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Poverty Is a Product of the Institutions We Have in Society

Janine Jackson interviewed Alice O’Connor on the politics of the war on poverty.

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Janine Jackson interviewed Alice O’Connor on the politics of the War on Poverty for the September 30, 2016, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

Janine Jackson: The new census data show the steepest one-year decline in the US poverty rate in decades. The dip from 14.8 percent to 13.5 percent was widely heralded, if some did indicate that declarations like the New York Times’ “Millions in US Climb Out of Poverty at Long Last” might be overblown. The rate was 11.3 percent in 2000, after all, and the gains aren’t evenly spread around, or necessarily sustainable.

When corporate media talk about poverty, this is often what it looks like. “Experts” talk about what amount and sorts of resources it “makes sense” to allow people to have before they’re eligible for what amount or sort of assistance from the state, and how tweaks to those rules may affect the overall number of people who qualify to be labeled poor.

This media focus is, to good extent, a reflection of that of policymakers, and of poverty researchers. But our next guest suggests we could be having a different conversation, and history may help us have it. Alice O’Connor is professor of history and director of graduate studies at the University of California/Santa Barbara, and author of, among other titles, Poverty Knowledge: Social Science, Social Policy and the Poor in 20th Century US History. She joins us now by phone from California. Welcome to CounterSpin, Alice O’Connor.

Alice O’Connor: Thank you. I’m happy to be here.

In thinking about the context for the new poverty data, I came across an essay you wrote two years ago on the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, and there was a lot in it that I didn’t know. We often hear that the War on Poverty didn’t work, because people are still poor. But you can’t measure the impacts of an initiative if you’re not clear on what its actual goals were. So not only because it’s been misrepresented, but because it’s so relevant, take us back to 1964. What did the War on Poverty look like in real time?

Well, in real time, the War on Poverty was associated with a very specific set of programs that surrounded what was most widely known as the Community Action Program. The core idea of the Community Action Program was that federal government funding should go, for a whole variety of social services, to local communities who would have a say on how those resources were to be distributed, and were distributed in such a way that they would work to the benefit of that community, and that those funds would be planned and used with the so-called “maximum feasible participation” of the poor. And that was the most widely known of the War on Poverty programs at the time. We can talk a little bit later about why that was very controversial.

The reality, though, is that the War on Poverty as a broader initiative was a whole series of interlinked and really embedded programs that started with the administration’s commitment to bringing the economy much closer to what they considered to be full employment, and that they would generate jobs that paid a decent wage. At that time, the minimum wage was higher in real terms than it has been until fairly recently — in some states, that is to say; I mean, right now the federal minimum wage is pathetic, but it was closer then to what people are striving toward now in the $15 minimum wage.


So the idea was the No. 1 weapon in the War on Poverty — and I have to underscore, this is the language that was being used at the time — the No. 1 weapon was a faster-growing, full-employment, decent-paying, good job-creating economy. And the commitment of the administration, more broadly speaking, was to make that happen.

Second was a whole other related series of programs, that were related to the Great Society, that were basically about expanding the welfare state. And I’m not just talking about the welfare state targeted at low-income people and people below the poverty line. Because this was an era and a period in which we got Medicare, Medicaid, as just two examples of really massive expansion in the provision of healthcare that reached a much broader array of people than people who were below the poverty line, but also created the Medicaid program, which was and continues to be targeted at people below the poverty line.

So the other programs that were related specifically to the War on Poverty were programs like Head Start, which is still around today, and is considered to be one of the most successful social policy programs ever, but a perpetually underfunded program, so a program that has never reached all of the children and families that are actually eligible for it. As well as programs like Job Corps and all sorts of other jobs-in-training programs, community-based health centers.

So the idea was that we’re going to really have a comprehensive array of initiatives. The other one, I should add, which was very, very important at the time, and which continues to be very important, but it was subsequently eviscerated, essentially, by the Reagan administration, was legal assistance for the poor. Not just narrowly construed Legal Aid, but the kind of legal assistance that would help low-income people get not only the representation, but the legal rights that they deserved. So that’s just a way of kind of trying to get across the comprehensive nature of the idea behind the War on Poverty.

The last thing I should mention here is that when you think about the War on Poverty in the context of the Great Society, you absolutely cannot ignore the fact that this was the time of the vastest expansion of federal commitment to civil rights and anti-discrimination, certainly since the short-lived era of Reconstruction.

And this is when the idea of a Second Reconstruction and the full realization of Reconstruction with the passage of the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act, but also all sorts of other more expansive and federally involved anti-discrimination came into play. And the understanding of people who were involved in the War on Poverty, both at the federal level and on the ground, at the grassroots level, was that poverty is deeply embedded in our problem of racism, and that we need to deal with it comprehensively; we can’t just pretend that racism isn’t there.

It’s absolutely fascinating, because you’re talking about structural reforms, you’re talking about community action, you’re talking about removal of institutional barriers, and yet in the popular imagination, that whole story has been not just reduced to, but kind of turned on its head, to be a story about an initiative about throwing cash money at the poor.


Nowadays folks like Robert Rector from Heritage talk about the War on Poverty, define it as taxpayers throwing — now the number he uses is $22 trillion — throwing $22 trillion at poverty, and it just created dependency, and so therefore we should cut back these programs. And I think what’s so fascinating is it’s actually — and this is bringing you back, you said you’d talk about what was controversial about these community action programs — it was actually the fact that it wasn’t just handouts of cash, so-called, but that it was actually about social change. That was why it was attacked at the time.

