Reviews Politics

Poverty Experts in the United States

About: Romain Huret, La fin de la pauvreté?, Éditions de l’École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales.

by Jacques Rodriguez , 26 January 2012
translated by Michael C. Behrent

Translated with the support of the Institut français

Is expertise about poverty possible in a country where the phenomenon itself is deemed morally perverse? In a recent book, Romain Huret analyzes the intellectual network that crystallized around the “war on poverty” in the 1960s.

Reviewed: Romain Huret, La fin de la pauvreté? Les experts sociaux en guerre contre la pauvreté aux États-Unis (1945-1974). Paris, Éditions de l’École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, 2008.

Using the same title as a recent work by the British historian Gareth Stedman Jones, [1] Romain Huret’s book analyzes the role of social experts in the emergence of the question of poverty in the United States after 1945. The author’s goal is in fact twofold: to trace the birth of the “war on poverty” launched by the Democratic administrations of the sixties, but also to rehabilitate the researchers—typically economists or sociologists—who have often been unjustly excoriated in the historiography of the period. According to Romain Huret, there exists a “black legend of expertise” (p. 16), which is impervious to the underground work of social experts who were troubled by rising inequality and embraced reformist ideas inherited from the New Deal. To acknowledge their contributions to debates about poverty, the author fondly combines a presentation of the major figures in American social expertise (Herman Miller, Mollie Orshansky, Alvin Schorr, Ida Merriam, Wilbur Cohen, etc.), an analysis of the public policy circles in which they operated, and a highly detailed study of the decision-making processes with which they were more or less closely associated. The book is organized both chronologically and thematically: part one is devoted to the development of the “science of poverty” (1945-1962), while part two is a detailed study of the relationship between social experts and the political sphere (1963-1974). First, we get the birth of a new form of expertise; next, we see how this expertise fared in the corridors of power.

Romain Huret’s book offers valuable insight into the functioning of the American political machine, the academic world and its links to government agencies, the place of women in social administration and their contribution to the formation of expert knowledge, and the divergent views of economists and sociologists on handling poverty. The book’s main contribution, however, lies in the study of what the author refers to metaphorically as the “poverty nebula,” through which a vast array of institutions and organizations were connected: government agencies, federal departments, congressional committees, voluntary associations, universities, charitable foundations, research centers, and so on. It is in this context that, after 1945, the problem of poverty, driven by the advances in scholarly research, gradually became the order of the day.

Yet the expert’s task proved difficult in a country where poverty is often seen less as “social evil” than as “moral evil” [2] and where poverty is considered not so much the result of social or economic circumstances as of bad behavior or a lack—of courage, effort, or toughness. Huret demonstrates how, during the postwar years, this task was particularly delicate—and, at times, outright incongruous. It was delicate because the problem of poverty partially overlapped with the problem of race, which Southern politicians were loath to rekindle. Furthermore, McCarthyism was ill disposed towards the “social sciences,” which were suspected of having a political agenda and making common cause with socialism. Moreover, the revelation of the existence of a sizable population of poor people—between four and five million families, according to Samuel Brown in 1950—contradicted America’s self-image. In speech as much as in beliefs, the misery of the crisis years belonged to an earlier time: the 1935 Social Security Act and mass consumption, made possible by carefully regulated economic growth, were presumed to have eradicated all residual forms of poverty.

The Social Security Act

Elected in 1932, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was the instigator of the New Deal and a major piece of social legislation: the Social Security Act of 1935. This law provided for the creation of unemployment insurance as well as a system of social assistance benefiting the elderly poor, the blind, and needy children (Aid to Families with Dependent Children, AFDC). Old-age insurance and health insurance, which were initially to have completed the plan, were omitted due to lack of political support.

As such, the law embraces the distinction, which is crucial in the English-speaking world, between the “good” or “deserving” poor and the rest—i.e., the able-bodied, working-age poor. On the one hand, it assists those who ordinarily work, but who have been involuntarily deprived of their livelihood; on the other, it is directed at those who are denied access to the labor market due to age or disability. Only AFDC creates an opening by supporting isolated parents—primarily mothers—who are unable to provide for their young children. For this reason, AFDC became a primary target for critics of the American welfare system.

Consequently, the goal of the social experts was to make visible a phenomenon that had been largely occluded and to establish “the poor” as a category, despite the fact that it “existed neither in political nor statistical discourse” (p. 41). This was a crucial stake for progressive reformers, because only by objectifying the problem could the stingy principles that underpinned social policy be challenged. During the fifties, however, “poverty science” advanced by fits and starts and its results—statistical data, income thresholds, or the needs used to define poverty—were contested. In the middle of the next decade, critics made claims about “number uncertainty” (p. 141) to challenge the political implications of studies about poverty. Even so, an iconoclastic idea gradually gained traction: “poverty persists in the heart of American prosperity” (p. 87). According to Huret, this idea owes much to research conducted at the Universities of Wisconsin and Michigan by, respectively, Robert Lampman and Wilbur Cohen. Without completely renouncing the behaviorism then prevalent in American social sciences, their work emphasized that poverty is not simply the result of motivation or character, but that geographic location, age, level of education, skin color, and sex are variables that are crucial to understanding the phenomenon. For instance, in a report to Congress in 1959, Lampman demonstrates that the poorest Americans, far from being apathetic and resigned, are often autonomous and mobile, as the scale of internal migration attests. He predicted, however, that because of familial, geographic, professional, and social circumstances, most of them would be bypassed by prosperity and the “American Way of Life.”

