About the Blog

I will post a new entry every few weeks. Some will be new writing and some will be past work that has relevance today. The writing will deal in some way with the themes that have been part of my teaching and writing life for decades:

•teaching and learning;
•educational opportunity;
•the importance of public education in a democracy;
•definitions of intelligence and the many manifestations of intelligence in school, work, and everyday life; and
•the creation of a robust and humane philosophy of education.

If I had to sum up the philosophical thread that runs through my work, it would be this: A deep belief in the ability of the common person, a commitment to educational, occupational, and cultural opportunity to develop that ability, and an affirmation of public institutions and the public sphere as vehicles for nurturing and expressing that ability.

My hope is that this blog will foster an online community that brings people together to continue the discussion.

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Monday, October 14, 2013

Important New Book: Comprehensive Revision of The Undeserving Poor

            Sometime in the early 1990s, I found historian Michael B. Katz’s book The Undeserving Poor, which had been published a few years before. I still remember sitting in my small back bedroom—a makeshift study—scribbling notes all over the pages of the book as Katz described and analyzed the ways Americans have defined and discussed poverty. He had me hooked from the first sentence: “The vocabulary of poverty impoverishes political imagination.”

            The Undeserving Poor was not so much a history of poverty in the United States as a history of ideas about poverty, and the ideas were complex and, for the most part, troubling. I began to understand how it is that poor people are so often categorized and characterized in such one-dimensional and insidious ways: as shirkers, or passive, or morally defective, or stupid—as people responsible for their poverty because of some damning personal or cultural quality. I also began to understand the reasons behind various interventions aimed at poverty—or refusals to intervene. I had never read a book quite like this, one that demonstrated just how much the ideas and language in the air matter in the construction of public policy. As someone who had a background in literature and in psychology, I certainly was trained to appreciate the power of language, but Katz helped me see the intimate connection between words (and the ideas driving those words) and specific social attitudes, political positions, and legislative initiatives. The book was eye-opening, and it would have a profound effect on my own way of understanding social issues and writing about them.

            The Undeserving Poor has just been reissued by Oxford University Press, and Katz has used the occasion to revise the book in major ways, not only updating it but adding a good deal of new material to it. Let me admit that Michael Katz is a friend, and we have recently written together, but my initial impression of The Undeserving Poor was formed years before I met him. I thought it was a hugely important book when I first read it, and I think this new edition is hugely important as well. Especially now. We as a nation pretty much ignore poverty as a public policy issue. The ideas in the air regarding poverty in the U.S. are, to use Katz’s 1989 phrase, “impoverished.” The solutions that have political sway are either market-based (during the last election some conservatives were suggesting that the poor needed to start their own businesses) or involve educational or social-psychological interventions, such as helping the poor develop mental toughness or “grit.” There is no serious talk about jobs programs or housing or expanded social services or restoring the safety net. Within such comprehensive policies, educational and market-based interventions would make more sense and have a chance of succeeding.


            More than any book I know, The Undeserving Poor helps us understand why Americans talk about poverty the way we do and why our public policy—sometimes noble, sometimes mean-spirited—takes the shape it does. It is one of the important social science books of our time.

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2 comments:

SFR said...

We don't understand something merely because we have named it. Intervention is not relationship. Being poor is an experience, not as essence.

Kate Chanock said...

thanks for this, Mike. There can never be enough scrutiny of the language that speaks us (remember that poem by Louis Mc Neice, "Prayer before birth"?), the worst of which unfortunately goes viral in the media as soon as it is coined. In Australia in recent years, the ugliest area of language is around asylum seekers,the people who spend all they have, risk drowning en route, and face certain detention for uncertain periods after arriving in Australia by sea. They are referred to as "illegals". It's not illegal to seek asylum, but if you say it often enough, people think it is.