R.I.P. Michael B. Katz

Professor Michael B. Katz. 1939-2014. (Image via University of Pennsylvania)

One unfortunate matter that Friday’s post on empathy for the poor brought to my mind was the recent passing of historian and writer Michael B. Katz. I was remiss to let this go unremarked at the time, because while he may not be a household name his work has had a significant influence in social science. There is also no other person who, through his research and analysis, better represents the synthesis of my views on the confluence of history and poverty in this country.

Here are some selections from his obituary in the New York Times:

Professor Katz, who taught history at the University of Pennsylvania for the last 36 years and was a founder of its urban studies program, wrote more than a dozen books chronicling public welfare policies in the United States from the start of the republic through the 20th century.

The limited success of those efforts, he said, argued for adoption of a universal minimum-standard-of-living policy, sometimes known as the guaranteed minimum income. (Its supporters, on both sides of the political spectrum, included President Richard M. Nixon.)

Professor Katz’s best-known books, “In the Shadow of the Poorhouse: A Social History of Welfare in America” (1986) and “The Undeserving Poor: From the War on Poverty to the War on Welfare” (1990), examined American policy as it evolved from the poorhouses of the 18th century to the humanitarian reforms of the Progressive era; from the heavy-handed 1920s prescriptions for curing “behavioral dysfunction” in the poor (inspired by Freud) to the broad-based social safety-net measures of the New Deal.


Alice O’Connor, a professor of history and urban affairs at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said in an interview that Professor Katz’s influence in the field of social science research was “immense,” particularly since the 1990s, when the welfare reform consensus threatened to shut down debate on the problem of poverty.

“He helped a generation to rediscover the tools of social science,” Professor O’Connor said, and “reintroduced them to a language — a counternarrative — for discussing poverty.”

The next four paragraphs succinctly outlines the arguments throughout most of his work on the poor, that America has since its founding operated on the belief that such “individuals were the authors of their lives and impoverishment proof of their moral failing.” Moreover, that subsequent public policy up to and including today has detrimentally approached poverty with this mindset. Katz strongly believed that a different path was needed — hence the nod to a guaranteed minimum income — and that a different perspective would necessarily involve facing hard truths of American history (the most salient of which you’d find recently in Ta-Nehisi Coates work in The Atlantic). It is only through this collective process that we can attain some level of moral culpability for generations of macro-level injustice.

His book The Undeserving Poor: America’s Enduring Confrontation with Poverty (updated in 2013) covers all of this and is, without hesitation, a must-read for folks interested in public policy, poverty, and history. I’m not entirely sure how I stumbled on it but I remember thinking that I wanted to see the enforced faux-meritocratic segregation of the poor as it was rooted in history. In The Undeserving Poor it doesn’t take long — in fact, it begins with the very first sentence; “The undeserving poor have a very old history.”

But on page five Katz breaks down neatly in one paragraph the function of such marginalization:

The terms used to describe the undeserving poor — whether based on morality, culture, or biology — serves to isolate and stigmatize them. The undeserving poor, the culture of poverty, and the underclass are moral statues identified by the source of dependence, the behavior with which it is associated, its transmission to children, and its crystallization into cultural patterns. Empirical evidence almost always challenges the assumptions underlying the classifications of poor people. Even in the late nineteenth century, countervailing data, not to mention decades of administrative frustration, showed their inadequacy. Since the 1960s, poverty research as provided an arsenal of ammunition for critics of conventional classifications. Still, as even a casual reading of the popular press, occasional attention to political rhetoric, or informal conversations about poverty real, empirical evidence has remarkably little effect on what people think. Part of the reason is that conventional classifications of poor people serve such useful purposes. They offer a familiar and easy target for displacing rage, frustration, and fear. They demonstrate the link between virtue and success that legitimates capitalist political economy. And by dividing poor people, they prevent their coalescing into a unified political force. Stigmatized conditions and punitive treatment, moreover, provide powerful incentives to work, whatever the wages and conditions.

There’s a lot more of this in his work, all very well done and highly recommended. (He was also active in education reform, but I’ve not delved into his contributions there nor the general subject. If you’re interested his colleagues over at Dissent have their tributes here.) In short, there’s a reason you’ll see his analytical framework echoed on this blog.

My condolences go out to his family and friends. The least the rest of us can do is continue his work because, as the Time’s piece quotes Katz; “The processes creating an underclass degrade all our lives […] We will flourish or sink together.”


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