As perfectible and incomplete as they were, these studies of poverty ultimately defined an ambitious political project. By identifying—contra Galbraith—the “limits of the affluent society” (p. 95), social experts demonstrated that it was henceforth necessary “to integrate, alongside the middle class, populations that exist at the margins of the postwar social contract: the poor, and notably the working poor” (p. 194). During the sixties, Democratic administrations, in their quest for a progressive agenda, would strive to achieve this goal. John Kennedy initiated a series of discussions surrounding these issues, yet without renouncing the idea that economic growth might be the most effective weapon against poverty. It was his successor, Lyndon Johnson, who in 1964 endorsed the goal defined ten years earlier by Ida Merriam: to vanquish poverty by means of resolute national policy. The “war on poverty” was declared: “the time had come not for scientific measurement or precise calculation, but for practical decision-making. How could poverty be eliminated?” (p. 125)

Part two of Huret’s book is a detailed analysis of the years in which experts stepped down from their ivory towers to enter the political arena. The author shows how the “poverty nebula,” which until then had been fairly cohesive, began to dissolve. Some defended the principle of modernizing the social assistance provided to the poorest individuals. Others, for the most part economists, gave priority to fiscal measures, particularly tax credits. Others still endorsed the strategy of “empowerment,” which would soon be implemented by the Office of Economic Opportunity. Until the early seventies, these three “schools” relentlessly competed with one another within federal agencies and the various work and study groups created by the “war on poverty.” On this point, Huret highlights the relative failure of social experts to influence the political decision-making process and, consequently, to impose their solutions. Sidelined from the management of the “war on poverty” as early as 1964, they were unable to contain the advance of cultural and behavioral explanations of poverty, popularized by Oscar Lewis and exploited by Patrick Moynihan. Similarly, the critiques leveled from early on at the Office of Economic Opportunity’s programs never resulted in the emergence of a plausible alternative. Internal administration debates foundered on questions that have since become recurrent: the balance between insurance and assistance, the role of AFDC, and the need to preserve incentives to work. “During the four years of the Johnson administration,” Huret writes, “experts were incapable of persuading the president and his advisors to replace the empowerment strategy with a strategy they deemed more effective” (p. 175).

Their involvement in political debates did not end with the arrival of Richard Nixon in the White House in 1969. The Republican administration did in fact launch several innovative initiatives benefiting underprivileged families, which met with the approval of many social reformers. But the latter remained divided over the kind of social aid that should be given to families and the efficacy of tax credit system, the effects of which were tested in a vast study conducted in New Jersey by researchers from the University of Wisconsin (pp. 179-182). This programmatic splintering ultimately sealed the fate of the “war on poverty,” but also condemned the reformist project of the “nebula” experts: to complete the New Deal by expanding the postwar social contract to include the poor. By 1973, Huret explains, this hope had died: the Office of Economic Opportunity was dismantled and, the following year, Congress approved a series of measures aimed solely at the “deserving” poor.

Romain Huret’s book sheds unprecedented light on the nature of the American liberal project and the involvement of researchers, for whom scholarship was inseparable from politics. As the author himself emphasizes (pp. 99-102), their participation shares more than a few similarities with that of the disciples of Richard Titmuss in England. As specialists of “social administration,” English researchers were just as determined to fight the “myth of the welfare state for the working classes” [3] and to obtain an expansion of social rights. Peter Townsend, for instance, struggled to impose the concept of “relative poverty” and was a forceful critic of existing policy based on a static definition of living necessities. [4] But unlike British researchers, who found powerful allies within the Labor party, social experts in the United States lacked real support in Congress. More important still, Huret explains, “the struggle against poverty waged by the experts had no connection with social movements” (p. 194). Huret’s argument, in this way, reminds us that knowledge is not as such an instrument of power. It also illustrates the fact that a reform’s success depends less on pressure from above than on mobilization from below on the part of political movements and public opinion. [5]

It is, however, regrettable that the book fails to define more rigorously both the expert and the contours of the “poverty nebula.” We do not see as clearly as we might the position they occupy, both individually and collectively, in the space lying at the interface of the academic and the political worlds. This lack of precision makes reading the book difficult, particularly part two, where the author, finding himself almost imprisoned by the exceptional richness of his material, brings together a host of actors hailing from a wide range of political, academic, and bureaucratic circles. “The taste for the archive,” [6] in this instance, undercuts the clarity of the exposition.

First published in Translated from French by Michael Behrent with the support of the Institut français.

To quote this article :

Jacques Rodriguez, « Poverty Experts in the United States », Books and Ideas , 26 January 2012. ISSN : 2105-3030. URL :

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by Jacques Rodriguez , 26 January 2012

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[1G. S. Jones, 2007, La fin de la pauvreté ? Un débat historique, Maisons-Alfort, Ere.

[2R. Castel, 1978, “La ‘guerre à la pauvreté’ aux États-Unis: le statut de la misère dans une société d’abondance,” Actes de la echerché en science sociale, n° 19, pp. 47-60.

[3R. Titmuss, “The Irresponsible Society,” Fabian Tract, n°323, 1960, p. 3.

[4P. Townsend, 1954, “Measuring Poverty ,” The British Journal of Sociology, vol.5, n°1, 1954, p. 130-137; “The Meaning of Poverty,” The British Journal of Sociology, vol.13, n°3, 1962, p. 210-227.

[5J. A. Hall, “The Roles and Influence of Political Intellectuals: Tawney vs. Sidney Webb,” The British Journal of Sociology, vol.28, n°3, 1977, pp.351-362.

[6See A. Farge, Le goût de l’archive, Paris, Seuil, 1989.

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