Not long ago, a Negro poverty worker from the Roxbury section of Boston came to see me at the Joint Center for Urban Studies, directed there by a liberal business executive who had thought I might be of help in her effort to raise a large sum of money to establish a cultural center for the disadvantaged. I was not especially sanguine and said as much: the federal poverty program was then being cut back rather than enlarged, and in any event redirected toward employment as against community programs. My visitor's reaction, however, was one not of resignation, but of exasperation. Once again, or so it appeared to her, the demands of the black community were being rejected by the white power structure, in this instance represented by me. In the manner of professors I resorted to reason: was it not the case, I asked, that a very considerable number of poverty programs had been launched in Roxbury in recent years? (The Boston Globe was shortly to publish a special supplement describing 262 such programs spread throughout the city as a whole.) “Exactly,” came the retort, “but do you notice they only fund programs that don't succeed?”

There in a few sentences were summarized the events of the preceding five years: the transformation of the “war on poverty” from a program concerned with the poor generally, to one understood to be primarily for Negroes (or blacks, as some members of the group increasingly insist they be designated); the proliferation of projects; the constant association of such projects with academic activists, and academic conceptions such as “disadvantage” and “culture”; the precipitous rise of dissatisfaction with the program in the Congress, followed by restrictions in funding; the attendant rise of Negro militancy and hostility, accompanied by increasing sophistication and fiercely asserted independence, but also a very strongly held conviction that power continues to reside in a concealed but ruthless and disciplined freemasonry of the white elite. In the course of the conversation, the suggestion that the junior United States Senator from Massachusetts—a Negro—might be of help was dismissed, whereas it was readily assumed that his white colleague, though out of favor with the incumbent President, would be a man of much potential influence on behalf of the undertaking.

My visitor, in short, gave striking testimony to the painful truth that a great national effort, so bravely begun not four years earlier, was by then widely deemed to have failed.

This is not to say that the war on poverty actually has failed. Its success or failure is a question for historians, and the final verdict may be very different from the perception of the moment, not only as to what happened, but as to what was relevant. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that for the present moment the confidence of many persons in the nation's ability to master the congeries of social, economic, regional, and racial problems which were subsumed under the heading of poverty in the winter and spring of 1964 has been badly shaken.


The main agency responsible for conducting the war on poverty is, of course, the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO), and accordingly much of the blame for the presumed failure of the war has been directed to that particular quarter. But even worse than to be blamed in Washington is to be ignored, and as 1968 wore on, there were unmistakable signs that OEO was being overtaken, as so many of the bold enterprises of the early 1960's had been before it, by precisely that worser fate. The pattern was by then almost a fixed one: the bright new idea, the creation of the new agency, the swearing in at the White House of the first agency head, the shaky beginning, the departure twenty-four months later of the original chief, the appointment of his deputy to replace him, the gradual slipping from sight, a Budget Bureau reorganization, a name change, a third head, this time from civil service, and slowly obscurity covers all. When in May of 1968, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's “poor people's march” made its way to Washington and encamped on the Mall, it was as if they were lobbying for the establishment of an OEO; the fact that such an office already existed seemed almost unknown, or at least was unacknowledged. Something, somewhere, had gone wrong. Or rather, many things had gone wrong, both conceptual and operational.


In this essay, I propose to focus on the conceptual difficulties, for more than most government programs, the war on poverty—rather like the war in Vietnam—was pre-eminently the work of intellectuals—specifically those liberal, policy-oriented intellectuals who gathered in Washington, and in a significant sense came to power, in the early 1960's under the Presidency of John F. Kennedy. Kennedy's Presidential campaign had propounded a fairly radical critique of American society. The Eisenhower era had not been barren of government initiatives, but even when these were of massive dimensions, as in the case of the Interstate Defense and Highway Program, they had tended to be most mindful of the needs and interests of the middle classes of Americans, with the concomitant inference that other, more pressing needs did not in fact exist. In considerable measure the intellectual community accepted this view of things, and applied its energies largely to deploring the uses of mass embourgeoisement. Affluence, indeed, became the master term for the period—so much so that when John Kenneth Galbraith devoted a book to that subject his trenchant discussion therein of the persistence of poverty was virtually ignored.

Kennedy changed all that: in part because he was a Democrat, and by definition involved with the sources of Democratic strength and the tradition of Democratic concern; in part, also, because he was a Roman Catholic. This latter circumstance had forced him to make the crucial test of his campaign for the Presidential nomination the primary contest in Protestant West Virginia, where a decent but impotent people of impeccable pioneer origin were slowly, and without protest, sinking into the slag heaps they had too willingly piled up to make money for other men. Commitments were made in West Virginia, and just as important, impressions were gained that remained with the Kennedy administration throughout.

