Improving Poor People: The Welfare State, the "Underclass," and Urban Schools as History

Improving Poor People: The Welfare State, the "Underclass," and Urban Schools as History

Improving Poor People: The Welfare State, the "Underclass," and Urban Schools as History

Improving Poor People: The Welfare State, the "Underclass," and Urban Schools as History

Synopsis

To understand contemporary poverty in the United States, Michael Katz looks particularly at an old attitude: because many nineteenth-century reformers traced extreme poverty to certain forms of bad behavior, they tried to use public policy and philanthropy to improve the character of poor people, rather than to attack the structural causes of their misery. Showing how this misdiagnosis has afflicted today's welfare and educational systems, Katz, a major historian of urban poverty, draws on his own experiences to introduce each of four topics the welfare state, the underclass debate, urban school reform, and the strategies of survival used by the urban poor. As a concise overview of twenty-five years of writing on poverty, welfare, and public education, this is an exceptionally valuable and important book.... It will be read widely by social scientists, policy makers, and concerned citizens. Molly Ladd-Taylor, The Journal of American History A must reading for all social workers ... interested in the current debate about the role of government in social welfare. Katz's keen historical analysis informs us what our response to need has been and poses questions that we need to ask to avoid future errors. Edward J. Gumz, Families in Society

Excerpt

There are places where history feels irrelevant, and America's inner cities are among them. Those historians engaged with the problems of their time live, always, with an unresolved tension between activism and scholarship; they are forced on the defense by practitioners of contemporary social science and policy research, whose relentless presentism views historians as of little use other than as entertainment. Instead of advancing social reform, do historians, in fact, distract attention from children killing each other, jobless men, homeless families, failing institutions, and crumbling infrastructure? Perhaps historians who care about the future of American cities and their people should throw away their note cards, leave their libraries and archives, and work for a frontline social agency or in community economic development. Would historians committed to social reconstruction give more to the causes they champion with degrees in social work or public policy or as public interest lawyers?

Since the early 1960s, I have lived with these questions and with the tension between activism and scholarship, which I have tried to mediate with research on a number of questions about American social institutions, public policy, and reform. Why have American governments proved unable to redesign a welfare system that satisfies anyone? Why has public policy proved unable to eradicate poverty and prevent the deterioration of major cities? What strategies have helped poor people survive the poverty endemic to urban history? How did urban schools become unresponsive bureaucracies that fail to educate most of their students? Are there fresh, constructive ways to think about welfare, poverty, and public education? Do any hopeful examples exist?

Because they traced extreme poverty to drink, laziness, and other forms of bad behavior, many nineteenth-century reformers tried to use public policy and philanthropy to improve the character of poor people rather than to attack the material sources of their misery. Reformers emphasized individual regeneration through evangelical . . .

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