Thinking About the Poor   /   Fall 2014   /    Thinking About The Poor

Poverty and Paradox

Alice O’Connor

Wealth (Il benessere), c. 1960–1964, by Bepi (Giuseppe) Romagnoni (1930–64); Mondadori Portfolio/Getty Images.

Fifty years ago this past August, President Lyndon B. Johnson officially launched the War on Poverty by signing the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964. Based on the recommendations of a task force appointed in the wake of Johnson’s first State of the Union address, in which he had declared “unconditional war” against economic deprivation, the legislation created the statutory basis for such well-known programs as Job Corps, Head Start, federal legal services, community-based health centers, and, most controversially, the Community Action Program, mandated to assure “maximum feasible participation” of the poor in local program planning. It also established the federal Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) to run the new programs, and to represent poor people’s interests within federal, state, and local government bureaucracies. Although modest in funding in comparison to initiatives run through more established federal agencies, the OEO and its associated programs would serve as both the headquarters of the War on Poverty and an emblem of the Great Society’s more expansive and far-reaching social welfare initiatives—including food stamps, Medicare and Medicaid, federal aid to education, housing and urban development, and key provisions in civil rights law. It would also serve as a prime target of political attack for those who, in words made famous by Ronald Reagan in a later State of the Union address, insisted that “poverty won.”11xLyndon B. Johnson, “Annual Message to the Congress on the State of the Union,” January 8, 1964, American Presidency Project,; Ronald Reagan, “Address before a Joint Session of Congress on the State of the Union,” January 25, 1988, American Presidency Project, As we know from the year-long hearings, program-slashing budget, and recently released report sponsored by the House Budget Committee, chaired by Representative Paul Ryan, Republican of Wisconsin, that attack—the war on the War on Poverty—is still being pressed today.22xUS House of Representatives House Budget Committee Majority Staff, The War on Poverty: Fifty Years Later, March 3, 2014,

Across the ideological spectrum, one thing that has figured prominently in the conflict over LBJ’s signature domestic initiative is the large body of social science research and statistical data about poor people and social welfare spending that we have come to rely on for understanding poverty, and, at least ostensibly, for resolving political disputes about who is to blame. This, too, is a legacy of the War on Poverty, the product of a concerted effort led by government and foundations to create a field of research that would generate definitive knowledge about what officials at the OEO’s research and planning division rather antiseptically referred to as poverty’s “causes and cures.” The impact of this effort has been lasting. For better or worse, it brought us the official poverty measures that few think are adequate—a four-person household in 2014 has to earn less than $23,850 to be considered poor—but that have become benchmark indicators of economic well-being nonetheless, and that do generate at least a modicum of news coverage when the Census Bureau releases them each year.33xThe official poverty thresholds for 2014 can be found at US Department of Health and Human Services, 2014 Poverty Guidelines, It gave rise as well to a loosely organized poverty research establishment, based in a number of specialized academic and contract research institutions and social policy think tanks, and linked by shared methodologies and networks of expertise. Although invested in an ideology of nonpartisan objectivity, the poverty research establishment has generally cast itself as a voice for the poor—actually, as a voice for decision making based on scientific evidence rather than Victorian-era ideas about pauperism and the poor—in policy and politics. Of late, poverty experts have found themselves spending inordinate amounts of time defending the very existence of a social safety net and, more generally, to offering empirically grounded correctives to pronouncements from various conservative politicians and the well-mobilized think tanks of the political right. Despite years of sniping about whether or not people who have big-screen televisions and access to air conditioning are really bad off enough to count among the poor, conservative ideologues now show few qualms about using data on rising poverty rates—albeit selectively, inaccurately, and out of context—to construct a narrative of the War on Poverty as a failure of the liberal welfare state.44xRobert Rector and Rachel Sheffield, Air Conditioning, Cable TV, and an Xbox: What is Poverty in the United States Today?, Heritage Foundation, July 19, 2011,; Rob Garver, “Economists Say Paul Ryan Misrepresented Their Research,” Fiscal Times, March 4, 2014,

