacy among Negroes is about fourteen or fifteen times that among whites. . . . Broken homes and illegitimacy do not necessarily mean poor upbringing and emotional problems. But they mean it more often when the mother is forced to work, . . . when the father is incapable of contributing to support, . . . when fathers and mothers refuse to accept responsibility for and resent their children, as Negro parents, overwhelmed by difficulties, so often do. . . .

All this cannot be irrelevant to the academic performance of Negro children, and indeed it is relevant to a much wider range of problems than educational ones alone. In particular, it is probably the Negro boy who suffers in this situation. . . . It is pointless to ignore the fact that the concentration of problems in the Negro community is exceptional, and that prejudice, low income, poor education explain only so much.

These were farsighted observations, offered at a time when discussions of poverty, such as Michael Harrington’s The Other America, tended simplistically to blame it on the inherent injustice of the American economic system. Glazer had established a framework for understanding the problems of the poor—a framework that, like much of his later work, emphasized the fundamental importance of the family.

Glazer also employed a relatively new method: supporting his arguments with data from social scientists’ evaluations of public programs. Such evaluations were themselves relatively new. The Urban Institute, whose self-described mission is “to bridge the gap between the lonely scholar in search of truth and the decision-maker in search of progress,” wasn’t founded until 1968. Other major contrarians who critiqued progressivism took very different approaches: Jane Jacobs, whose Death and Life of Great American Cities was based, in good part, on her own observations; Edward Banfield, whose pathbreaking neoconservative critique of emerging urban policy, The Unheavenly City, was statistically informed but relied more on his own logic and common sense than on program evaluations; and Irving Kristol, who was more essayist and political philosopher than social scientist.

Glazer, by contrast, immersed himself in social science. Take a chapter in The Limits of Social Policy called “Education, Training and Poverty: What Worked?” In that chapter, Glazer reviews the social-science literature on 18 social programs, from the Job Corps to Head Start, from Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to the School Breakfast program, as well as a “meta-evaluation” based on 42 studies of early-childhood education programs. His conclusions aren’t polemical, but they are withering nonetheless. “At least some of the states known for high expenditure on education and social needs have shown remarkably poor records.” “After having done badly in schooling, we do not do well at making up for the failure through work-training programs, though we have certainly tried.” And crucially: “The evaluations of specific programs that were available during the first ten years after the launching of the [War on Poverty] confirmed the verdict: nothing worked, and, in particular, nothing that one did in education worked.”

Glazer would become particularly prominent in the debate over race-based affirmative action, though in this case his opposition began not with data but with values. In his 1975 book Affirmative Discrimination, he wrote that we must “reestablish the simple and clear understanding that rights attach to the individual, not the group, and that public policy must be exercised without distinction of race, color, or national origin.” The view may have been shaped by Beyond the Melting Pot; Glazer clearly hoped that blacks would follow the other ethnic groups about which he and Moynihan had written, taking the path from modest occupations to the professions and the middle class.

But once again (and even more so in the 1987 edition of Affirmative Discrimination), Glazer turned to social-science research, this time highlighting what would become an almost clichéd hallmark of social policy: unintended consequences. He closely parsed the evidence, much of which compared hiring in firms covered by affirmative action (such as federal contractors with contracts worth more than $50,000 and more than 50 employees) with hiring in firms not required to develop race-related hiring goals. A RAND Corporation report called “Closing the Gap: Forty Years of Economic Progress for Blacks” had concluded that affirmative action had “at best . . . marginally altered black wage gains.” Glazer quoted RAND’s finding that affirmative action appeared to have attracted blacks to employers covered by its rules—leading less to improved black employment than to a “radical reshuffling of black jobs in the labor force. . . . Black employment in the non-covered sector plummeted.”

Such reliance on data and research would become the calling card of The Public Interest, the great neoconservative journal that Glazer coedited with Kristol for three decades after the departure of founding coeditor Daniel Bell. As James Q. Wilson has observed, it was a periodical predicated on the theory that “it is a good idea to know more about proposed or enacted policies than can be inferred from an ideology or extracted from journalism.” Head Start, for instance, may have a catchy name linked to a cause that’s virtually impossible to oppose, but that doesn’t mean that it’s effective in helping disadvantaged preschoolers get ready to learn.

