In the Midst of Plenty: The Political Economy
of Poverty in the Affluent Society
“THE WORDS ‘poverty’ and ‘poor,’ although on the threshold of revival, were not parts of the public language,” wrote sociologist Hylan Lewis of the years immediately preceding the War on Poverty. The problems were there, he went on to say, “but society chose not to see them—or at least not to call them that.”1 In sociological and anthropological literature the poor were referred to as the “lower-lower classes,” the “culturally deprived,” urban “newcomers,” and only more recently as victims of a “culture of poverty.” In economics, poverty was barely recognized as a subject worthy of study; it had been lost, as economist Theodore Schultz wrote in 1964, “for want of a theory.”2 Even in applied research the poor were more likely to be recognized—if at all—as part of some broader economic or social problem, as were the “low-income” families featured in hearings sponsored by Congressman John Sparkman in 1949, the residents of “depressed areas” in the drive for the Area Redevelopment Act of 1961, and the “structurally unemployed” in analyses behind the Manpower Development and Training Act of 1962.3 “Poverty,” as such, was not yet seen as a distinctive social problem, much less as the target of a concerted government attack.
It was thus with a tone of outrage and discovery, and no small degree of political calculation, that social scientists and social critics began to draw attention to the problem of poverty in the early 1960s. Within the Kennedy administration, it was economists, led by Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers (CEA) Walter Heller, who were leading the charge. Heller and his CEA colleagues were the chief spokesmen in favor of an “attack on poverty” as a central component of a Kennedy domestic policy for the upcoming election year of 1964.4 But they were also engaged in a struggle to define the poverty problem on their own terms—as a problem, that is, that could be addressed within the boundaries, indeed, as a constituent part, of the broader economic agenda they had been pursuing since 1961. The aims of this agenda—faster growth and full employment—were to be achieved by means of a massive individual and corporate tax cut. Growth, economists reasoned, would be the single most effective weapon against poverty. Meanwhile, an added, more targeted set of programs for the poor would help to deflect the critics of the growth agenda, who pointed to evidence of a presumably new form of poverty that would not respond to growth alone. Thus, it was in a process of political,