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

By Alice O'connor | Go to book overview
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Poverty’s Culture Wars

OEO’S POLITICAL and organizational infighting was by no means the only bat- tle shaping the future course of poverty research. If anything, it was overshad- owed by a series of far more public, increasingly polarized battles over what liberal social science had to say about the culture of poor people and what government could or should do in response. Most public of all was the outcry and extended controversy that greeted Assistant Secretary of Labor Daniel P. Moynihan’s report on the “crisis” of the Negro family in 1965. Released to the public in the aftermath of the Watts riot, when the Civil Rights movement was internally divided over growing black militancy, Moynihan’s analysis of the internal “pathology” gripping the lower-class black family sparked a wide- ranging reaction that served to question if not undermine the much older, liberal sociological tradition it drew from. To appreciate its impact on the course of poverty knowledge, though, it is useful to start by considering the long-stand- ing tensions within that liberal sociological tradition—over concepts of class, race, and culture in particular—that the Moynihan Report brought to the fore.

The academic version of poverty’s culture wars took place in the relative calm of a year-long seminar on poverty that began several months after the Moyni- han Report was first released. Convened by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1966, the seminar was attended by several of the War on Poverty’s leading intellectual lights and chaired by Moynihan himself, then on what would turn out to be a brief academic hiatus between the Kennedy/John- son Department of Labor and Nixon’s domestic policy staff. The gathering included more sociologists and anthropologists than economists, reflecting the then-current state of academic poverty expertise. Also in attendance were a number of OEO poverty warriors from both Community Action and RPP&E. Whatever their disagreements, this was decidedly a gathering among liberals, dedicated to the tasks set out in the seminar’s companion volumes, On Under- standing Poverty (edited by Moynihan) and On Fighting Poverty (edited by James Sundquist of the Brookings Institution).1 And yet, as Moynihan put it, “something, somewhere had gone wrong” with any intellectual consensus they once might have shared. There was no common understanding as to the nature of poverty or the process of deliberate social change(emphasis in original). Put more starkly by economist Harold Watts, the social scientists were divided over “two radically different” concepts of poverty: the “narrow economic”


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