The news about social policy, it’s worth noting, hasn’t improved. A recent report by Isabel Sawhill and Jon Baron for the Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy—an organization very much in the Glazer tradition—observed that yet another negative evaluation of Head Start (it has “almost no effect on children’s cognitive, social-emotional, or health outcomes at the end of 1st grade”) was “the 10th instance since 1990 in which an entire federal social program has been evaluated using the scientific ‘gold standard’ method of randomly assigning individuals to a program or control group. Nine of those evaluations found weak or no positive effects.”

What makes Glazer so relevant today isn’t merely his close reading of social-science data. One could well conclude, after all, that poor program evaluations merely highlight the need for better programs—that we should learn from our mistakes and keep tweaking. Glazer’s criticisms go a crucial step further: his doubt that social policies can succeed is rooted in a faith in traditional institutions that can only be called conservative.

A Glazer essay in the very first issue of The Public Interest, “Paradoxes of American Poverty,” signaled skepticism about the grandiosity of social policy, wherein “radicals, liberals and even some conservatives call for a social and psychological revolution, requiring us to develop a completely different attitude to the casualties of industrial society, an attitude capable of reaching them and remaking them as human beings rather than simply providing better care.” Glazer was especially concerned that such efforts tended to focus on individuals. “We seem incapable of thinking in family terms,” he wrote, despite the fact that “familial loyalties” were what allowed “impoverished countries—far, far poorer than our own—to manage with almost no system of public welfare at all.”

This emerges as a key Glazer theme: that social policy must be evaluated not just in terms of its own stated goals but also in terms of its effects on a society rich in family and community institutions that serve as a foundation for happiness and achievement. Any social policy, he writes in Limits, must be judged against “the simple reality that every piece of social policy substitutes for some traditional arrangement, whether good or bad, a new arrangement in which public authorities take over, at least in part, the role of the family, of the ethnic and neighborhood group, of voluntary associations.” In doing so, Glazer continues, “social policy weakens the position of these traditional agents and further encourages needy people to depend on the government for help rather than on the traditional structures. This is the basic force behind the ever growing demand for more social programs and their frequent failure to satisfy our hopes.”

Glazer goes further still, asserting that “the breakdown of traditional modes of behavior is the chief cause of our social problems.” This means that it might often be better for government not to get involved in social policy at all. “I am increasingly convinced,” he writes, “that some important part of the solution to our social problems lies in traditional practices and traditional restraints. Since the past is not recoverable, what guidance can this possibly give? It gives two forms of guidance: first, it counsels hesitation in the development of social policies that sanction the abandonment of traditional practices.” Such a view recalls Moynihan’s much-maligned observation that “benign neglect” might help poor blacks more than the War on Poverty did. But Glazer also offers an alternative: “Second, and perhaps more helpful, it suggests that the creation and building of new traditions, or new versions of old traditions, must be taken more seriously as a requirement of social policy itself.”

The Glazerian status quo ante—the sometimes informal institutions that we replace at our peril—includes the unplanned city and the architecture that it spawns. This interest is far from unrelated to Glazer’s unease with social policy; in fact, he understands urban planning as an aspect of such policy. In 2007, Glazer, who had served briefly in a federal housing agency back in the early 1960s, published From a Cause to a Style: Modernist Architecture’s Encounter with the American City. Modernist buildings began as a utopian cause, Glazer pointed out—indeed, as social policy crafted by technocratic elites for the benefit of the working class. Glazer candidly remembers seeing a photo of a dozen blocks of tenements that had been razed to make way for housing projects: “I recall, as a social-minded, and socialist, youth, looking at this picture, proud at what had been done, worried about how long it would take to clear away the surrounding sea of slums.” But those tenements that survived, he continues, “are now often more desirable not only to poor people but to middle-class people too.” Glazer cites the East Harlem brownstones of his youth: “No one has ever had a good word for this nondesign, this simple adaptation to market needs—until we started destroying it. Then we discovered that the brownstones could provide good living quarters; . . . that the tenements, once the severe overcrowding was remedied, . . . also provided good living space.”

