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Recycling the cycle of poverty.

February 23, 2012, 11:32 am

We are fortunate to have a guest post today from Robin Averbeck. Ms. Averbeck is a doctoral candidate working on the community action programs of the Lyndon Johnson administration, and has some insights appropriate to the current interest in Charles Murray’s new book and the idea of a culture of poverty. It’s always a privilege to work with a student whose research is interesting on its own terms and also engages current events in an intriguing way.

In the winter of 1963, the sociologist Charles Lebeaux argued that poverty, rather than merely a lack of money, was in fact the result of several complex, interrelated causes. “Poverty is not simply a matter of deficient income,” Lebeaux explained. “It involves a reinforcing pattern of restricted opportunities, deficient community services, abnormal social pressures and predators, and defensive adaptations. Increased income alone is not sufficient to overcome brutalization, social isolation and narrow aspiration.”1 Lebeaux’s article was originally published in the New Left journal New University Thought, but also appeared two years later in a collection of essays by liberal academics and intellectuals called Poverty in America. In the midst of Johnson’s War on Poverty, the argument that poverty was about more than money – or, as was sometimes argued, wasn’t even primarily about money – was common currency in both liberal and left-leaning circles.

Two weeks ago, New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof continued this tradition when he expressed his concern that contemporary liberals tend to chalk poverty up to merely a matter of dollars and cents. “I fear that liberals are too quick to think of inequality as basically about taxes,” wrote Kristof. “Yes, our tax system is a disgrace, but poverty is so much deeper and more complex than that.” Kristof’s column, “The White Underclass,” was just one of a flurry of responses to the release of Charles Murray’s new book, Coming Apart. Murray’s book continues the legacy of his seminal 1984 work, Losing Ground, in which Murray argued that liberal welfare social policies destroyed the moral values and work ethic of the black community, resulting in the rise of single mother households and welfare dependency. In Coming Apart, Murray’s analysis has remained the same but the focus is now the disintegration of the white working class.

Murray’s book has been the occasion for the resurrection of debates about the so-called “culture of poverty,” a concept that first became controversial when Daniel Patrick Moynihan released the infamous report in which he argued that the matriarchal family was destroying the black community’s opportunity for social mobility and assimilation. Released in the midst of urban rioting and the unpopular Community Action programs of the War on Poverty, Moynihan’s report came under harsh fire by critics who argued that in addition to a shoddy statistical analysis and historically inaccurate depiction of black families, Moynihan’s emphasis on the “tangle of pathology” as an engine of poverty would enable conservatives to argue that it was not racial and social injustice that gave birth to urban ghettos, but the cultural and moral deficiencies of those who lived in them. They were right. Long before Murray published Losing Ground in the early 1980s, conservatives had successfully captured the concept of the culture of poverty and employed it as a rationale to abandon investment in the inner cities and any hope of restructuring the welfare state to adequately address the causes and consequences of poverty.

However, the debate about the culture of poverty also had deep roots in postwar sociology. In the midst of the Cold War, social scientists dedicated themselves to discovering a “sociology of democracy” that would preserve the liberal American state in the face of totalitarian tendencies abroad and at home. At the turn of the 1960s, the presence of an “underclass” of the hard-core poor increasingly attracted the attention of social scientists who feared that such an underclass was a threat to the stability of American democracy and increasingly unacceptable in an otherwise affluent society. In cooperation with private institutions such as the Ford Foundation, sociologists and academics developed an approach to poverty which argued for the organization of local resources and residents as key to any attack on poverty.

Appealing to the policy framers of both Kennedy’s New Frontier and Johnson’s Great Society, the rhetorical emphasis on participatory democracy was embraced in Washington as fresh, cutting edge social science that would, furthermore, be politically unobjectionable and rather cheap. More traditional and expensive approaches to dealing with poverty, such as Labor Secretary W. Willard Wirtz’s proposal to directly address unemployment through a massive jobs program, were swept under the rug. In 1964, the idea that poverty was a complex problem that would require new methods was the idea of the hour, and “participatory democracy,” was regarded as an all-American, relatively inexpensive way to fight the new war on poverty.