That’s a big part of why it was attacked. Two things one can say about this is that when we go back and look at the comprehensive array of initiatives, we can see how there was a huge amount of potential at the time for a structural reform vision, but what happened in actuality was that a lot of that potential was not met. In part because the idea of really growing the economy and creating jobs in such a way that people would have access to them, well, frankly never panned out, because there was not strong enough a commitment to it.

But on the community action front, which was really where the War on Poverty came under immediate fire, and the most controversial part of it, that continues to feed into this completely distorted narrative of failure, was about the fact that the initial plan for the community action, especially coming from Washington, from Washington bureaucrats, was, OK, this is going to be a really good way to coordinate services in a more rational and holistic way, and so that we don’t have all sorts of narrow programs competing with one another. If we really coordinate things at the local level, we can have truly comprehensive intervention, and then we should let local people have a say in how this happens.

What a lot of those architects, at least some of them, didn’t adequately anticipate was that the idea of putting resources of any kind in the hands of low-income people, in particular low-income minority people, low-income women — and low-income people of any race, but especially low-income African-Americans — was going to be a threat to local power structures, segregationist local power structures, and it was going to be an avenue of political empowerment for poor people, and poor people’s movements and organizations, that they were going to use to the hilt.

And when those dynamics started playing out, which was very quickly, you got massive resistance to the use of those funds for genuine empowerment, on the one hand, and then you also, very quickly, began to get attacks on the program, not just from arch-conservative segregationists, which you certainly did, but also from liberal party establishment figures at the local level who said, wait a minute, we don’t want other people in control of these resources, we want to direct where they’re going to go.

So it very quickly became mired in the controversies over not just, narrowly, how it was going to be implemented, but all of the controversies associated with the great social movements of the day. We cannot think about this outside of the context of the raging battles over rights of all kinds that were going on at the time.

Well, I want to pick up on another angle of your work. An NPR show recently announced that it’s going to send a host on a “Poverty Tour” because, the write-up says, “America has not been able to find its way to a sustainable solution because most of its citizens see the problem of poverty from a distance.” Not too sure about that. But, therefore, the host will “talk directly with people who are poor and understand how they got that way.” I’m not sure how much more “poor people are human too” we should have to bear…

Oh my God.

You know? How much more “humanizing.” But this idea that what poverty work is, that what it’s about, is studying poor people — and that they’re a definable sort — this is a historically shaped idea. And this is what you’re talking about, in part, when you talk about “poverty knowledge.” I wonder if you could tell us a little about that.

Yes. I hadn’t heard about that latest iteration of the poverty tour, which is a very, very old institution. Back in the day — and I’m talking about late 19th, early 20th century — it was called slumming. This is the idea that the better-off — the classic example of this is Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives, where the better-off and the socially conscious (these are definitely well-intentioned people) decide that, first of all, we’re in a position to bring a lens and bring this message and, as you say, humanize the poor, but also just by our presence, we’re going to be able to somehow help with their uplift out of the terrible conditions that they’re in. So, again, that poverty tour idea is an old one.

But what I’m trying to draw attention to with the idea of poverty knowledge is precisely what you mentioned, that locked into our entire social welfare and social science apparatus is the idea that poverty consists in the character traits or the demographic traits or even just the income traits of individuals. It’s just: The problem of poverty is about poor people, and if somehow we can change something about them — about them, as if poor people are a single and unchanging group — then we’re going to try to solve the problem of poverty.

And what other approaches say, and what I think history bears out, is that poverty is a characteristic of a political economy at any given time. Poverty is a characteristic of many of the mainstream structures or institutions of society. Poverty is a product of the racialized lines of ideas and stereotypes and institutions that we have in society, and those are the objects we ought to be studying and figuring out how to intervene in, to change, if we’re actually going to do something lasting about the problem of poverty.

Yes, and people who read media will understand that attacks on anti-poverty programs have always been ideological, have always been about values, but the defense of them — and again, I’m looking back at your work — the defense of these anti-poverty programs has not been ideological, it’s been scrupulously scientific and value-free. And yet it’s not really value-free; it has limitations built into it methodologically.

Well, yes, and I’m all for defending these programs by bringing these statistics in, but that doesn’t mean that the conversation should end there. And too often the conversation ends there, becomes a sort of defense mechanism, and we get these — I’m glad you brought up that New York Times article, because there’s this idea that we’re going to lift people out of poverty, or people are going to lift themselves out of poverty, as if making a better wage — which is fantastic, I’m very glad to read those stories — somehow puts you over this threshold that is anything but a sort of statistical artifact, somehow changes your life overnight, and that you’re lifted out of one condition into another.

And what that misses is the fact that what’s going on in our economy, what was going on in the 1960s for different reasons than what’s going on now, is an enormous amount of economic disparity that leaves people vulnerable, at various times in their lives, or maybe at various times during the course of a year, such that they actually don’t have enough to get by. And that puts them, yes, maybe it puts them below a poverty line. But whether or not it does, it’s the economic hardship and economic insecurity that still gives you an incredibly unequal economy at this point. That is what we should be talking about when we’re talking about the problem of poverty, and not simply the narrow characteristics of people who happen to fall at any given time below this artificial line that we’ve drawn.

We’ve been speaking with Alice O’Connor, professor of history and director of graduate studies at the University of California/Santa Barbara. The book is called Poverty Knowledge: Social Science, Social Policy and the Poor in 20th Century US History. And her article “The War on Poverty at 50” can still be found online at Thank you very much, Alice O’Connor, for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

Thank you.

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