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

By Alice O'connor | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 5
Community Action

IN THE self-consciously behavioral, psychological drift of postwar social science, poverty knowledge was becoming at once more global and more individualized. In many important respects, though, local communities, especially urban neighborhoods, remained essential venues for producing and applying poverty knowledge during the immediate postwar decades. There, with continuing support from national foundations and government agencies, social scientists trained in the methods and theories of urban ethnography resisted the individualizing drift of social problem research to insist that communities rather than individuals should be the units of analysis and reform. A series of community-based experiments sponsored during the 1950s and 1960s by the Ford Foundation, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), and a new Kennedy administration agency, the President’s Committee on Juvenile Delinquency (PCJD), illustrate the point. Drawing on more structural and ecological theories of human behavior, these experiments very specifically sought reform at the community and municipal levels to help prevent such problems as juvenile delinquency and inner-city neighborhood decline—eventually to conclude that the underlying problem was poverty and that the solution called for change at the federal as well as the local level of government. In those experiments social scientists reconnected with an earlier, more action-oriented view of knowledge to create what they saw as an alternative, less “psychiatric” theory of poverty that would later be acknowledged as the intellectual basis for an official program of Community Action in the federal government’s War on Poverty.1

Very much like their Progressive-era counterparts, these later-model experiments in community action treated low-income neighborhoods as laboratories for research-based reform, and as vehicles not only for linking social science with official policy but also for garnering expert and “indigenous” cooperation in achieving community goals. Likewise, they looked upon poor communities as sites for creating a constant flow of new knowledge, understanding reform as an ongoing process of expert social learning and mutual understanding across the social divide. Also like their Progressive counterparts, the community action experiments accommodated a range of sometimes conflicting reform visions, alternating between resident uplift to promote assimilation and community empowerment to agitate for change. Equally important, they helped to solidify the personal networks and the institutional

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