On Rewriting The Undeserving Poor


Photograph by Graeme Law

by Michael B. Katz

In 1983, Andre Schiffrin and Sara Bershtel, then of Pantheon Books, asked me to write a book on poverty for a new series on the politics of knowledge. The intended audience was non-specialist readers and college students. Reading extensively on the topic, I was struck by the repetitive quality of the literature: discussions of poverty revolved around the same themes stated and combined in different ways leaving the impression that there did not seem much new to say. I could reprise the story in my own words, but the prospect appeared boring and not particularly useful, and I considered withdrawing from the project. Then, one day, I suddenly realized that the stale, repetitive quality of the literature was itself the problem. What was needed was a book that historicized ideas about poverty and tried to recast discourse along fresh lines. The central thread in the story was the hoary distinction between the deserving and undeserving, or the worthy and unworthy, poor.

The Undeserving Poor appeared late in 1989. The book sold well, and, even now, students continue to read it. But parts of the book are out of date. The historical context has undergone dramatic change; scholarship on key topics has experienced substantial revision; and my own reading of the literature and subsequent research has led me to new interpretations. Yet, poverty endures. The book, I realized, did not encompass major changes in ideas and policy since it was written, did not reflect current trends in historiography, and did not address the current state of poverty.

I often meet people who have assigned, or been assigned, the book to read. I always ask if they feel an updated version would be useful. The responses have been unanimous – “yes.”For these reasons – the continued interest in the book, the need for updating, and the stubborn persistence of poverty as a blight on American life – a new edition appeared a worthwhile project. Happily, Oxford University Press agreed. What resulted was even more of a new book than I had intended to write when starting the project. A number of people have asked me how the new version differs from the original. I find it impossible to give a short response. This little essay is my attempt to answer the question. I hope it has use beyond charting my own intellectual trajectory. It is written as back-story intellectual history, a way of illustrating how political, social, economic and intellectual change came together to shape a new story about one of the nation’s oldest and most shameful problems and as a prod to other researchers to pick up on topics which I have identified but only begun to explore.

I began by thinking that the task of preparing a new edition consisted mainly of updating – especially of the sections on the War on Poverty, gender and “underclass” – of which more shortly. When I actually sat down to work on the new version, the inadequacies of the old one leaped out at me, and my first instinct was to want to buy up all extant copies and burn them. The book needed a new interpretive framework and intellectual spine. The passages that remained most adequate were descriptive, where the book summarizes ideas. This the old version did pretty well. But even reading these I found stylistic infelicities, and there are few paragraphs that do not contain at least minor changes. That said, the driving goal of the first version was to transcend the stale, repetitive quality of most writing on poverty; the book’s reception and staying power lead me to think that it accomplished this objective.

In retrospect, the late 1980s, when the first version of The Undeserving Poor was written, appear a paradoxically optimistic moment for those of us concerned about mounting an attack on poverty. True, Republicans retained the presidency; public benefits had taken a hard blow; trade unions reeled under a savage attack. But urban poverty flitted unavoidably across the national radar screen. The problem was not that conservatives and the wider public ignored poverty but the way in which they defined the problem and the solutions they proposed. This was, after all, the heyday of the “underclass”. The problem of urban poverty merged with concerns over inner city crime and welfare dependence to capture national attention in mainstream media and widely-read books. Major foundations initiated urban poverty programs, and one of them, the Rockefeller Foundation, persuaded the Social Science Research Council to mount a program of research and fellowship support focused on the “underclass.” The progressive struggle in those years was to capture the concept of the “underclass” and turn it away from its focus on behavior, personality and culture and towards the structural roots of urban poverty while, at the same time, producing high-quality research, a cadre of scholars and packages of policy recommendations that would shift the direction of public discourse and legislative action in constructive directions. That was the hope, and The Undeserving Poorwas written while it still seemed a live possibility. It accounts for an undertone of optimism that, alas, was no longer possible in 2012 when I rewrote the book.