But beyond these essentially political influences, there arose at the same time an element of intellectual influence, deriving from the world of little magazines and large universities of the kind that abound on the Eastern seaboard. In particular, two clusters of intellectual concern came to bear on the problems of poverty. The first was connected with the fact that on the date John F. Kennedy took office, more men were out of work in the United States than at any time since the great depression, and the second with the then widely discussed problem of deviant behavior. Both sets of concern were much in evidence in the legislative program of the Kennedy years: in the emergence of the “new economics”; in measures such as the Manpower Development and Training Act of 1962; and in the establishment of the President's Committee on Juvenile Delinquency and Youth Crime, which became almost a personal project of the President's brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. If the minimum-wage legislation of 1961 with its emphasis on the low-paid Democratic voter (Negro washerwomen were a group specifically at issue), and the Area Redevelopment Act of the same year, with its emphasis on Appalachia, responded to the political themes of the administration, and perhaps received greater public notice, these intellectual themes were not less in evidence, and were in ways closer to the hearts of the purposeful and proud men then guiding the nation in their brief authority.

The political economy—the “new economics”—of the Kennedy era worked (or that at least must be our assumption), and in working provided perhaps the most impressive demonstration that has yet occurred in contemporary American government of the capacity of organized intelligence to forecast and direct events. If the fiscal and monetary policies inaugurated at that time can be judged a social experiment, the conclusion is hard to escape that it is the only one of its size which really can be said to have turned out in practice as predicted on paper. To be sure, events helped this experiment along. The month Kennedy took office the economy turned upward, beginning the unprecedented expansion that is now, as I write, in its eighth year. Kennedy's task here was essentially to sustain and then accelerate a movement that had begun, as it were, on its own.

This was not the case with the issue of deviant behavior. In at least a general sense that problem probably worsened during this period—that is, events were not on their own moving with the administration—but paradoxically, interest in it appeared to recede. Juvenile delinquency and youth crime, for example, had been considerable issues in the 1950's. Of a sudden they were no longer. Fashions change. Even so, the problem persisted and, further, when unemployment, especially among Negroes, failed to recede in measure as the economy expanded, it too began to acquire certain overtones of deviancy. Was there not something wrong with the “hard-core” unemployed? It is perhaps this feeling that explains why the Youth Employment Act, a bill which was given the highest priority in the administration's legislative program, and which any congressman might have been presumed to favor, could not pass the House of Representatives.


In effect, the Youth Employment Act represented the first, tentative, groping efforts of the federal government to involve itself with the question of the “life style” of lower-class persons. With the long dominant problems of cyclical economics gradually coming under control, the energies of the Kennedy administration were turning to those persons who, for myriad reasons, lived lives of seemingly permanent depression. Some work in this area had already begun. Walter Heller, Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors, had raised the subject with Kennedy in December 1962, and in the spring of 1963 sent him a memorandum prepared by the redoubtable Robert Lampman. It was in this context that the President's advisers, in the fall of 1963, began to shape the issue of poverty as a central theme for the campaign of 1964, an effort that would begin with the sequence of Presidential messages and proposals in the early months of the year. On October 30, 1963 Heller wrote to the relevant members of the cabinet informing them that Theodore Sorensen had asked the Council “to pull together for the President's consideration a set of measures which might be woven into a basic attack on the problems of poverty and waste of human resources, as part of the 1964 legislative program.”

The administration was setting about its business in the manner of men who propose to control events. Within weeks, of course, the nation spun wildly out of control as madness for the moment seized the levers of power and the President was assassinated. All the greater, in the aftermath, was the desire to reassert the powers of rationality, and this had the effect, if anything, of intensifying the pace of the developing poverty program. The theme fitted perfectly into the New Deal, Populist style of Lyndon Johnson, who immediately upon taking office directed that plans for the poverty program proceed as a matter of administrative priority. And in the State of the Union Message of 1964, Richard Goodwin, who was to have been appointed Special Assistant for the Arts on Kennedy's return from Dallas, turned his powerful pen to a sterner subject, and the new President spoke the words, even as he had prescribed their intent: “This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America.”

But already troubles were appearing. It was one thing to propose to do away with poverty. It was another to determine how to do so, and yet another to find the resources and persuade the Congress to authorize the effort. Here the justified pride in and preoccupation with legislative maneuver which characterized the Johnson manner moved matters much too precipitously from phrase-making to vote-trading. Ominously little attention was paid in between to the question of what exactly was the problem to be solved.

On taking office, President Johnson had found the Council of Economic Advisors and the White House staff in a state of some confusion and even deadlock brought about by the conflicting desires of the various cabinet departments concerned to see their existing legislative programs given priority in the new package. Thus, for example, the Department of Labor, which was the “sponsor” of the Youth Employment Act, viewed employment programs as the master weapon to be used against poverty, discrimination, technological change, juvenile delinquency, or whatever the most fashionable formulation of the moment happened to be. Just three days before the State of the Union Message, the Department had presented to the President the report, entitled “One Third of a Nation,” of the Task Force on Manpower Utilization which Kennedy had established the preceding August to analyze the extraordinarily high Selective Service rejection rates with the hope of producing evidence in support of his youth-employment proposals. The report had succeeded in that objective, if in nothing else, and was one of the few data sources on which the emerging poverty program could draw. (The study revealed, for example, the disproportionately high rates of Negro failure on the mental test, the great importance of family size for all races, and the sharp differences in rejection rates not only among races, but among regions of the nation.)

