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

By Alice O'connor | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 2
Poverty Knowledge as Cultural Critique:
The Great Depression

IT MAY SEEM odd that, amidst the vast unemployment and structural dislocations of the Great Depression, social scientific poverty knowledge should make culture an overriding theme. This, too, alongside the unprecedented demand for economic and more traditionally defined social welfare knowledge coming from the expanding apparatus of New Deal, state, and private agencies—all clamoring for knowledge, as Franklin D. Roosevelt himself might have put it, to get government out of the business of relief through programs of prevention, social insurance, and economic reform. Drawing insights from Progressive as well as a newer, Keynesian political economy, social work and economic policy intellectuals carved out plans for addressing the economic risks of unemployment, old age, maternal widowhood, agricultural crisis, and, more generally, laissez-faire capitalism.1 And yet, for all the accumulated statistics on unemployment, income levels, housing conditions, relief rolls, and other indicators of economic decline, the more pronounced, and immediate legacy of the Great Depression for poverty knowledge was in the social scientific study of how poverty was at once a cause and a consequence of psychological depression, the distinctive values associated with lower-class culture, and the broader problem of a society unable to cope with the challenge of mass economic breakdown due to its own cultural “lag.” The most sustained and comprehensive study of unemployment from the 1930s, reported in E. Wight Bakke’s companion volumes The Unemployed Worker and Citizens Without Work, was as much concerned with its psychological and cultural as with its economic costs.2

But if there was some tension between economic and cultural understandings of poverty, the differentiation was not at all as sharp or politicized as it would later become. Indeed, for Chicago’s rival “schools” in the 1920s and 1930s, the turn to culture was not a break from Progressive political economy so much as a new way to illuminate its central themes: class polarization, the dangers of laissez-faire individualism, and the necessity of planned social reform. It was in this spirit that Robert and Helen Lynd came up with a new, more anthropological approach to community study and with it dissected the cultural contradictions that industrial capitalism had wrought. Others, including students of anthropologist W. Lloyd Warner, uncovered the elements of a distinctive and coherent lower-class culture that helped poor people cope with

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