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Poverty Knowledge

Poverty Knowledge: Social Science, Social Policy, and the Poor in Twentieth-Century U.S. History

Alice O’Connor
Copyright Date: 2001
Pages: 392
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  • Book Info
    Poverty Knowledge
    Book Description:

    Progressive-era "poverty warriors" cast poverty in America as a problem of unemployment, low wages, labor exploitation, and political disfranchisement. In the 1990s, policy specialists made "dependency" the issue and crafted incentives to get people off welfare.Poverty Knowledgegives the first comprehensive historical account of the thinking behind these very different views of "the poverty problem," in a century-spanning inquiry into the politics, institutions, ideologies, and social science that shaped poverty research and policy.

    Alice O'Connor chronicles a transformation in the study of poverty, from a reform-minded inquiry into the political economy of industrial capitalism to a detached, highly technical analysis of the demographic and behavioral characteristics of the poor. Along the way, she uncovers the origins of several controversial concepts, including the "culture of poverty" and the "underclass." She shows how such notions emerged not only from trends within the social sciences, but from the central preoccupations of twentieth-century American liberalism: economic growth, the Cold War against communism, the changing fortunes of the welfare state, and the enduring racial divide.

    The book details important changes in the politics and organization as well as the substance of poverty knowledge. Tracing the genesis of a still-thriving poverty research industry from its roots in the War on Poverty, it demonstrates how research agendas were subsequently influenced by an emerging obsession with welfare reform. Over the course of the twentieth century, O'Connor shows, the study of poverty became more about altering individual behavior and less about addressing structural inequality. The consequences of this steady narrowing of focus came to the fore in the 1990s, when the nation's leading poverty experts helped to end "welfare as we know it." O'Connor shows just how far they had traveled from their field's original aims.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2474-8
    Subjects: History, 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. 3-22)

    The idea that scientific knowledge holds the key to solving social problems has long been an article of faith in American liberalism. Nowhere is this more apparent than when it comes to solving the “poverty problem.” For well over a century, liberal social investigators have scrutinized poor people in the hopes of creating a knowledge base for informed social action. Their studies have generated massive amounts of data and a widening array of research techniques, from the community-based social surveys of the Progressive Era, to the ethnographic neighborhood studies conducted by Chicago-school social scientists in the 1920s, to the technically...


    • CHAPTER 1 Origins: Poverty and Social Science in The Era of Progressive Reform
      (pp. 25-54)

      At the end of the nineteenth century social investigators in several of the world’s most advanced industrial societies set out to bring new scientific understanding to the problem of poverty. In this they were very much caught up in the international wave of organizing, policy innovation, state building, and, above all, social learning that characterized the decades between 1880 and the beginning of World War I as an era of progressive reform.¹ They were also moved by the central paradox Henry George referred to in the title of his wildly popularProgress and Poverty(1879) and in subsequent lecture tours:...

    • CHAPTER 2 Poverty Knowledge as Cultural Critique: The Great Depression
      (pp. 55-73)

      It may seem odd that, amidst the vast unemployment and structural dislocations of the Great Depression, social scientific poverty knowledge should make culture an overriding theme. This, too, alongside the unprecedented demand for economic and more traditionally defined social welfare knowledge coming from the expanding apparatus of New Deal, state, and private agencies—all clamoring for knowledge, as Franklin D. Roosevelt himself might have put it, to get governmentoutof the business of relief through programs of prevention, social insurance, and economic reform. Drawing insights from Progressive as well as a newer, Keynesian political economy, social work and economic...

    • CHAPTER 3 From the Deep South to the Dark Ghetto: Poverty Knowledge, Racial Liberalism, and Cultural “Pathology”
      (pp. 74-98)

      InThe Philadelphia Negro(1899), W.E.B. DuBois had stretched the boundaries of the Progressive social survey to provide an answer to a question Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal was still asking nearly fifty years later: “Why is such an extraordinarily large proportion of the Negro people so poor?” Steeped though it was in the language of cultural deprivation, DuBois’s explanation was primarily about political economy: Philadelphia Negroes, he showed, were systematically denied opportunities in the urban industrial economy because of racial discrimination and restriction. Moreover, discriminatory practices were not isolated or occasional, they were systemic and built into the everyday operations...

    • CHAPTER 4 Giving Birth to a “Culture of Poverty”: Poverty Knowledge in Postwar Behavioral Science, Culture, and Ideology
      (pp. 99-123)

      The idea of a lower-class culture was firmly entrenched in social problem research by the 1940s, although social scientists did not always agree on its source. Not until the two decades following World War II, however, did social scientists begin to engage in debate about the existence of an independent culture ofpovertythat could persist even without the immediate deprivations caused by modernization, class, and race. The distinction was more than semantic, reflecting important and interrelated postwar changes that profoundly affected social scientific thinking about the poor. One was the political economy of affluence, which lent superficial credence to...

