Origins: Poverty and Social Science in
The Era of Progressive Reform
AT THE END of the nineteenth century social investigators in several of the world’s most advanced industrial societies set out to bring new scientific understanding to the problem of poverty. In this they were very much caught up in the international wave of organizing, policy innovation, state building, and, above all, social learning that characterized the decades between 1880 and the beginning of World War I as an era of progressive reform.1 They were also moved by the central paradox Henry George referred to in the title of his wildly popular Progress and Poverty (1879) and in subsequent lecture tours: that great wealth and unprecedented productive capacity brought increasing poverty. So, too, were they dedicated to challenging the precepts of “laissez-faire,” a doctrine they associated with unbridled free market capitalism, the narrow pursuit of individual self-interest, and the rise of a social scientific justification for inequality and concentrated wealth.2 Drawing on a combination of classical economics and Social Darwinism, Yale University sociologist William Graham Sumner had argued that inequality was a social expression of the natural laws of economic competition—the survival and dominance of the fittest— and that any attempt to intervene in the free market system would simply set progress back on its heels.3 Poverty was not only inevitable but, in Sumner’s words, “the best policy”: deprived by their own or by nature’s doing, the poor had no special claim on society at large.
The new knowledge, in contrast, would distinguish itself from other types of “scientific” investigation in several ways, which together make the Progressive Era a foundational period for twentieth-century poverty research. In the first instance it would be rigorously empirical—for the most part, quantitative—distinguishing it from the more abstract discourse of classical economics that inscribed poverty, along with the operation of markets, with the aura of natural law. The new poverty knowledge would take its cue instead from the insurgent, German-influenced “new economics” expounded by Richard T. Ely, Henry Carter Adams, and other founders of the American Economic Association in 1885, which embraced a more historical and institutional, but above all, social and ethical understanding of how the capitalist economy had evolved.4 Second, the new poverty knowledge would be rigorously objective, as distinct from the morally judgmental inquiries of charity work, and would devote itself to devising more and ever-better scientific methods for gathering, categorizing,