U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Alice O’Connor’s Poverty Knowledge: Intellectual History in Action

I am persistently interested in examples of intellectual history that relate to political history, or more specifically, that demonstrate explicit influence over policy. This is not to say that intellectual history needs such a rationale: intellectual life helps us explain a given historical context, with or without explicit reference to its political influence. But my interests tend to gravitate towards intellectual history’s relation to politics, or what might be called “intellectual history in action” (with a nod towards Kevin Mattson, author of Intellectuals in Action, about early New Left intellectuals, including C. Wright Mills and William Appleman Williams.)

Alice O’Connor’s 2001 book, Poverty Knowledge: Social Science, Social Policy, and the Poor in Twentieth-Century U.S. History, is an excellent model of intellectual history in action. She painstakingly traces how social scientific thinking on poverty—what she terms “poverty knowledge”—was shaped by policy struggles, and how it helped shape those struggles, often in ways not anticipated by poverty scholars.

O’Connor researched and wrote this book in the dark shadow of welfare reform—the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, signed into law in 1996 by Bill Clinton, who made good on his promise to “end welfare as we know it.” The role intellectuals played in paving the way for Clinton’s welfare legislation acts as a microcosm of O’Connor’s larger argument: however much social scientists objected to how their knowledge was put into practice, they were complicit in policies that hurt the poor. In other words, their knowledge, intentionally or not, provided a rationale for polices that sought to remold the behavior of the poor, rather than attend to the structural inequalities of the US economy—“blame the victim” policymaking. O’Connor states it best:

“Following a well-established pattern in post-Great Society policy analysis, the Clinton administration’s poverty experts had already embraced and defined the parameters of a sweeping welfare reform featuring proposals that promised to change the behavior of poor people while paying little more than rhetorical attention to the problems of low-wage work, rising income inequality, or structural economic change, and none at all to the steadily mounting political disenfranchisement of the postindustrial working class” (3-4).

Social scientists have long debated whether culture or economy is more important in determining poverty. O’Connor traces this intellectual history, recognizing that these two modes of thinking—behavioral and structural—are not mutually exclusive. In the early twentieth century, poverty thinkers, taking their cues from the Chicago School of Sociology, fretted over growing “social disorganization” in northern cities, which they attributed to the gap between rural patterns of living, brought north by black migrants, and the grim realities of living in the industrial city. But many of these theorists saw economic policies as the solution to the supposedly degenerate culture of the ghetto dweller. In other words, job creation and higher wages would curtail bad behavior, such as alcoholism, prostitution, illegitimacy, and other vices. (Touré Reed, in his book Not Alms But Opportunity, recently reviewed here, demonstrates how such a framework shaped the Urban League.)

More recent thinkers have combined similar cultural description of the ghetto with calls for structural change, including Daniel Patrick Moynihan, in his infamous Moynihan Report (1965), and William Julius Wilson, in his widely read and controversial book, The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy (1987). The two chapters of O’Connor’s book most interesting to me (Chapter 8: “Poverty’s Culture Wars”; and Chapter 10: “Dependency, the ‘Underclass,’ and a New Welfare ‘Consensus’”) deal with the wide-ranging debates that followed the publication of Moynihan and Wilson’s defining works, and how the policy world responded.

It turns out that, put into practice, Moynihan and Wilson’s calls for economic policy changes went unheeded, not surprisingly, while their descriptions of ghetto life were accentuated in the national discussion. Rather than Moynihan’s “case for national action”—the subtitle of his report—people keyed in on his description of a “tangle of pathology,” a phrase he used to describe the culture of poor black urbanites, a culture he rooted in the black, matriarchal family structure. And rather than Wilson’s calls to create jobs, raise wages, and otherwise stem the negative effects of deindustrialization, an increasingly conservative political climate led people to focus on the culture of “underclass,” the 1980s metaphor for poor black urbanites.

As O’Connor sees it, the biggest problem with the type of poverty theorizing done by the likes of Moynihan and Wilson—with a focus on the bad behavior of poor, often black, people—is that there are no left or liberal policy solutions to bad culture. Thus, the logical policy conclusion to a scholarly emphasis on ghetto behavior is that government cannot solve the problems of poverty, unless by way of authoritarian behavior modification. In fact, this is the argument made by Charles Murray, in his celebrated Losing Ground (1984). It is also the logic of Clinton (and Gingrich’s) welfare reform. There we have some of the consequences of liberal poverty knowledge.