Journal of Policy History 14.3 (2002) 340-342
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The War on Poverty Research
Edward D. Berkowitz
Alice O'Connor. Poverty Knowledge: Social Science, Social Policy, and the Poor in Twentieth-Century History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001). Pp. xi, 373. $29.95.
This deeply researched and highly nuanced account of the development of poverty research argues, among other things, that the War on Poverty might not have helped the poor, but it certainly proved a boon to the people who studied the poor. The War on Poverty marked the beginning of an institutionalized poverty research industry that would grow to include such organizations as the Urban Institute, the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation, and the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin (and later at Northwestern). A former foundation official herself, O'Connor knows her way around the private organizations that study the poor. She also has a good feel for the bureaus within the government, such as the office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation in the Department of Health and Human Sciences, that award money for research.
At base the book details how ideas about the poor and poverty have changed from the Progressive Era to the present. During the Progressive Era, the women in Hull House set out to survey their neighborhood, part of a more general effort to record the conditions of urban life that reached its apex in the Russell Sage-funded Pittsburgh Survey. In the 1920s and 1930s, professional academics—in particular, sociologists at the University of Chicago—took over from the dedicated, politically committed and largely female amateurs who ran the surveys. The academics adopted a more dispassionate, statistical approach toward the city. Their work lacked the political urgency of the progressive reformers. In the postwar era, anthropologists such as Oscar Lewis developed a more psychologically-oriented critique [End Page 340] of poverty that culminated in the notion of a culture of poverty. Unlike progressive reformers, who focused on societal imperfections that produced a significant amount of poverty, the postwar consensus tended to see poverty as a personal problem and one that ultimately an affluent society could remedy. That led, in time, to the War on Poverty in 1964 and, after the nation fought culture wars over the significance of female-headed families and conducted microeconomic research to simulate the effects of a guaranteed income on labor supply, to the welfare reforms of the Reagan and Clinton eras. Despite all the sophisticated research, O'Connor argues, the poverty researchers essentially got it wrong and succeeded in undoing the results of Progressive Era research and in repauperizing the poor. Poverty research became welfare reform, which in turn became an effort to wean welfare recipients away from income-maintenance programs and toward the uncertain results of the workplace.
Very much an exercise in intellectual history, the book sometimes skimps a little on the narrative details. To grasp what O'Connor is saying, a reader might wish to prepare by looking at related books by James Patterson and Michael Katz, which provide background on such things as the program content of the War on Poverty or the argument in the Moynihan Report.
Furthermore, the books asks the reader to accept the notion that the author, in her role as social critic, understands the true nature of poverty and can thus judge the attempts of historical actors to reach a similar understanding. Hence, she asks us to accept that the culture of poverty was not only an incomplete framework for understanding poverty but also a "distorting" one as well because it "was blind to any but the reproductive role of women and narrowly fixated on the psychological dimensions of family life" (121). In a similar sense, she criticizes the human-capital economists, such as Gary Becker, who attempted to estimate the returns on education and to argue that the nation was underinvested in that commodity. These economists "exaggerated the role of rational choice, individual behavior, and the level playing field by assuming that workers should be viewed in the same light as...