But other departments had their own formulations. Most importantly, the Council of Economic Advisors and the Bureau of the Budget had become strong proponents of a proposal (which had emerged from the President's Committee on Juvenile Delinquency and Youth Crime) to organize the war on poverty around the essentially new concept of “community action programs.” Through the President's Committee, indeed, headed by the Attorney General, federal funds were already supporting a number of these programs on a “demonstration” basis.

The idea of community action was in one sense the purest product of academia and the Ford Foundation. Its underlying propositions with respect to opportunity structure and anomie constituted a systematic theory as to the origins and cures, if not of poverty, at least of juvenile delinquency. Moreover, in making its way through the maze of the Executive Office Building, it had acquired a managerial gloss which, while never fully, or even partially, intended by its original sponsors, nonetheless proved decisive in its adoption by the mandarins of the Budget Bureau. Community action was originally seen as a means of shaping unorganized and even disorganized city dwellers into a coherent and self-conscious group, if need be by techniques of protest and opposition to established authority. Somehow, however, the higher civil service came to see it as a means for coordinating at the community level the array of conflicting and overlapping departmental programs that were proceeding forth from Washington in ever increasing numbers, legislative stalemates to the contrary notwithstanding.1 In this situation, President Johnson appointed Sargent Shriver, Director of the Peace Corps, to head a White House task force for the purpose of making peace among the competing proposals and assembling a program.


Thus the poverty task force inherited a series of conflicting conceptions of the problem and how to deal with it. First was the generalized judgment of the Kennedy era that America was not performing at anything like the level of which it was capable, whether measured in the material terms of gross national product, or in the abstractions of world leadership. To this was added several other elements: an overlay of Johnsonian populism, with its eye on the plight of those “peckerwood” boys in the hill country; a preoccupation with problems of unemployment, with its increasing corpus of statistical and analytical material; the assertion that the problems of lower-class individuals required changes in the social structure, as well as in their own perception of it; and the further, bolder, assertion that these changes could be deliberately induced by means of group action.

It would be inaccurate to say that the Shriver task force was unaware of these divergent views, or that it was insensitive to them. But it had not the least interest in producing an intellectual synthesis. This was to some extent a reflection of Shriver himself, a man of “infectious energy,” to quote the New York Times—truly one of the rare temperaments of the era—but with no taste and little patience for abstractions such as lay behind the community-action concept. Time, moreover, was short—the group did its work in about eight weeks. But most importantly, the primary attention of all concerned was upon the problem and—as the nation's reaction to the assassination became clearer—upon the real prospect of getting a program through the Congress. For the grief and shock of the assassination was succeeded—rather like the euphoria, even merriment, that will break out at a reception following the return of a funeral cortege—by an atmosphere in Washington of opening possibilities and widening expectations. Far from assembling a massive, in a sense defiant, program designed to affront and indict the Congress with its own unwillingness to act, the task force increasingly submitted to the discipline of political realism as it became evident that this was a bill that was actually going to be passed.

Accordingly, the concept of consensus took over. Shriver busied himself touching every conceivable power base—especially in the business community—while his associates in effect threw together a poverty bill that included some part at least of just about everything which any department or agency had seriously put forth. Pride of place was given to the Labor Department's Youth Employment Act which, with minor changes, became Title I of the proposed bill. The Community Action program, which the Council of Economic Advisors and Bureau of the Budget had originally envisaged as the entire poverty package, became Title II. The ideas of other departments followed, pretty much in order of precedence.


The resulting program, sent to the Congress on March 16, 1964, thus represented not a choice among policies so much as a collection of them. Nothing of consequence had been added to the congeries of proposals that had been, as it were, handed over to the Shriver group. The one element that might have been expected to be a central feature of any large-scale anti-poverty effort, but which was nonetheless absent from any of the departmental proposals, was an adult employment program. Within the Shriver task force the case for such a program was made with some vigor and little opposition, and the final package, which Shriver presented to a meeting of the cabinet early in March, provided for a special 5 ¢ tax on cigarettes (originally proposed by Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin), calculated to produce something like $1.25 billion per year to be earmarked for adult employment.2 But the Council of Economic Advisors was anything but enthusiastic. The tax was a regressive one, the Council argued, that would destroy almost as many jobs as it would create, and with no guarantee that the newly created jobs would be “on” the poverty target. (The Council staff was at this time especially impressed by analyses of the Accelerated Public Works Program of the Kennedy administration which showed the various projects to have had only a minor effect on hard-core unemployment.) Even the most optimistic Labor Department analysis suggested a net increase of only 50,000 to 90,000 jobs. Shriver, however, believed that through various multiplier effects and other devices, a much higher number could be achieved, as many indeed as 500,000 jobs “on target.” Even so, the President would have none of it. The Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, he explained, was against earmarking. Besides, 1964 was the year for cutting, not increasing, taxes—the great Revenue Act of 1964 proposed by Kennedy in the spring of 1963 was then on its way to enactment.

The matter ended there, without protest and with no public knowledge. Yet it was a truly crucial decision. Lacking any provision for the employment of adult men, the war on poverty from the start had to concentrate on services for women and children, marginal employment and some intensive training for late adolescents, and—to its eventual grief—community organization. This was to have consequences great or small throughout the society, but most fundamentally for Negro Americans.