Like most writers on poverty in the late 1980s, I did not realize how hegemonic the conservative story of welfare and poverty had become, and how far to the right American social politics would shift even under Democratic administrations. The idea that we would have to defend the woefully inequitable and inadequate Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program from destruction – destruction by a Democratic President – or that the privatization of Social Security would become a live issue would have seemed a dystopian fantasy. Nor did we grasp that massive economic inequality accompanied by declining real wages, the erosion of private as well as public employee benefits, and the rise of what one friend refers to as the “gig economy” would define a new social structure of insecurity. But all that happened, and it forms the context for the new version of The Undeserving Poor.

For me, the intellectual wake-up moment came in the summer of 1996 when I set out to write a new, updated last chapter for my 1986 book, In the Shadow of the Poorhouse: A Social History of Welfare in America; the chapter eventually expanded into The Price of Citizenship: Redefining the American Welfare State (2001). Trying to find a framework in which to fit the many changes that had occurred throughout the welfare state between 1986 and 1996, I realized one day – during an actual epiphany when out for a bike ride in rural Maine – that they were driven by three interlocking forces: a war on dependency in all its forms; the devolution of authority in both public and private sectors; and the application of market models to public policy. That realization informed not only the books on welfare but my subsequent thinking and writing and underlies the narrative in The Undeserving Poor.

The other piece of research that has shaped my thinking about poverty and inequality emerged from collaborating with Mark J. Stern on a book commissioned by the Russell Sage Foundation to place the year 2000 census in the context of social and economic trends in the twentieth-century. In writing One Nation Divisible: What America Was and What It Is Becoming, we wrestled with the definition and shape of inequality over time and developed the notion of the paradox of inequality – the coexistence of structural rigidity with the fluidity of individual experience – which we applied to the social structural history of African-Americans and women. We emphasized as well the related idea of social structural differentiation as a defining characteristic of African-American social structure. In the new version of The Undeserving Poor,this research underpins the discussion of black social structure and the contextualization of the idea of black progress. We also concluded that America has been experiencing a period of such profound structural change – a period of transformation as great as that wrought by the industrial revolution of the late nineteenth and early twentieth-centuries – that conventional ideas about how the world is ordered lay smashed and in need of redefinition. These ideas included work, race, family, city and nationality. The imperative of reformulating old ideas also spurred my attempt to rethink the intellectual history of poverty.

Furthermore, three fresh ideas frame the new version of The Undeserving Poor. The first of these is, simply, that the valorization and devalorization of groups is found in action at least as often as in words. By that I mean that the undeserving poor are defined not only by what is said about them but by how they are treated in legislation and administrative action. Watching who is cut off from cash assistance, denied social services, imprisoned, or deported shows how the definition of the undeserving poor has shifted over time and widens the groups trapped in its net. I have tried to pay close attention to actions as well as words in this new version. This strategy allowed me to incorporate immigration into the story. In 1989, the new immigration that has reshaped America’s demography, culture, economy and politics hardly appeared on my radar. In 2012, not only could immigration not be ignored; it had become a major focus of my research and teaching. The treatment of impoverished immigrants, especially but not only those who are undocumented, in national, state and local legislation – their deliberate exclusion from benefits – places them unequivocally within the ranks of the undeserving poor.

The second idea is that markets may be enlisted as mechanisms for alleviating poverty. A few years ago, as I walked down Walnut Street in Philadelphia, looking in the window of the University bookstore, a collection of new books from the Wharton Press caught my eye. They were about poverty! What, I wondered, was Wharton doing publishing books on poverty? This led me to the research and reading which discovered that a whole new set of market-based technologies of poverty work had emerged – mechanisms for dealing with poverty that at once relied on market forces, viewed poor people as rational actors, and explicitly eschewed conventional pathological images of poor people. I developed this idea into a chapter for my 2012 book, Why Don’t American Cities Burn? and have used it, as well, in the new version of The Undeserving Poor. The range and effectiveness of these technologies remains to be proven. They each have their downsides, but they do have the capacity to rub off some of the rough edges of capitalism while their emphasis on poor people as ordinary folks, responsive to the same incentives as everyone else, provides a welcome antidote to poverty discourse which, either explicitly or implicitly, presents them as different and inferior.