Paradox in the Midst of Plenty

Apart from the all-too-predictable political grandstanding inspired by the fiftieth anniversary, poverty research has over the decades generated an ever more sophisticated arsenal of methods for chronicling the changes in the size and demographics of the population in poverty, and the impact of the social programs that have made this cohort better off—or not—over time. These statistical trends alone provide support for two broad conclusions that defy currently reigning poverty myths. One is that the social policies that came out of the New Deal and Great Society welfare state have been generally effective, although hardly generous, in supplementing incomes and providing targeted benefits for low-income households. These policies include several of the Great Society programs anti-government conservatives love to hate, such as Medicaid and food stamps (the latter now formally known as the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, or SNAP), of which, if anything, the problem is that they do not reach all of those eligible for benefits, let alone all in need of what these programs provide.55xMartha J. Bailey and Sheldon Danziger, eds., Legacies of the War on Poverty (New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation, 2013). The other conclusion is that economic hardship turns out to be a strikingly widespread, diversified, and, as noted in a recent commentary by sociologist Mark R. Rank, “mainstream” experience that hits a majority of Americans over the course of their lives and that in the wake of the Great Recession has grown even more commonplace, sending the number of people in poverty to upward of forty-six million at last official count.66xMark R. Rank, “Poverty in America Is Mainstream,” New York Times, November 2, 2013,

And yet, we are still stuck in the outdated and even-then problematic idea of poverty that animated LBJ’s declaration of war in 1964, before this swelling tide of research was produced: as something that happens to other people and has little to do with us; as a problem of people left out of the benefits of an otherwise well-functioning, affluent economy; as the proverbial “paradox in the midst of plenty” that makes a statement about the failings of poor people rather than about the failures, or the prevailing features, of prosperity. Metaphors, even estimates of the number of poor Americans, may have shifted in political discourse over the decades—from LBJ’s “forgotten fifth” to Mitt Romney’s “47 percent”—but the myth of otherness associated with being poor in America persists and cuts across ideological lines. This is not just a problem of political discourse. It is ingrained in the dominant tradition of poverty research and in the core concepts and practices that sustain it as a specialized subfield, both of which treat poverty as a condition exclusive to poor people and look for its “cure” in the measurable outcomes of anti-poverty policies. Although invented to make poverty more visible and tractable for policy purposes, these conventions have served instead to keep its deeper and more troubling implications out of view. As a result, poverty research has become caught up in a paradox of its own making—of diminishing insight into the problem of poverty amid more, and more intimately detailed, data about the poor. This situation has important consequences for our capacity to know, let alone respond to, the challenges poverty presents, most visible among them the rapid growth of inequality that has been a signal feature of the American—and global—economy since the 1970s.

Defining Poverty

To understand the roots of the paradox in poverty research, it is important to recognize how much of its conceptual and institutional edifice can be traced to a series of political decisions made in the early stages of the War on Poverty. One set of decisions had to do with how poverty would officially be defined. Following the initial lead of the Council of Economic Advisers, whose 1964 Economic Report of the President had characterized the poor as inhabiting “a world apart, whose inhabitants are isolated from the mainstream of American life and alienated from its values,” the research establishment would define poverty narrowly, as a characteristic of individuals and households rather than social relations or political economy, and an absence of income rather than political and economic power.77xCouncil of Economic Advisers, Economic Report of the President (Washington: US Government Printing Office, 1964), 55. American Presidency Project, It would be measured absolutely, with a sharp line of demarcation between poor and non-poor, and with no assessment of distance from average standards of living or relative standing within the broader income distribution. And it would be defined penuriously, with the bare minimum standards of subsistence as a benchmark. These decisions were institutionalized in 1965, with the adoption of a method for “counting the poor” developed by Social Security Administration analyst Mollie Orshansky, who used a poverty line developed from Department of Agriculture economy food plans for families. Although Orshansky herself presented it as a matter of pragmatism and common sense, her measure was in fact a more sophisticated variation on an early-twentieth-century practice of turning to the then-new technology of calorie counting to establish “scientific” standards of deprivation based on how much—or how little—it would take to maintain working-class households at a subsistence level.88xMollie Orshansky, “Counting the Poor: Another Look at the Poverty Profile,” Social Security Bulletin 28, no. 1 (1965): 3−29; B. Seebohm Rowntree, Poverty: A Study of Town Life (London, England: MacMillan, 1901).

