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

By Alice O'connor | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 7
Fighting Poverty with Knowledge:
The Office of Economic Opportunity and the
Analytic Revolution in Government

THERE WAS NO official definition of poverty when Lyndon B. Johnson made his declaration of war on poverty in 1964. Even the poverty warriors at the newly established Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) were struck by how little they knew about the problem they had been conscripted to combat. Taking their mandate seriously, they quickly set out to gather—or, to continue the metaphor, to mobilize—the kind of knowledge they needed to win the war: it would be statistically rigorous, methodologically sophisticated, based on nationally representative data, and, most significantly, it would be explicitly modeled on an approach to policy analysis that was said to have revolutionized decision making at the Department of Defense.1 Thus, in all the haste, idealism, confidence, and no small amount of confusion that accompanied LBJ’s war on poverty, a new phase in the history of poverty knowledge began. Liberal government, through a constellation of sometimes-competing agencies, would develop the most elaborate, far-reaching apparatus for measuring, tracking, and experimenting with programs for poor people in the world.

Almost overnight, or so it appeared, the study of poverty was transformed— from an uncertainly connected bundle of university-based sociological and anthropological community studies, into a precise, federally funded analytic science with national-level data sets and neoclassical economic models at its core. Reestablished as a legitimate subject for academic inquiry, it was also becoming the basis of a substantial, government- and foundation-subsidized, public/private enterprise in applied economic research, an enterprise devoted to the singular proposition that, as economist James Tobin put it, “It Can Be Done!” Poverty, according to the new economic experts, could be “conquered” within nearly a decade of launching the war.2

In actuality, the transformation of poverty knowledge was not accomplished easily, and not without both political struggle and political consequence. After all, the analytic approach favored by economists stood in sharp contrast to the increasingly, and more explicitly, politicized research tradition that had brought community action to the fore. The differences, of course, went well beyond discipline, data, and methods. They touched on very different notions of how the War on Poverty should be fought: with an emphasis on local or-

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