The third is that poverty is several different kinds of problem. In May 2012, Ananya Roy invited me to a September conference at Berkeley, “Territories of Poverty”. The invitation came at the moment I was ready to sit down and work fulltime on the new version of The Undeserving Poor, which, at the time, lacked a coherent intellectual spine other than that the concept of the undeserving poor had endured throughout American history. In thinking about a paper for the conference, I saw in another epiphany a new framework for analyzing poverty both historically and in the present moment. This is the realization that the concept of the undeserving poor, which defines poverty as a problem of persons, although the dominant trope in American poverty discourse, is only one of five definitions. Six definitions are layered in a kind of archeology, with the most recent being poverty as problem of markets. I developed this idea into a long paper for the conference, and it became, at the same time, the intellectual spine of the new version of the book.

One of the other old, enduring definitions of poverty is as a problem of place. The slum in one guise or another marches through poverty discourse from at least the early nineteenth-century. The current-day emphasis on concentrated urban poverty represents its most recent incarnation. In the first version, I paid too little attention to poverty as a product of place. In the intervening years, the spatial turn in the social sciences has permeated my thinking, especially through my work as a teacher of Urban Studies. As a result, in this new version, I have incorporated space, place and territory into the book’s argument at a number of points. This emphasis on space, for instance, helped me see a crucial dimension to the theory of internal colonialism that I had missed and to appreciate how the spatial transformation of American cities reproduced and intensified isolation and new forms of marginalization.

As I reconsidered the first version’s treatment of culture, especially the culture of poverty, and the pivotal role of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1965 report, “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action”, I encountered two surprises. One of these was the resurgence of culture in academic writing and research about poverty; the other was the rehabilitation of Moynihan. The two – for reasons I explore in the text – are related. I find myself, it must be confessed, not much more sympathetic toward or easy about the use of culture than I was in 1989. In the first version, however, I did take Moynihan’s side in one respect. The critics, it was clear, had focused only on his comments on family and neglected the crucial role he gave to unemployment in accounting for black poverty. I thought it was only fair, and necessary for an honest intellectual history, to highlight this point. But the pendulum has swung back too far. Encomiums to Moynihan, which are wholly uncritical, present him as a seer, the word “prescient” is used over and over again, and neglect a careful reading of his report. Reading the criticisms of black feminists helped me understand what so angered women and African-Americans who rightly pointed to a strain of patriarchy and misogyny that, along with the report’s inaccurate account of history, should restrain the shower of new praise.

The two sections of the book that at the outset I thought required the most revision were the War on Poverty and gender. So I began the re-writing with the chapter on the War on Poverty, which I expected would prove the most difficult. On re-reading the first version, I was struck by how harsh and, in places, too snarky or clever it was. In the context of today’s attack on government and neglect of poverty, the War on Poverty and Great Society seem hopeful moments and their achievements so much larger and lasting than they are portrayed in the fashionably reflexive dismissal of their worth.

Historians have begun to revise this common denigration of the War on Poverty and Great Society by focusing on the grassroots and rehabilitating the controversial and much-criticized community action program. This exciting historiography links community action to both the civil rights movement and to gender. My overarching goal was to reframe the chapter with this literature as a guide while pointing to large and lasting policy achievements as well. I wanted, too, to stress what seemed to me the hidden jobs program of the War on Poverty that I had missed the first time around. Like everyone else who wrote about it, I accepted that the lack of an explicit jobs program weakened – perhaps fatally – the poverty war’s potential. What I had missed was the massive job creation occasioned by the new community action and social service programs – jobs that went overwhelmingly to minorities and women. True, this did not compensate for an explicit policy of job creation, but it did create meaningful jobs and avenues of social mobility for, surely, thousands of poor people. In writing about this, I was greatly helped by the chapter on jobs in my student Gretchen Aguiar’s dissertation on Operation Head Start. The War on Poverty and Great Society chapter is much better now, but far from the final word. The reinterpretation of the War on Poverty and Great Society, notably from the vantage point of the grassroots; the excavation of indigenous theories of poverty; and the reassessment of long term achievements remain topics vital to both history and current-day politics.