In retrospect, it is possible to view the war on poverty as a device that enabled the federal government to launch a fairly wide range of programs designed primarily to aid Negro Americans without having to specify that such was their intent. To some degree, this was recognized to be the case at the time. The theme of poverty was a unifying one, a cause which the most diverse persons could adopt. (Thus the legislation was sponsored in the Congress by Senator McNamara of Michigan and Congressman Landrum of Georgia, men at opposite poles of the Democratic party with respect to domestic issues.) Yet it would be a mistake to conclude that the Negro community was uppermost in the minds of administration strategists either before or immediately after the assassination. It was well enough understood that by any reasonable standard most Negroes probably lived in poverty; but they were still seen as a minority of all those living in poverty, and much was made of this point. Negro poverty was yet to emerge as the poverty problem.

For to the extent that the nation was concerned with “Negro” problems at all in 1964, these were still conceived as issues of civil rights in the South. The battalions that had marched with the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. may have been deprived, but they were not poor. Indeed, much of the impact of the civil-rights demonstrations of the period surely arose from the contrast between the obvious middle-class dress, manner, and decorum of the black protestors, and the red-necked vulgarity of the police and white mobs that harassed them. The profoundly different realities of the Northern Negro slum were yet to force themselves on the attention of the country (or for that matter, of the civil-rights leaders) and hence were not especially part of the political context in which the poverty program was assembled.

Yet there was also an intellectual difficulty at work here. The persons who developed the poverty program, and the somewhat different group that went on to administer it, knew very little about the subject of urban Negro poverty—the issue that in one manifestation or another was soon to become our single most pressing domestic political problem. The reasons for this are varied. First, no Negro was involved in any significant way at any significant stage in planning the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964. This is not a pleasant matter to discuss, but it is an important one that demands more open acknowledgement.

Negroes generally, and a large number of individual Negroes, have been in the “news” so much of late that it is possible for even the most perceptive observer to fail to see how small a role Negroes play in the academic and governing institutions of the nation (or business, or labor, et al) and what little influence they would seem to have. In part this is a matter of things-that-are-yet-to-happen. Yet there are puzzling aspects as well. It is possible to argue, for example, that a Negro intellectual/academic tradition that was in full force a generation ago has somehow faltered in our time, with significant consequences. Some men—like Kenneth B. Clark, for example, who continues his unique and indispensable role—are still doing good work. But by and large the issues of Negro poverty in the present time have been defined and analyzed by white social scientists, and the subsequent programs have been administered by white political executives, Thus, the idea of community action in the context of opportunity theory was conceived by white social scientists, launched by white foundation executives and political activists, brought to Washington by the same, developed in the (white) President's Committee on Juvenile Delinquency and Youth Crime, sold to white economists in the Executive Office Building, and drafted into legislation by the white White House task force on poverty. It does not follow that the presence of influential Negroes at any stage in this process would have led to any greater insights into the problems that were to be encountered, but it might certainly have served to suggest that the enterprise was not going to be an especially simple one.


In any event, because there was no adult employment program, and because the not inconsiderable youth-employment program, the Neighborhood Youth Corps, was from the outset administered by the Labor Department, the Office of Economic Opportunity was primarily left with responsibility for the community-action programs of Title II. Community action, by definition, sought to bring about individual change through social change—by definition, that is, of the white middle-class intellectuals who conceived the program, and the white middle-class activists who seized hold of it in the black ghettos of the nation. Welfare bureaucracies, as S. M. Miller points out, have considerable discretion in the dispensing of funds and the management of their programs generally. This fact has perhaps never been so dramatically in evidence as in the community-action officials of the poverty program—a welfare bureaucracy however much they may loathe the designation!—who attempted to stimulate political activism among the poor of the land, most visibly the black poor of the decayed central cities of the North and West.

It was OEO's tragedy that this effort had no more begun when violence broke out in those very places. From having been the passive victim of oppression, or the righteous and dignified exemplar of a great and honorable tradition of peaceful protest, the Negro seemed now to take on the role of aggressor: violent, intimidating, threatening. Some of the public—including the Congress and the White House—associated the change with the community-action program. Useless to argue that correlation does not establish causality: things had gone wrong and blame was placed with those whose task—and promise—it had been to put them right. Within only a few months of its founding, the poverty program was already in trouble with the White House and the Congress, and within three years it was severely restricted in its mission and methods, especially those involving community action, by a punitive legislature and an acquiescent administration.

Had the poverty program ended there, so might the matter of its intellectual origins and difficulties. But it did not. On the contrary, for all the restrictions and abuse it sustained in the first session of the 90th Congress, the essential fact is that it was continued, and on a basis that would suggest it will now become a more or less permanent activity of the federal government. Indeed, the widespread belief that the poverty program has failed may yet prove nothing more than a passing mood and one, moreover, that profoundly underestimates the nature and permanency of the commitment made by the Economic Opportunity Act.

