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Improving Poor People

Improving Poor People: The Welfare State, the "Underclass," and Urban Schools as History

Michael B. Katz
Copyright Date: 1995
Pages: 191
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  • Book Info
    Improving Poor People
    Book Description:

    "There are places where history feels irrelevant, and America's inner cities are among them," acknowledges Michael Katz, in expressing the tensions between activism and scholarship. But this major historian of urban poverty realizes that the pain in these cities has its origins in the American past. To understand contemporary poverty, he looks particularly at an old attitude: because many nineteenth-century reformers traced extreme poverty to drink, laziness, and other forms of bad behavior, they tried to use public policy and philanthropy to improve the character of poor people, rather than to attack the structural causes of their misery. Showing how this misdiagnosis has afflicted today's welfare and educational systems, Katz draws on his own experiences to introduce each of four topics--the welfare state, the "underclass" debate, urban school reform, and the strategies of survival used by the urban poor. Uniquely informed by his personal involvement, each chapter also illustrates the interpretive power of history by focusing on a strand of social policy in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: social welfare from the poorhouse era through the New Deal, ideas about urban poverty from the undeserving poor to the "underclass," and the emergence of public education through the radical school reform movement now at work in Chicago.

    Why have American governments proved unable to redesign a welfare system that will satisfy anyone? Why has public policy proved unable to eradicate poverty and prevent the deterioration of major cities? What strategies have helped poor people survive the poverty endemic to urban history? How did urban schools become unresponsive bureaucracies that fail to educate most of their students? Are there fresh, constructive ways to think about welfare, poverty, and public education? Throughout the book Katz shows how interpretations of the past, grounded in analytic history, can free us of comforting myths and help us to reframe discussions of these great public issues.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2170-9
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-2)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 3-18)

    There are places where history feels irrelevant, and America’s inner cities are among them. Those historians engaged with the problems of their time live, always, with an unresolved tension between activism and scholarship; they are forced on the defense by practitioners of contemporary social science and policy research, whose relentless presentism views historians as of little use other than as entertainment. Instead of advancing social reform, do historians, in fact, distract attention from children killing each other, jobless men, homeless families, failing institutions, and crumbling infrastructure? Perhaps historians who care about the future of American cities and their people should...

  5. CHAPTER ONE The Welfare State
    (pp. 19-59)

    Late in 1992, Governor Robert Casey of Pennsylvania appointed me to his Task Force on Reducing Welfare Dependency. I had written a book on the social history of welfare as well as one on ideas about poverty in recent American history and, for several years, had cochaired an interdisciplinary faculty–graduate student seminar on work and welfare that had discussed current research and major policy issues. From the seminar I had learned of the disappointing results of much current welfare reform and the ambiguous results of research as well as of a few promising innovations sponsored by both governments and...

  6. CHAPTER TWO The “Underclass”
    (pp. 60-98)

    In 1987, the Rockefeller Foundation asked the Social Science Research Council to consider creating a committee on the urban underclass. Robert Pearson, an SSRC staff member, asked me if I would attend a meeting of researchers to discuss the foundation’s request. At the time, I was writing the War on Poverty chapter ofThe Undeserving Poor. Although I was unsure of what a historian could contribute to the contemporary discussion, the chance to learn about the latest social science research, to watch a national research agenda take shape, to learn firsthand about the working of foundations and the formulation of...

  7. CHAPTER THREE Urban Schools
    (pp. 99-143)

    In November 1989, I was in Chicago for the first major conference sponsored by the Social Science Research Council’s Committee for Research on the Urban Underclass. Before going to bed one night, I turned on the late television news in my room in the dingy Holiday Inn near the lake on the city’s south side. A local newscaster reported the inauguration of elected councils of parents, community members, and teachers to govern each of the city’s nearly six hundred schools. Their election had resulted from a new school-reform law implementing radical decentralization.

    Amazed, I wondered, how could this have happened?...

  8. CHAPTER FOUR Surviving Poverty
    (pp. 144-172)

    The summer of 1962 changed my life. I had spent the 1961–62 academic year in the Master of Arts in Teaching Program at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education and was slated to spend the next year in England on a fellowship, a wonderful opportunity as well as an interlude in which to think about the next steps in a career. The year in the School of Education had disrupted my plans to become a “straight” historian and opened a wealth of possibilities that spanned the spectrum from administration (elementary school principal? school superintendent?) to research (historian of education? reading...

  9. Index
    (pp. 173-179)