Mischaracterizing Poverty and the Limits of Liberalism
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.
Alice O’Connor, Poverty and Paradox
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