Gertrude Himmelfarb3 has pointed out that the Reform Act of 1867, while “perhaps the decisive event . . . in modern English history,” was nonetheless a measure which few intended and fewer still comprehended. Far from being, as G. M. Trevelyan would have it, an “orderly and gradual” accommodation to “social facts,” the Act was rather a jumble of responses to events of the moment which, however, ended with a commitment near to absolute in its nature. “It was this act,” Professor Himmelfarb writes, “that transformed England into a democracy and made democracy not only a respectable form of government . . . but also, in the opinion of most men, the only natural and proper form of government. . . . To be sure, the Act of 1867 had to be supplemented by others before universal suffrage was attained. But once this first step was made, no one seriously doubted that the others would follow.” Is it not likely that something not dissimilar by way of a commitment was made with the launching of the war on poverty?

If this is so, what federal administrators—and everyone else—think to be true about matters of poverty, race, and social change assumes an immediate programmatic importance, and in a political atmosphere which declares that these are the most pressing domestic issues of the age.



The Misfortunes of the poverty program are perhaps best visualized in terms of a downward spiral: a shaky start, followed by political trouble, leading to underfunding, followed by still more difficulties in performance, and so on. The underfunding, however, was at least as much associated with the war in Vietnam as with any political difficulties the war on poverty itself may have caused. But if from one perspective the Vietnam nightmare would seem to be a purely random influence on the war on poverty, from another perspective the two were closely connected. Both were efforts largely conceived and put into effect by the liberal thinkers and political executives of the Kennedy era. Both attracted fierce resistance, as well as strong partisanship, and both came in a way to haunt their creators. With respect to both matters the nation tended to polarize into two groups: one demanding de-escalation and withdrawal, the other insisting on a total national effort for “victory.” Typically, those calling for ever greater efforts in Vietnam were most inclined to de-escalate the war on poverty, and vice versa. (In the spring of 1968, before, in effect, resigning his office upon finding the conflicting pressures unmanageable, President Johnson apparently joined the former group, calling for “austerity” at home. On the day of Martin Luther King's funeral, across-the-board budget cuts were announced for the poverty program in Northeastern cities.) Typically, the questions were seen as interrelated, in the sense that resources in money, men, executive energy, and something some call “moral” leadership were limited, and choices had to be made as to which effort would receive priority, to the exclusion if necessary (some arguing this was absolutely the case) of the other. No small matters these. As the controversies mounted and passions were engaged, it became clear that the disequilibrium brought on by the apparent failure of these two great undertakings was shaking the nation in most fundamental ways. A time of the breaking of parties was at hand, of the rise and fall of dynasties, of profound reorientations.

All but unnoticed in the crash and cries and dust of battle was the curious part played by the American intellectual community in the initiation of these events which seemed to be ending so badly. The politicians were blaming one another, and the professors seemed content that they should do so. It was an arrangement ostensibly agreeable to all. Yet not satisfactory. The role of the intellectual, especially the academic intellectual, has changed very considerably in American life, and in a very short time. As recently as 1960, Loren Baritz in his study, The Servants of Power, noted that “Intellectuals in the United States have long bemoaned the assumed fact that they are unloved and unappreciated by their society.” Within months of the appearance of Baritz's book, intellectuals were not only to serve power at the very center of the American national government, but also to wield it. Ideas arising out of research and analysis came to have an immediately and deeply consequential impact on events. Thus the concept of limited warfare and graduated response to Communist expansion abroad. Thus also the “discovery” of the persistence of poverty at home, and the concept of eliminating it through a grand strategy. Both conceptions led to “war,” and then a fairly rapid onset of disillusion and disavowal. But this disavowal generally involved the objectives of the two efforts, or the individuals in charge of them. In neither case has there been any considerable examination of the theories on which the undertakings were based (or by which they were justified), nor any inquiry into the degree to which the “intellectual” assumptions behind these undertakings were internally consistent and adequately understood. It would be wrong to overestimate the influence of sheer intellection in either of these areas: the war on poverty arose as much as anything from the socialist tradition of men like Michael Harrington and the political processes of the Democratic party; and the war in Vietnam arose primarily from demands of the cold war on an essentially imperial power such as the United States has become. But it is also true that the intellectual contribution was present in both, and on its own terms demands evaluation.


The Economic Opportunity Act, at least in its specifics, was very much a manifestation of the “professionalization of reform” which was proceeding apace at the time, having resulted from the convergence of such forces as Keynesian economics, Democratic politics, a certain thaw in the cold war, the civil-rights revolution, and the emergence of social science as an influence in government.4 Just prior to the assassination of President Kennedy, Nathan Glazer described the process:

Without benefit of anything like the Beveridge report to spark and focus public discussion and concern, the United States is passing through a stage of enormous expansion in the size and scope of what we may loosely call the social services—the public programs designed to help people adapt to an increasingly complex and unmanageable society. While Congress has been painfully and hesitantly trying to deal with two great measures—tax reform and a civil-rights bill—and its deliberations on both have been closely covered by the mass media, it has also been working with much less publicity on a number of bills which will contribute at least as much to changing the shape of American society.