These observations lead Glazer to questions that transcend architecture and again arrive at social policy. “Why is it that the sophisticated intelligence of socially minded architects and planners didn’t produce satisfactory environments for those with the least choice? Even worse: why is it . . . that environments built by commercial builders, trying to simply make a profit as best they could, so often beat out architects’ environments in terms of appeal to ordinary people?” For Glazer, the architects’ and planners’ failure reflects their distance from, even lack of interest in, the lives and desires of those of modest means. He quotes Norman Dennis’s 1970 study of Sunderland, a city in England: “As Edmund Burke said in another connection, the high level of satisfaction in areas like [the ones scheduled to be torn down] ‘is the result of a choice not of one day or one set of people. . . . It is made by the peculiar circumstances, occasion, tempers, dispositions and moral, civil, and social habitudes of the people which disclose themselves only in a long period of time.’ ”

Just as families and buildings risk harm from social policy, so too do nonprofit social-services organizations. In The Limits of Social Policy, Glazer makes clear that the sort of marriage between government and nonprofits that the Obama White House is pursuing may fundamentally change what makes the helping organizations of civil society so great. As an example, he points to the Meals on Wheels programs that bring food to elderly shut-ins. These programs were effective and cheap back when local charities ran them on their own. “They are small, they rely on volunteers to cook and deliver the meals (often using their own cars and their own gasoline), they are sponsored by churches and other voluntary organizations, they depend on local contributions for the cost of food and whatever paid staff they use, they generally charge for the meals but provide them free for those who cannot afford to pay. All in all, a useful and economic service.”

But then Congress voted to provide federal assistance to the programs. The result was a “host of potential difficulties,” including requirements “that each service must provide more than one hundred meals daily, that they provide auxiliary social services to meals recipients, that they cooperate with area-wide comprehensive planning services for the elderly, that they train their staffs and send them to seminars provided by the Administration on Aging, . . . that they have full-time directors.” Glazer’s concluding reflection can be applied to other programs as well: “When one realizes that meals-on-wheels programs are small, use volunteers, are unacquainted with elaborate paperwork and regulations involved in qualifying for federal assistance, one sees the difficulties they will have in satisfying government regulations and in also remaining who they are.” Government’s seemingly benign endeavor to extend the reach of local social programs, then, is deeply hazardous.

It would be an oversimplification of Glazer’s work to say that he rules out the possibility of government programs’ improving the lives of the poor. As he put it in Joseph Dorman’s brilliant 1998 documentary Arguing the World: “[When] I look at policies that are trying to improve welfare, I think you must keep on trying even if you have not had great success.”

But when pressed about which policies are most worth trying, Glazer is apt to emphasize those that support the traditional family—including a male wage earner—as the building block of upward mobility and community stability. That’s why he continues to underscore that the policy prescription of Moynihan’s groundbreaking 1965 report, “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” was a jobs program to provide work for black fathers and increase the likelihood of marriage and family formation. Glazer remains rueful that the uproar over the candid report—which clearly built on Beyond the Melting Pot and which he advised Moynihan about during “long walks in Central Park”—prevented the adoption of that prescription. As Glazer tells me now: “I think then it would have worked. But . . . a lot has happened. There have been drug epidemics. There have been different kinds of social programs. . . . There’s been an undermining of those Southern black migrations to the North. In the early sixties, it was still a working migration, a migration of people who came to work. And now it is a population that has been affected by 40 years of programs and environments which have created a permanent, large workless population.”

His focus on drawing the workless into work leads him to support some policies to which contemporary conservatives object, notably a European-style health-insurance system and the legislation commonly known as Obamacare. As Glazer sees it, the reform, by extending Medicaid to people more prosperous than those it currently covers, removes a disincentive to work harder and make more money. “Our jobs for poor people are on the whole made very unattractive,” he says. “Compare that to Europe, where it isn’t only immigrants who do poor jobs and where those jobs are much more attractive. They’re more attractive because they include things like vacations. They include health care. The jobs don’t include it, but health care comes anyway.”

So Glazer remains open to government-sponsored social-insurance schemes—because of his belief in work as a foundation for family life. Americans, he notes in The Limits of Social Policy, “like to see government benefits assisting their own hard efforts, rather than simply maintaining others in failure.” (See The Urban Crisis After 40 Years: An interview with Nathan Glazer.)

In the late 1990s, Glazer toyed with the idea that blacks’ exceptional situation—an abiding preoccupation of his career—might mean that affirmative action and similar efforts were unavoidable.

That change of heart briefly made him a liberal hero. But in his most recent writing, he has returned to the view that there is no substitute for upward mobility achieved through hard work and solid families. In the July 2010 issue of The American Interest, he wrote: “I believe the view is spreading that the improvement of the black condition must depend in greater degree on the work of blacks themselves. . . . Complex as it is, to frame a self-help policy narrative based on what is generally understood as the American immigrant path may be the best choice available: acceptance of how hard it is to get ahead in America, but recognition that one’s efforts can and often will succeed. That approach, after all, does have the merit of being largely true.”

That’s an insight to which our first African-American president should pay close attention as he tests again the limits of social policy.



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