Christopher Jencks, Rethinking Social Policy: Race, Poverty and the Underclass. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992. Pp. vi, 280. $27.95.
Lawrence M. Mead, The New Politics of Poverty: The Nonworking Poor in America. New York: Basic Books, 1992. Pp. xii, 356. $25.00.
Over the last decade, American responses to poverty and other urban problems have been shaped (and distorted) by anxiety over a new urban "underclass." Since the 1980s, a growing number of social scientists and policymakers have attributed poverty to the behavior and culture of the poor, focusing on such factors as family breakdown, criminality, individual pathology, welfare dependence, and out-of-wedlock childbearing. They have sought to explain the seeming paradox of worsening poverty in the aftermath of the civil rights movement and the Great Society. In an era of racial backlash and government retrenchment, theories that place responsibility for continued poverty on the poor themselves have gained prominence.
This emphasis on culture and behavior in American poverty scholarship and public policy revives old themes of morality, virtue, and vice. From the early days of the republic, popular interpretations of poverty looked to the actions and values of the poor as an explanation for their impoverishment. Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Anglo- American political discourse, with its ethic of self-help and theory of citizenship that emphasized virtue and responsibility, linked poverty to immorality. In the 1980s, emerging neoconservatism gave this old language a new cast, infusing it with a potent antistatism. Reagan-era conservatives, led by Charles Murray and George Gilder, advocated a sort of scholarly Calvinism, which presumes that the poor are inherently immoral and susceptible to the sins of lust (promiscuous sex and out-of-wedlock pregnancy), sloth (unwillingness to work), and greed (grasping for handouts). In their modern formulation, the federal government feeds the depravity of the poor through the "perverse" incentives of welfare. These conservatives blamed poverty not only on the poor, but also on New Deal and Great Society social programs, which they claimed fostered dependency.
At the same time, liberal social scientists, most notably William Julius Wilson and Paul Peterson, and journalists such as Ken Auletta and Nicholas Lemann, combined analyses of the structural causes of poverty-unequal education, unemployment, deindustrialization, and discrimination-with a new emphasis on the behavior of the poor. The new scholarship on poverty revived discussions of family structure, sexuality, and crime that had fallen out of fashion with the social tumult of the 1960s. For example, Wilson considered structural changes in urban America in conjunction with "pathologies" of the poor such as out-of-wedlock childbearing and crime. Peterson acknowledged discrimination and technological changes, but put greater weight on the effects of welfare on the poor. Auletta and Lemann fused discussions of changing urban economies with moving, quasi-ethnographical descriptions of broken families, plagued by violence and drugs.
Sugrue, Thomas J.
"The Impoverished Politics of Poverty,"
Yale Journal of Law & the Humanities: Vol. 6
, Article 15.
Available at: https://digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/yjlh/vol6/iss1/15