These, of course, were precisely the bills incorporated into and expanded by the poverty program. Their origins lay to a considerable degree in presumed knowledge as to the nature of social processes and social change. Only just now is there beginning to take place what might be seen as a systematic reassessment of that putative knowledge.

Apart from the fundamental question, Why does poverty bother us?—a question so basic as to remain unasked—the conceptual problems which an anti-poverty program must try to resolve are these: in what way are the poor different from others?; how did they come to be that way?; what actions can be expected to bring them into a measure of conformity with the modes of the larger society sufficient to make them no longer seem poor or different either to others or to themselves? (Whether they would wish this to be done, or whether the larger society would, is another question.)

Although, as remarked earlier, the poverty program grew in substantial part out of concern for certain types of deviant behavior, it is nonetheless the case that at the outset (despite the fact that the idea of “cultural deprivation” had already won many adherents) there was little emphasis oh such matters. The poor were presumed to be no more than that: poor. Little heed was paid to the possibility that being poor might eventually lead to structural changes in personality and behavior, much as the state of being hungry can lead to a condition of malnutrition that is not to be cured merely by the resumption of an ample diet. Still, the question of structural difficulties was there—and two factors pushed it to the fore. First was the unavoidable association of the issue of poverty with that of race, and to a lesser degree, ethnicity. Negroes (and Puerto Ricans, and Mexican Americans, and Indians) were poor in ways other poor groups were not, and few could avoid noticing that such persons were perceived as different and treated differently. Second was the startling onset of black violence in the urban slums of the North and West. That this was “different” behavior none could doubt, though no one could really explain it. A paradox of sorts arose: and any number of persons grew more confident in, even more insistent on, the viability of particular strategies for relieving poverty, even as they grew more and more uneasy with familiar formulations of its etiology.


Simultaneously, however, at what might be termed a descriptive (as opposed to a theoretical) level, students of poverty were reaching impressively convergent conclusions. Thus, the existing literature reveals a considerable consensus as to the characteristics of “lower-class” persons who are more or less destitute throughout their life cycle, in contrast, that is, to “graduate student poverty” or the poverty of persons who are disabled, or old, or otherwise living in situations quite dissimilar from those to which they were born or in which they spent significant parts of their lives. Peter Rossi and Zahava D. Blum have summarized six qualities of the group Lloyd Warner first described as “lower-lowers” to designate their place in the stratification system:

  1. Labor-Force Participation: Long periods of unemployment and very intermittent employment. Public assistance is frequently a major source of income for long periods of time.
  2. Occupational Participation: When employed, persons hold jobs at the lowest level of skills—e.g., domestic service, unskilled labor, menial service jobs, and farm labor.
  3. Family and Interpersonal Relations: High rates of family instability (desertion, divorce, separation), high incidence of households headed by females, high rates of illegitimacy; unstable and superficial interpersonal relationships characterized by considerable suspicion of persons outside the immediate household.
  4. Community Characteristics: Residential areas inhabited by the “lower-lowers” are characterized by very poorly developed voluntary associations and low levels of participation in such local voluntary associations as do exist.
  5. Relationship to Larger Society: Little interest in, or knowledge of, the larger society and its events; some degree of alienation from the larger society.
  6. Value Orientations: A sense of helplessness and low sense of personal efficacy; dogmatism and authoritarianism in political ideology; fundamentalist religious views with some strong inclinations toward beliefs in magical practices. Low need achievement and low levels of aspirations for the self.

Although several other characteristics could be added to this inventory, a review of the literature indicates that these are the ones about which there is most agreement, and also those which tend to be stressed as critical.

But again: how has all this come to be, and what might change it? While, to be sure, there exists a spectrum of opinion on the matter among students of poverty, it would be quite mistaken to imagine there to be chaos. On the contrary, on closer examination opinions can be seen to cluster around two general positions, distinct but not entirely incompatible. Lee Rainwater, classifying these positions, alludes to the famous exchange between Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway as to the peculiar ways of the rich, and suggests that the question about the poor is whether they really are different, or simply have less money.

On the “Fitzgerald” side, scholars like Walter Miller and Oscar Lewis argue that there is in truth a distinctive “culture of poverty” or subculture of the poor which is not only sustained by external circumstances—lack of money—but also by internal systems of values and preferences and interim personal relationships that have a validity and life of their own, and are capable of persisting well after the external circumstances have been modified or changed altogether. It is to be noted that both Miller and Lewis are anthropologists: trained to perceive differences in cultures, and respectful—even defensive—of those differences. Herbert J. Gans, a sociologist on the “Hemingway” side of the argument, makes a point of this. “The behavioral conception of culture,” he argues, “can be traced back to anthropological traditions, and to the latent political agendas of anthropological researchers.” With respect to the poor, as Gunnar Myrdal reminded us a quarter century ago, this can be a risky business. There is a long-standing literary tradition which has stressed not only the validity of poverty (preferably rustic) but indeed its superior validity. It is just possibly such fancies which lend a slightly astringent air to the polemics of those inverse “Hemingwayites” who insist that the characteristics of the poor are not cultural, but rather situational, and who continually stress that the state of being poor is everywhere defined as not having enough money.