However, the cleavages that would later blossom into the controversies over the culture of poverty were already present in the conflicts and contradictions of the sociological work the Community Action projects were inspired by. On the one hand was the work of left-leaning sociologists who emphasized that poverty must be viewed as a product of social structure – insofar as pathology existed, it was a rational response to the challenges normal people faced in a condition of poverty. In Delinquency and Opportunity, which more than any other book contributed to the popularity of the new poverty theories in Washington, Richard Cloward and Lloyd Ohlin argued that delinquency was the result of classically-ambitious Americans striving to achieve success in a society that denied them the means to do so. “In summary,” they wrote, “it is our contention that problems of adjustment are engendered by acts of social conformity performed under adverse circumstances.”2 Work which emphasized the similarity of the poor to the rest of Americans captured the primary spirit of sociological thought on poverty in the years leading up to the Great Society. However, such analysis consistently downplayed, or altogether neglected, the economic and political structures that made such inequality possible; while poverty was a formidable creature, all that was really required for its defeat was a tinkering with the structures of opportunity. Once that was done, the benevolence of the affluent society would be made open for a population of poor people who were fundamentally the same as all Americans.

However, other sociologists such as Walter B. Miller insisted that there was, in fact, something different about the poor. Rather than typical Americans trying to achieve the American dream, Miller argued, those in the lower-classes possessed their own values that were distinct from mainstream, middle-class values.3 At the start of the 1960s, this opinion was in the minority, particularly among the sociologists and policy planners who worked with the private foundations and federal government to develop an attack on poverty. By the end of the decade, however, it was becoming increasingly in vogue – Miller was joined by sociologists such as Nathan Glazer, and Moynihan himself, in arguing that the Community Action programs were the product of a naïve social engineering experiment by middle-class radicals who had failed to understand either the nature of poverty or the poor. Miller went as far as to argue that the social science work on poverty embodied by the Community Action programs represented nothing short of a cultish, group-think mentality.4 Meanwhile, left leaning liberals moved away from depicting poverty as irreducibly complex, and several former poverty warriors came to the conclusion that nothing short of substantial wealth redistribution could seriously address poverty.5

Today, the remarkable thing about the points and counter-points floating around the pages of the Times and other opinion outlets is how little the contours of the debate have changed since the late 1960s. Liberals like Kristof and Krugman focus on the material reality behind the culture of poverty, conservatives counter that the pathology has grown so considerable that it is now self-sustaining regardless of the underlying economic causes, and both groups stick steadfastly to the rhetoric of securing opportunity and restoring the treasured status of self-reliance. However, there is at least one glaring difference. In his obligatory my-two-cents column on the question, Ross Douthat cautions against aiming to do anything as unrealistic as actually eliminating economic inequality. “The crisis in working-class life Murray describes is arguably our most pressing domestic problem,” Douthat concedes. “But we are not going to address it by gut-renovating our welfare state to fit a libertarian ideal, or by dramatically expanding the same state in pursuit of an unattainable social democratic dream.” Even in the late 1960s, to refer to such aspirations as “unattainable” was simply unthinkable by the liberal and left-liberal coalition of sociologists, intellectuals and policy framers who put together the War on Poverty. Even as Watts burned, the assumption was not that the War on Poverty should be abandoned but rather that now more than ever it needed to be fought. What actually happened – that white America would be able to continue its suburbanization and affluent lifestyle while the black ghettos became increasingly desperate and difficult to escape – was precisely what the liberal imagination of the 1960s could not conceive of nor accept.


1Charles Lebeaux, “Life on A.D.C.: Budgets of Despair,” in Poverty in America: A Book of Readings, eds. Louis A. Ferman, Joyce L. Kornbluh, and Alan Haber (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1965), 413.
2Richard A. Cloward and Lloyd E. Ohlin, Delinquency and Opportunity (Glencoe, Illinois: The Free Press of Glencoe, 1960), 39.
3Walter B. Miller, “Lower Class Culture as a Generating Milieu of Gang Delinquency,” Journal of Social Issues, Vol. 14, No. 3, 1958.
4Walter Miller, “The Elimination of the American Lower Class as National Policy: A Critique of the Ideology of the Poverty Movement of the 1960s,” in On Understanding Poverty: Perspectives from the Social Sciences, ed. Daniel P. Moynihan (New York/London: Basic Books, Inc,) 1969.
5See for example Sanford Kravitz and Ferne K. Kolodner, “Community Action: Where Has It Been? Where Will It Go?,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 385 (September 1969), 30-40.

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