Fighting the War by Breaking the Cycle

A second set of formative decisions had to do with how the War on Poverty would be fought. True to its title, the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 would offer poor people “opportunity, and not doles,” as LBJ insisted when he signed it. But the administration’s program would also eschew direct job creation or major structural interventions in favor of more remedial measures that aimed, in the slogan adopted by the OEO, to help poor people “break the cycle” of deprivation and social alienation through education, training, and social rehabilitation. As part of an initiative premised on the fundamental soundness, and promise, of the existing economy, poverty research would confine itself to the study of people and places left behind, without questioning whether and how, to quote language embedded in the Economic Opportunity Act itself, “the well-being and prosperity of the United States have progressed to a level surpassing any achieved in world history.”99xEconomic Opportunity Act of 1964, Pub. L. No. 88-452, 78 Stat. 508, § 2. For an interesting take on this passage, see Louis O. Kelso and Patricia Hetter, “Equality of Economic Opportunity through Capital Ownership,” in Social Policies for America in the Seventies: Nine Divergent Views, ed. Robert Theobald (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1968): 133−48.

The notion that poverty is generated within a self-reproducing “cycle” of material deprivation and behavioral or cultural dysfunction was itself an expression of a way of thinking that had deep roots and many variations in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Anglo-American social thought and has been the source of a disproportionate amount of theorizing ever since. Despite considerable change over the course of centuries, this theorizing has consistently centered on the most thoroughly subordinated or socially “submerged” segments of industrial and postindustrial working-class populations—Marx’s lumpenproletariat, the Victorians’ “dangerous” or “vicious” classes, the ghettoized American “underclass,” Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queen”—and on the behavioral pathologies that, even when understood to be adaptive to circumstances, supposedly perpetuate these groups’ marginality. The War on Poverty helped to institutionalize such theorizing, but also to embed it within a consciously developmentalist, putatively sympathetic frame: Liberals embraced deeply flawed ideas about a “culture of poverty” as a rationale for remedial intervention, and not, as such ideas quickly became for their conservative critics, as an explanation for why intervention would only make things worse. The War on Poverty was an especially important venue for cultivating and trying out theories about how to help the “culturally deprived” children of poverty that were emerging within the specialized field of child development—in particular, ideas about the imperatives of early intervention that would quickly be embraced as gospel truth.

A Cold War Model for Research

A third set of formative decisions had to do with the organization and production of government-funded research, which by design would emulate the much-admired Cold War defense research industry in its heavily quantitative orientation, fascination with measurable outcomes and cost-benefit analysis, and dedication to a politically neutralized vision of mission-oriented knowledge. Research would be detached from action in this approach, segmented off in agency-based research offices and in independent think tanks that, although set up to “think for the poor,” would frequently find themselves at odds with community-based activists and service providers over questions of desirable program outcomes and measures of success, and, more fundamentally, over the idea that social change could somehow be effectively engineered through applied expertise. Less relevant, in the resulting hierarchy of poverty knowledge, would be the political insights about the nature of poverty and the challenge of fighting it that were coming from the frontlines of community action.