Three general points emerge from a survey of the theoretical analyses being done by members of the two general schools of thought on the nature of poverty in America. The first and most important is that any moderately rigorous inquiry into these issues is sooner or later, and more often sooner, stalled by an absence of data against which to check hypotheses. Again it is not a matter of knowing nothing. An important beginning literature has come into being, but it is only that: a beginning. Thus a century after trade unions were first being organized, and the appearance of industrial unemployment as a political and social issue; a half century after the founding of the Monthly Labor Review, almost a quarter century from the enactment of the Employment Act of 1946, and the establishment of the Council of Economic Advisors—we are still almost entirely ignorant of the effects of unemployment on individual workers. Similarly, we possess hardly two bits worth of (or two bits of) reliable information as to how changes in income affect individual styles of life.

While this first general point will clearly be seen as fundamental, it will hardly be taken as novel. By contrast, a second general point emerges from a study of the literature on poverty which is not always evident and is not frequently commented upon. This involves what might be described as the impact of social class on the analysis of social class. Just as poverty and race are anything but randomly distributed risks in the population, neither is concern about them, nor the professional ability and/or proclivity to analyze them. So far as the social sciences are concerned, it can be laid down that literary productivity on the subject of poverty will appear in inverse ratio to the incidence of poverty in the “group” to which the social scientists happen to “belong.” David Riesman is surely correct in his view of the United States as a “society only partially centralized and still radically divided along ethnic, religious, racial, and class lines—but a society nevertheless with an increasingly widespread national upper-middle-class style spread by college education, the mass media, and occupational, social, and geographic mobility.” This condition is, if anything, exaggerated within the intellectual-academic community, where an upper-middle-class style is aggressively maintained, but where memories of a not always distant past of privation and rejection are very real indeed. Unavoidably this affects attitudes and perceptions.

The unpalatable truth is that one source of the continuing radical division along ethnic, religious, racial, and class lines of which Riesman speaks is the markedly differential rates of “success” among these groups. Moreover, contrary to what might be generally believed, there would appear to be a high correlation between success in the traditional commercial pursuits of the land, and in the now not less characteristic intellectual academic pursuits. There is no concealing failure in American society; oddly, however, there is not a little concealment of success. Norman Podhoretz, rather to his own disadvantage, has explained this for us: success, he suggests, is to contemporary American society what sex was to the Victorian world—“the dirty little secret,” and perhaps always has been. Did not William James as far back as 1906 declare “worship of the bitch-goddess SUCCESS” to be “our national disease!”? Certainly success makes some persons uneasy enough to try to cover it up; for reasons of caution, perhaps, among Jews; by habit and tradition among New England Brahmins; as a deliberate tactic in a certain type of politician, especially Southern ones whose constituencies are so largely comprised of “failures.” And the extraordinary success of the Chinese and Japanese groups in America—which now “officially,” in terms of Bureau of the Census measurements, have the highest status positions of any ethnic groups in the nation—is still a matter of quite limited knowledge outside a few places like Hawaii.

If there is, then, a commonly felt uneasiness about success, it is nowhere to be encountered in more painful guise than in the literature of poverty. The persisting “social fact” of this literature is that it involves the dissection of unusually unsuccessful groups by representatives of unusually successful ones. While more and more of the billowing literature on poverty and race relations in the United States centers on the conditions of black persons in a white society, less and less of it is actually the work of Negro scholars. This must be repeated: less. It was not ever thus. A generation ago anyone seeking to learn more of this subject would of necessity and choice have turned to the work of black authors: Frazier, Johnson, Drake, Cayton, and others almost as distinguished. But somehow that tradition, nobly begun even earlier by such as W. E. B. DuBois, declined. Gunnar Myrdal's great work of the 1930's, An American Dilemma, may have constituted a kind of over-kill, at least for research by Negroes. In the mid-1950's American foundations seemingly lost interest in the subject5 and white work in race relations also stopped.

When interest resumed, it may be that whites took over the subject, newly en vogue, much as they took over the Federal houses in Georgetown and on Capitol Hill. But for whatever reason, Negro social scientists are few and far between today, and those held in the greatest respect—Kenneth Clark, Hylan Lewis, John Hope Franklin, Daniel C. Thompson, Charles V. Willie, St. Clair Drake—are so over-extended and in demand—those conferences! and those community action programs!—as to produce less than would otherwise be the case.


One can, of course, question whether racial, religious, or class experiences are necessarily better interpreted by persons who “belong” to the group in question. It was judged of Myrdal, for example, that one of his primary qualifications for directing the research which led to An American Dilemma was that he had had no personal experience of the phenomena he undertook to analyze. On the other hand, there is the plain matter of “data.” To have lived as a Puerto Rican immigrant, for example, is surely to have access to knowledge of that condition and an alertness to its nuances that few outsiders can command. At the least, then, what social science very much needs is a considerable widening of its ethnic, social, religious, and regional base. When social scientists observing a given milieu find that their judgments as to its qualities and characteristics are similar to or convergent with the judgments of other social scientists actually drawn from the milieu in question, we will be entitled to a greater order of confidence in the results.

