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The Undeserving Poor: From the War on Poverty to the War on Welfare
by michael b. katz
pantheon books, 293 pages, $22.95 

In The Undeserving Poor, there are two Michael Katzes on view, the historian and the social commentator, and the former is much the more persuasive. Katz, who teaches history at the University of Pennsylvania, sets out to describe American debates about the “undeserving” (working-aged) poor since the early 1960s. His purpose is not to tell the detailed story of antipoverty proposals and programs, but to portray the thinking that influenced social policy in the Great Society and Reagan periods. In this mission he largely succeeds. The Undeserving Poor is the best intellectual history of antipoverty policy I know.

In the early 1960s, Katz recalls, sociologists and anthropologists such as Oscar Lewis attributed endemic poverty to a “culture of poverty.” The poor might initially be victims of their environment, but they also derived passive, self-defeating attitudes from the experience. These kept them poor even when, as in contemporary America, the opportunities for them improved. The conception was supposed to be liberal, but it was rejected by black and feminist critics further to the left. They defended the female-headed family as an adaptation to poverty, and they characterized the ghetto as an “internal colony” of a racist and exploitative society.

The War on Poverty rested on a compromise between this radical view and the traditional moralistic attitude that the poor ought to shape up if they wanted to get ahead. Federal programmers said poverty had structural causes, yet the main aim of antipoverty programs was to enhance the skills of the poor, not to recast society. Welfare reformers wanted to guarantee the poor an income, but they also accepted the market nature of society, as the socialist left of Europe did not.

The election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 brought “culture” back onto the research and policymaking agendas. A string of conservative authors blamed poverty on the lifestyle of the poor. Katz characterizes the arguments of George Gilder, Charles Murray, and myself at some length and—allowing for his hostility—not unfairly. He goes on to describe recent debates about the homeless and the underclass, meaning the most disordered of the urban poor. A consensus has developed, shared by experts of both left and right, that the dependent poor ought to work or prepare for work in return for support.

As a summary of ideas, the book is impressive. But Katz also wants to criticize the intellectual developments, and in this he is less persuasive. I do agree with him that reasoning about poverty has been unduly narrow and “apolitical.” What Katz calls “poverty discourse” has focused mainly on distinctions among the poor and the effect of welfare on their behavior, especially work effort. Part of the explanation is the domination of antipoverty analysis by economists since the late 1960s. They deal with poverty antiseptically, and they possess “hard” statistical research skills that compel respect in Washington and academia.

But they are much better at measuring poverty than at explaining or interpreting it. But what interpretation of poverty do we choose? Katz favors the old-left view that it is a “social product,” an inevitable result of America’s capitalist “political economy.” To establish this, however, one has to show how social structure keeps the poor down in an apparently free society. Especially, one has to show why so few poor adults work, or even look for work, consistently. Work levels among the poor have dropped sharply in the last thirty years. By 1987, three-fifths of poor adults had no earnings at all. In most cases, that was the immediate reason they were poor, as people who work normal hours are very seldom needy or dependent, even at low wages. There are still working poor, but they are considerably outnumbered by the nonworking. Accordingly, those who would blame poverty on society have to show that the poor cannot work.

This no one has done. Katz cites William Julius Wilson and others who say that the decline of manufacturing has deprived the urban poor of employment. Allegedly, lower-skilled work is now available mainly in the suburbs, beyond the reach of the inner-city poor, while jobs in the cities require more education than they have. But Katz does not know this literature well. In fact, the mismatch theory is rejected by most experts. No one has succeeded in attributing the bulk of working-aged poverty to any “social barrier,” be it racism, low wages, lack of jobs, welfare disincentives, lack of child care, or low skills. Some of these factors help to explain inequality among workers. They do not, on the whole, explain the failure of so many poor to work at all.

Katz criticizes liberal intellectuals for failing to rebut the conservatives. He says that John Rawls, Charles Reich, and their like have failed to construct a persuasive new rationale for the welfare state. They have constructed arguments for redistribution or entitlement to welfare, but they have spoken as academic technicians, not moralists. They have not, as Katz would wish, mounted a full-blooded attack on inequality and the rule of the market in America. They have not conjured up a vision of an alternative society based on “dignity” and “community” that would include the now-excluded poor as equals.

The closest approximation to such a statement, Katz believes, was Economic Justice for All, the pastoral letter about the U.S. economy published by the bishops of the American Catholic Church in 1986. Katz claims that the bishops had a fairer idea of social contract than do the advocates of workfare. But though the letter says that the poor have responsibilities, it is entirely vague about them. All the detail is about the new benefits and protections the poor should get. The first, though not the final, draft of the letter bitterly rejected work requirements. Protestant and Jewish hierarchies speak in much the same way. For the institutional church, like the political left, justice for the lower orders consists only of rights and claims.

Katz is too hard on his allies. He fails to allow for how the increasing passivity of poverty has cut the heart out of the radical case. If today’s poor were simply victims of racism or joblessness, if like the Joad family of The Grapes of Wrath they roamed the country seeking any work they could get, the case for structural reform in America would be infinitely easier to make.

Nonworking poverty has irrevocably changed political discourse about social justice. It is now about personal more than impersonal things. It has become less ideological and more moralistic. The old debate was about social structure, about whether the market or government should organize society. It took competence for granted, meaning the capacity of the downtrodden to get ahead. The current debate is about competence, and it takes social structure for granted. Most experts believe that the disadvantaged have enough opportunity to escape poverty and dependency, if not to earn mainstream incomes. They debate rather whether the poor are personally able to work or otherwise function better than they do. Essentially, liberals say no and conservatives yes.

Commentators like Katz have not caught up. He says that the purpose of workfare is to create “a reserve army of labor desperate to work whatever the wages.” The words are Marxist and quaint. They conjure up a forgotten era when the disadvantaged constituted a working class, rather than a nonworking lumpenproletariat. Would that Katz were right. Under current conditions, poor people desperate to work would rarely be poor at all. Those that were would be much easier to help, as well as more deserving.

Lawrence M. Mead is Associate Professor of Politics at New York University and the author of Beyond Entitlement.

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