But more than any particular set of decisions, poverty research reflected the influence of a way of thinking that, although elsewhere contested, was widely embraced within Great Society research and policy offices. Leading the way here were the Keynesian economists at the Council of Economic Advisers who were deeply invested in an ideology of democratic capitalism built around mass prosperity, specifically working- and middle-class and embedded in the New Deal welfare state. Full employment and economic growth would be powerful tools of liberal social politics in this way of thinking. These objectives would also be translated into numerical targets the economists felt confident they could achieve. On a pragmatic level, extending this logic meant defining the poverty problem in terms of concrete, achievable economic goals: Although a war against absolute deprivation could be declared over and won—as OEO planners projected when they presented Congress with a budget for ending poverty by 1976—a war against inequality would never be over. On a deeper political level that involved all sorts of assumptions about the political possibilities that would be opened up by economic growth, the logic of growth called for pitching the War on Poverty as an appeal to mutual economic interests: “Humanity compels our action,” the Council of Economic Adviser wrote in the 1964 report, pronouncing the elimination of poverty to be a national goal. “But,” they added, doing so was “sound economics as well.”1010xCouncil of Economic Advisers, Economic Report, 56. In either instance, it meant treating poverty as an issue that could be siphoned off from the more entrenched structures of racial and economic inequality with the promise that eliminating it would work to the economic benefit of all. Poverty, defined narrowly as a problem of bare-bones income deprivation, could be eradicated without threatening major redistributions of power and wealth.

Experience soon put that logic (along with other assumptions of Great Society poverty knowledge) to the test. The War on Poverty met with massive resistance, especially but not exclusively in the South, as locally entrenched power brokers—and their allies in Congress—fought ferociously to maintain control over how newly available federal funds would be spent and how programs would be implemented or whether, financial incentives aside, they would be implemented at all. In this reaction, local powers-that-be confirmed what movement activists had known all along: that the struggles for economic, political, and civil rights were inextricably intertwined; that deprivation was too powerful a tool of political and economic control to yield so easily to appeals to shared economic interest or promises of federal relief; and that the assumptions that had made winning a war on deprivation seem straightforward, if not easy, would not hold up in the face of the political and economic interests arrayed against the idea of shared prosperity.1111xAnnelise Orleck and Lisa Gayle Hazirjian, eds., The War on Poverty: A New Grassroots History, 1964–1980 (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2011). The lesson was clear, although whether it would be absorbed into the canons of research was not: Poverty could not so easily be understood, or resolved, by reducing it to a problem of income deprivation, or without coming to terms with the structural inequities keeping it in place. The true “paradox” of poverty amid plenty had much more to do with the social and institutional foundations of American plenty than with the people who experienced its deprivations.

Other assumptions were challenged by realities on the ground, and in the statistical data as well. Poor people were not an isolated class stuck in a “world apart,” but part of a large and shifting segment of the population living and working in a hierarchically stratified economy. Economic growth and full employment left far more workers below the “line” than originally anticipated. LBJ’s proscriptions against an expanded “dole” aside, OEO economists were soon pushing for across-the-board minimum income guarantees (an idea also embraced by Milton Friedman and the US Chamber of Commerce, albeit in a highly minimalist form and principally as a replacement for the welfare state). The conceptual apparatus of poverty research would continue to reinforce the otherness of poverty and the poor nonetheless: by sticking to the fiction of the “line,” even while exploring better ways of measuring it; by devising more and more intrusive ways to explore the internalized mechanisms—these days turning once again to the cognitive and genetic—through which poor people and places supposedly perpetuate their own oppression; and, most of all, by failing to recognize poverty as a condition not only of poor people but of the political and economic structures, institutions, social and cultural practices, and stratified social relations that are at the root of inequality and that perpetuate its effects. These same structures and practices have given rise to a deregulated market economy that has brought us what, with a nod to historian Eric Hobsbawm and the more recent work of Thomas Piketty, we might well think of as a new age of capital.1212xEric Hobsbawm, The Age of Capital: 1848–1875 (New York: Vintage, 1975); Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014).

