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

By Alice O'connor | Go to book overview

Introduction

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 sophisticated econometric analysis that forms the basis of the poverty research industry today. Although its origins can be traced to what historian Daniel Rodgers calls the transatlantic “borrowings” of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century progressives, contemporary poverty research is very much an American invention, with a degree of specialization and an institutional apparatus that is unmatched in other parts of the world.1 And yet, poverty remains a fact of life for millions in the world’s most prosperous economy, stubbornly resistant to all that social scientists have learned about its “causes, consequences, and cures.”2

Frustrated by what they routinely refer to as the “paradox” of “poverty amidst plenty,” liberal social scientists often charge that politics and ideology are to blame. We know what to do about poverty, they believe, but ideologically motivated policy makers from both sides of the aisle lack the political will to do the right, scientifically informed thing. A powerful expression of such frustration came in response to the “end of welfare as we know it” in 1996, when three highly respected Department of Health and Human Services Department officials resigned in protest over President Clinton’s decision to sign the harsh, Republican-sponsored Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act—now widely referred to as welfare repeal. “The passage of this new law tells us what we already knew,” wrote HHS Assistant Secretary Peter Edelman in explaining his actions. “[P]oliticians make decisions that are not based on research and experience.” Welfare reform was a triumph of politics and ideology over knowledge, that is, and a defeat for the policy analysts who had mustered an enormous amount of scientific data showing that the bill would send millions more children into poverty—very much in the hope of preventing politicians from doing the wrong thing.3

Accurate though it may be in its characterization of recent welfare reform, this explanation for what happened in 1996 has one overriding problem: it fails to acknowledge the role that scientific poverty expertise played in bringing welfare as we knew it to an end. Following a well-established pattern in post–

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