What's Wrong with the Poor? Psychiatry, Race, and the War on Poverty

What's Wrong with the Poor? Psychiatry, Race, and the War on Poverty

What's Wrong with the Poor? Psychiatry, Race, and the War on Poverty

What's Wrong with the Poor? Psychiatry, Race, and the War on Poverty

Synopsis

In the 1960s, policymakers and mental health experts joined forces to participate in President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty. In her insightful interdisciplinary history, physician and historian Mical Raz examines the interplay between psychiatric theory and social policy throughout that decade, ending with President Richard Nixon's 1971 veto of a bill that would have provided universal day care. She shows that this cooperation between mental health professionals and policymakers was based on an understanding of what poor men, women, and children lacked. This perception was rooted in psychiatric theories of deprivation focused on two overlapping sections of American society: the poor had less, and African Americans, disproportionately represented among America's poor, were seen as having practically nothing.
Raz analyzes the political and cultural context that led child mental health experts, educators, and policymakers to embrace this deprivation-based theory and its translation into liberal social policy. Deprivation theory, she shows, continues to haunt social policy today, profoundly shaping how both health professionals and educators view children from low-income and culturally and linguistically diverse homes.

Excerpt

At a White House afternoon tea in February 1965, Lady Bird Johnson announced the establishment of Project Head Start, an early childhood educational program that would serve children—many of them African American—from low-income homes. Designed and administered by the Office of Economic Opportunity, this new program drew much media attention. Moved by the educational opportunities these children would be afforded but distressed at their meager backgrounds, the First Lady described how some of these children had never seen a flower, had never sat in a chair; some did not even know their own names.

Today, these clearly erroneous perceptions of children from low-income and minority backgrounds seem misguided, even comical. Why would a well-intentioned public figure such as the First Lady display such a negative perception of children from low-income homes? What did she think their homes were like—isolated dungeons? As a matter of fact, she did, and she expected many of her listeners to think the same way. Images of extreme isolation shaped the prevailing perception of the family life in low-income homes, and throughout the 1960s, politicians and child mental health experts alike viewed the lives of low-income children and their parents through a focus on what was missing. Relying on experimental research and infant-observation studies, liberal policymakers and mental health experts alike were confident in their knowledge that the poor had very little indeed.

Much of the expert knowledge that provided the scientific basis of this view of low-income homes was derived from experiments in sensory deprivation. These experiments, first carried out in the laboratory of eminent psychologist Donald O. Hebb at McGill University in Montreal, were designed to examine the effects of reduced external stimulation on behavior, cognitive ability, and psychological makeup. Differing in protocol and methods, these experiments shared the goal of reducing external stimuli, an objective that . . .

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