Yet—and here we come to the third general point which emerges from a study of the literature on poverty—the problem of ethnically “representative” analysts is not merely one of interpretation. It is also one of acceptability. In a certain sense, 20th-century social science has inherited the ambiguities and embarrassments of 19th-century charity: its practitioners want to help, and are even able to do so, but are at the same time plagued by doubts as to the validity of any prescriptions they might offer across the chasm that separates them from the objects of their concern.

In their most bathetic guise, such doubts take the form of asking: “What right have I to impose my bourgeois values on struggling people who have other, and perhaps superior values?” But the problem is present even for social scientists who are untroubled by the question of “bourgeois” values. What it comes to is that in our society, to be over-explicit about the origins and nature of lower-class behavior is to risk seeming not merely to describe but to indict the group caught up in this behavior. The charge will almost automatically be raised that such analysis, however well intentioned or accurate, has given “ammunition” to the enemy.

The most conspicuous effect of all this has been a near obsessive preoccupation with the “blame” for poverty, especially Negro poverty. At different times different factors have been in fashion—capitalism, racism, the military-industrial complex—but the tendency persists. One eminent student of poverty, Walter Miller, goes so far as to argue that a true-believer cult has arisen in this area, based on the proposition that the poor are in poverty by the deliberate conspiratorial design of the power structure. Quite apart from the question of whether this position in any way corresponds to reality, it does encourage a number of singularly unhelpful propensities within American liberalism. Foremost among these is the proclivity for seeing in the poor and dispossessed—however weak and outnumbered they may be—an instrument for transforming the larger society. It was not, after all, just by chance that a large-scale program to provide employment for adult men—a traditional anti-poverty measure—was left out of the poverty program, while the quite unprecedented community-action programs were left in, and indeed came to be the center of the effort even though the opportunity theory on which they were founded is inadequate, if not outright wrong. As Miller puts the point:

Opportunity is not a structure that people are either inside or outside of. Americans may achieve widely varying degrees of success or failure in a thousand different spheres and in a thousand different ways. Beaming to lower status people the message that one can attain “success goals” by breaching, demolishing, or otherwise forcing the “walls” that bar them from “opportunity” conveys a tragically oversimplified and misleading impression of the conditions and circumstances of success, in addition to fostering an imagery with potentially destructive consequences.

But right or wrong in their theoretical underpinnings, it is certainly the case that the apparent function of many of these programs as they actually came into being was to raise the level of perceived and validated discontent among poor persons with the social system about them, without improving the conditions of life of the poor in anything like a comparable degree. Can it be that this has had nothing to do with the onset of urban violence?


From the point of view of social science, quite the most pernicious effect of the “blame” impulse has been to discourage rigorous enquiry into the social process that keeps men in poverty, or leads them out of it. Simply to blame The System is an act not of analysis, but too often of obscurantism. Nor is such obscurantism confined to the study of poverty itself. Thus a flaw in the otherwise powerful and moving report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders is that, having declared that “White racism is essentially responsible for the explosive mixture which has been accumulating in our cities since the end of World War II,” it dropped the subject then and there. No effort whatever was made, or apparently even deemed necessary, to define “white racism,” to trace its etiology, to distinguish different forms and degrees of intensity, to measure its impact, to assess the counter-reaction it may produce in Negroes; nor was there any discussion of how white racism might be diminished or eliminated altogether. The charges against the poor—rioting—had been dismissed. The guilty party—white society—had been identified. Nothing further was needed. One commentator, appalled by the too-eager embrace of this verdict by the major organs of public opinion—an acceptance not in the least associated with any visible national impulse to do anything about the conditions described—concluded that “all that this exercise in blame-fixing offers [the Negro] is an official nudge toward paranoia.” The Commission findings, followed so shortly by the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., helped to stimulate a quite unprecedented display of nationwide mourning and self-indictment. Yet the impulse to change the conditions of the life of the poor somehow still lags behind, so little practical value does there seem to be in the willingness to accept guilt for the existence of those conditions. We may yet, indeed, be forced to pay new heed to the psychoanalytic doctrine that guilt eventually turns to rage.

American social science can do better, and so it ought. An honorable, and on balance honorably fulfilled, desire to be helpful has here and there succumbed to a fear of disappointing or to an alarm at contradicting. That is not the way science is done, nor in the end is it the way a republic can be governed. There are promises to keep. In the dark hours of 1964 a bright and shining commitment was made. That commitment stands, and intellectuals, having played a major role in its establishment, now have a special responsibility both for keeping it alive and for keeping it on the proper track.

1 See Daniel P. Moynihan, “What is Community Action,” The Public Interest, Fall 1966 and Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding: Community Action in the War on Poverty (Macmillan), forthcoming.

2 This section is based on the author's notes of the cabinet meeting.

3 Victorian Minds, Knopf, 392 pp., $8.95.

4 For an overly optimistic view see Daniel P. Moynihan, “The Professionalization of Reform,”The Public Interest, Fall 1965.

5 See Melvin M. Tumin, “Some Social Consequences of Research on Racial Relations,” The American Sociologist May 1968.

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