    • CHAPTER 5 Community Action
      (pp. 124-136)

      In the self-consciously behavioral, psychological drift of postwar social science, poverty knowledge was becoming at once more global and more individualized. In many important respects, though, local communities, especially urban neighborhoods, remained essential venues for producing and applying poverty knowledge during the immediate postwar decades. There, with continuing support from national foundations and government agencies, social scientists trained in the methods and theories of urban ethnography resisted the individualizing drift of social problem research to insist that communities rather than individuals should be the units of analysis and reform. A series of community-based experiments sponsored during the 1950s and 1960s...


    • CHAPTER 6 In the Midst of Plenty: The Political Economy of Poverty in the Affluent Society
      (pp. 139-165)

      “The words ‘poverty’ and ‘poor,’ although on the threshold of revival, were not parts of the public language,” wrote sociologist Hylan Lewis of the years immediately preceding the War on Poverty. The problems were there, he went on to say, “but society chose not to see them—or at least not to call them that.”¹ In sociological and anthropological literature the poor were referred to as the “lower-lower classes,” the “culturally deprived,” urban “newcomers,” and only more recently as victims of a “culture of poverty.” In economics, poverty was barely recognized as a subject worthy of study; it had been...

    • CHAPTER 7 Fighting Poverty with Knowledge: The Office of Economic Opportunity and the Analytic Revolution in Government
      (pp. 166-195)

      There was no official definition of poverty when Lyndon B. Johnson made his declaration of war on poverty in 1964. Even the poverty warriors at the newly established Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) were struck by how little they knew about the problem they had been conscripted to combat. Taking their mandate seriously, they quickly set out to gather—or, to continue the metaphor, to mobilize—the kind of knowledge they needed to win the war: it would be statistically rigorous, methodologically sophisticated, based on nationally representative data, and, most significantly, it would be explicitly modeled on an approach to...

    • CHAPTER 8 Poverty’s Culture Wars
      (pp. 196-210)

      OEO’s political and organizational infighting was by no means the only battle shaping the future course of poverty research. If anything, it was overshadowed by a series of far more public, increasingly polarized battles over what liberal social science had to say about the culture of poor people and what government could or should do in response. Most public of all was the outcry and extended controversy that greeted Assistant Secretary of Labor Daniel P. Moynihan’s report on the “crisis” of the Negro family in 1965. Released to the public in the aftermath of the Watts riot, when the Civil...


    • CHAPTER 9 The Poverty Research Industry
      (pp. 213-241)

      The polarized debates of the late 1960s may have tarnished the reputation of academic social science, but they did not impede the steady expansion of federally funded poverty research over the next decade and a half. From 1965 to 1980, federal funding for poverty research rose from nearly $3 million to just under $200 million, most designated for the “applied” purposes of measurement, program evaluation, and policy analysis.¹ Federal research dollars also underwrote the development of new and elaborate methodologies for carrying out these tasks, leaving poverty research with a sophisticated array of survey, experimental, and modeling techniques that were...

    • CHAPTER 10 Dependency, the “Underclass,” and a New Welfare “Consensus”: Poverty Knowledge for a Post-Liberal, Postindustrial Era
      (pp. 242-283)

      Despite the debacle of the Program for Better Jobs and Income, in 1980 the future for poverty research looked secure. Poverty rates were rising, but analysts felt they had better tools than ever to identify the “causes, consequences, and cures.” If the research of the past decade had shown anything, it was that government was a necessary force in the fight against poverty—and that the myth of an intractable culture of poverty could be laid to rest. As an industry poverty research was thriving, even after some enforced belt-tightening during the late Carter years. Federal agency funding was in...

    • CHAPTER 11 The End of Welfare and the Case for a New Poverty Knowledge
      (pp. 284-296)

      If ever there were a case to be made for reconstituting poverty knowledge, it is the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996. That act, which brought an end to “welfare as we know it,” was signed into law by President Clinton over the heated objections of the very experts he had invited to design the welfare “reform.” Clinton’s approval marked an especially cruel defeat for poverty knowledge, not because the legislation ignored, but because it was based on, premises that liberal experts had been promoting in their own research: that long-term “dependency” was the crux of the...

  8. Notes
    (pp. 297-358)
  9. Index
    (pp. 359-374)
  10. Back Matter
    (pp. 375-375)