My treatment of gender formed the weakest part of the The Undeserving Poor, as critics did not hesitate to point out. For the new version, I tried to improve on this, first, by running considerations of gender throughout the book where necessary and appropriate. Second, I cut the section on patriarchy which appeared unsophisticated and dated. Instead, for the section on the politics of liberation, I read the literature of black feminism – powerful and exciting ideas – which I wrote into a new section as a counter-point to the discussion of the ghetto as colony, which is primarily about literature written by men. I also updated the latter with new scholarship on the topic itself and on black power. My sense is that there is much fruitful work still to be done on the interconnection of the idea of the ghetto as colony with black feminism and the larger politics of liberation. I also wrote more about poverty as an issue in feminist literature itself, including the new idea of intersectionality.

I began the new version thinking that the first chapter on the emergence of the undeserving poor as an idea and the culture of poverty would need the least revision or expansion. But then biology appeared on the horizon. In the literature on poverty, I began to notice references to the role of genetic influences. These came not from the political right, as in the notorious Bell Curve, by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, but from the political center and left. The point was that poverty inhibited the expression of genes related to future success in life. If these genes were not switched on in early childhood, future school and occupational achievement would be severely constrained. Puzzled by this literature I turned to Merlin Chowkwanyun, then pursing joint graduate degrees in History and Public Health at the University of Pennsylvania, who pointed me to recent scholarship on epigenetics. Epigenetics is an interesting idea because it bridges the gap between hereditarians and environmentalists, or, roughly, between conservative and liberal interpretations of the achievement gap and academic failure. As a historian, I saw epigenetics standing in a long line of bridging ideas and of attempts to apply genetics to human social behavior and achievement. In the 1960s, in The Irony of Early School Reform I had discovered an 1860s attempt turn to heredity to explain the failure of new social institutions, like reform schools, and to link heredity to environmental explanations – a kind of early Lamarkianism. This attempt to bridge the distance between environment and heredity appeared in the early eugenics movement as well. But, for the most part, the environmental strand disappeared from hereditarian explanations leaving them harsh, punitive, and racist. What has fascinated me for decades is how hereditarian theories have surfaced in periods of institutional failure, in the late 1960s, for instance, in the work of Arthur Jensen to explain the alleged failure of early childhood education programs and a few decades later in the work of Herrnstein and Murray driven by the enduring achievement gap.

With this history, I could not but feel a chill reading the recent literature on epigenetics and related ideas, despite its sophistication, qualifications and good intentions. This is what led me to add the section on biology to the first chapter. Even though, it must be said, my knowledge is thin, it struck me as too potent a trend to omit, and I wanted to move it to the center of attention because it demands careful exploration and debate.

When the first version of The Undeserving Poor was published, the “underclass” was a live idea; with this version, it is an episode in intellectual history. I have tried to tell the story – although here, too, a great deal of work remains to be done. What is important to realize is that even though the idea has generally passed off the stage of intellectual respectability (it still is tossed around occasionally in popular discourse), the problem of urban poverty has not gone away. So I have focused on major issues – the black family, the situation of black men, homelessness – that remain and discussed how they are written about now. (The new version pays much more attention to the horrendous incarceration of black men and draws on the recent research on homelessness to completely recast the first version’s treatment of the issue.) In the first version, the question of the “underclass” was set in the context of the “post-industrial city,” still a common trope. My own research and thinking has led me to reject this concept. “Post-industrial,” first of all, is a negative idea. It defines a city by what it is not, not what it has become, and therein lies the problem. American cities have undergone profound transformations of economy, demography, and space – indeed, the definition of city, as Stern and I explained, is up for grabs. This time around I have tried to explain those transformations and to highlight their relation to persistent, even intensifying, urban poverty.