The Biologistics of Poverty

Today, the paradox of poverty research finds its starkest expression in the sense of disconnect between all we are learning and documenting about four decades’ worth of widening inequality and economic insecurity and the renewed fascination with understanding poverty as a special affliction, indeed, as an issue somehow separate from the inequality said to be hollowing out the middle class, and as a condition somehow embedded in individuals, families, and deeply impoverished communities. Lately, this project has taken on an increasingly biologistic cast, as poverty experts find more, and more innovative (from a research perspective), ways of measuring how the impact of material deprivation gets “under the skin” and into “blood, the brain, and the body,” to use the words of one recent report on findings from cutting-edge research on poverty and early childhood development.1313xDavid Grusky and Christopher Wimer, eds., “Does Poverty Get Under the Skin? The Effects of Deprivation on Blood, the Brain, and the Body.” Special issue, Pathways (Winter 2011), These studies incorporate technologies and methods from biogenetics and brain science to argue that the effects of income deprivation are life altering, and more dire than was once thought, and to redouble the case for the earliest possible interventions, starting in the womb. Recent studies in social psychology and behavioral economics follow suit with experimental and observational studies that show scarcity to leave poor people too cognitively impaired to make sound decisions about things like spending and borrowing and planning for the future, and to avoid making bad ones.1414xSendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much (New York, NY: Macmillan, 2013). In these and other ways, the latest poverty science seeks to dig deeper and to bring new perspective to the presumably elusive “cycle” that keeps poor people in poverty, or keeps sucking them back into it: Poor people make bad decisions, these studies tell us, not because they lack character but because material deprivation robs them of cognitive capacity.

What these studies don’t do is acknowledge or engage the political-economic dimensions of the issues, except possibly as afterthoughts. Poverty is life altering, long lasting, and intergenerational because of the way it gets wired into the individual brain, the stress hormone response system, and repeated patterns of bad decision making—not because of the way it has been structured into our economy, politics, and overlapping social stratification systems. Still less does this literature set out to engage a discussion of such principles of social citizenship as freedom from want, which democratic theorists and activists have long embraced as requisites of political freedom, and for which these studies, however distantly, can be construed to provide empirical support. Instead, cycle-of-poverty research confines its policy prescriptions to outcomes it can safely predict, with suggestions for interventions aimed at helping poor people better cope with their deprived circumstances and all the associated stresses—and ultimately at changing the behaviors said to perpetuate their own poverty.

Changing the Focus

“Our American answer to poverty is not to make the poor more secure in their poverty,” LBJ said upon signing the Economic Opportunity Act into law, “but to reach down and to help them lift themselves out of the ruts of poverty and move with the large majority along the high road of hope and prosperity.”1515xLyndon B. Johnson, “Remarks on Signing the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964,” August 20, 1964, American Presidency Project, In the decades since the War on Poverty was declared, American social policy has in fact proved far more preoccupied with keeping the poor insecure than with providing adequate opportunities to get, and stay, ahead. The downsizing of welfare in 1996 was but one major step in the long-term, systematic dismantling of safety net entitlements and labor rights, and, more generally, of the institutions of economic regulation and progressive redistribution, that once anchored the American version of social democracy. Where social policy has succeeded is in creating devices that make some employers feel more secure, even unapologetic, about paying their workers poverty wages. These include the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), the one income supplement that for the moment has bipartisan support precisely because it hinges on recipients’ participation in the low-wage labor force and is seen as an alternative to both “dependency-inducing” welfare and the minimum wage. Yet as long as poverty research remains stuck in its outdated conventions, it has no way of grappling with this simple, devastating fact: Working poverty is a feature of American political economy that has become more widespread in the decades since the War on Poverty and is now more deeply entrenched than the behavioral patterns attributed to any particular class of poor people. This, as much as the statistical measures that show a surprisingly large number of people falling below or hovering just above the line, is what makes poverty about us: the policies and politics that have paved the way to an economy divided by the power of concentrated capital and the relentless logic of low wages, and to the paradox of an ever-increasing plenty that thrives on, and justifies, the increase in want.

This is not an unfamiliar paradox, nor an unfamiliar subject of inquiry. The political economist Henry George wrote about it in Progress and Poverty (1879), at the height of what we’ve now taken to calling the first Gilded Age, when he argued that the vast wealth of the very few created the poverty of the many, and called for a massively redistributive tax on profits from private landownership in response. Writing about that paradox, for George as for a much wider cadre of organizers, intellectuals, and movement activists, helped to open the door to new ways of investigating and thinking about the problem of poverty, in no small part by turning the focus back on the problem of capitalism, in order to frame a conversation about democracy.1616xHenry George, Progress and Poverty (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2009). First published 1879. Now, more than ever, that’s where the focus of poverty research belongs.