There remain two issues where the new version remains incomplete or inadequate. The first of these is the link between inequality and poverty. Is there a link between the massive growth in inequality since the 1970s and the increase and characteristics of poverty? Intuitively, the answer seems straightforward. How can these two macro-economic trends, driven by similar global economic forces and political responses, not be related? But to economists the answer is not so simple and remains a source of controversy. The intellectual history of this question needs to be written, but it is too soon, I think, and it requires more sophistication in economics than I can command.

The other issue really joins a couple of concerns: poverty as a violation of human rights and the literature on poverty in the Global South. Rather late in writing the new version, I came to realize that “want” had become an issue in the global human rights movement which was arcing back to the United States where it found a vigorous constituency. I also realized late in the game that I had said nothing about the discussion of poverty in the Global South, including the important work of Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum on poverty as inhibiting the development of human capabilities. The pivotal event for me was Ananya Roy’s conference on “Territories of Poverty” which drove home the split between poverty research and discourse in the United States and Global South. I realized, with some embarrassment, how U.S.-centric this book is, and I am counting on the work of Ananya Roy to begin to bring the worlds of poverty scholarship together. In the meantime, I introduced the place of poverty as a human rights issue at various points in the book and included a short discussion of the work of Sen and Nussbaum in its epilogue. These are far from adequate, but scholarship is an iterative process. My hope is that others will take off from this version of The Undeserving Poor to produce scholarship that will build on its ideas, remedy its weaknesses, and, ultimately, transcend it. With the talented scholars at work on poverty around the world, this is a realistic hope.

There is some hope that the invisibility of poverty as a public issue – which struck me so forcefully in writing this new version – may be on the cusp of change. Poverty became a toxic concept in American politics, a third rail banned from discourse. That is why President Obama’s reference to poverty in his second inaugural address was an important event. Two major public figures, Tavis Smiley and Cornel West, have conducted a poverty tour across America to call attention to the issue. The mission of the website, “Voices of Poverty” is to provide a voice for the invisible poor. The journalist Greg Kaufmann, along with The Nation, puts together an excellent weekly compilation of reports and commentary on poverty. At a local level, Alfred Lubrano, the Philadelphia Inquirer’s poverty columnist, writes hard hitting well researched articles on poverty in the city while Mayor Michael Nutter has recently established on office to address the reduction of poverty. Perhaps these are harbingers that the nation will wake up to the disgrace of widespread poverty in its midst.

Cover photograph by Wendy Longo

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About the Author:

Michael B. Katz is Walter H. Annenberg Professor of History and Research Associate in the Population Studies Center at the History Department at the University of Pennsylvania. Educated at Harvard, he has been a Guggenheim Fellow and a resident fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study, the Shelby Cullom Davis Center for Historical Studies (Princeton), the Russell Sage Foundation, and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars; he also has held a fellowship from the Open Society Institute. He is a fellow of the National Academy of Education, National Academy of Social Insurance, and the Society of American Historians and the American Philosophical Society. In 1999, he received a Senior Scholar Award – a lifetime achievement award – from the Spencer Foundation. From 1989-1995, he served as archivist to the Social Science Research Council’s Committee for Research on the Urban Underclass and in 1992 was a member of the Task Force to Reduce Welfare Dependency appointed by the Governor of Pennsylvania. From 1991-1995 and 2011-2012, he was Chair of the History Department at the University of Pennsylvania; from 1983-1996 he directed or co-directed the University’s undergraduate Urban Studies Program; in 1994, he founded the graduate certificate program in Urban Studies, which he co-directs. He is a past-president of the History of Education Society and of the Urban History Association. In 2007, he was given the Provost’s Award for Distinguished Graduate Student Teaching and Mentoring.