Q and A: Fifty Years of the War on Poverty

Michael Katz argues the program won more victories than we realize.
January 1, 2014

On January 8, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared war on poverty, a battle whose methods have been debated ever since. In 1989, Walter H. Annenberg Professor of History Michael Katz published his critically acclaimed and influential The Undeserving Poor: From the War on Poverty to the War on Welfare, which discussed the distinction in literature and sentiment between the “worthy” and “unworthy” poor. We talked with Katz about 50 years of “War” and the new, comprehensively revised The Undeserving Poor: America’s Enduring Confrontation with Poverty.

How do people view the War on Poverty today?

Its alleged failures have been used over and over again to support both skepticism of government’s ability to ameliorate social problems and a rightward-moving social politics that have buried the possibility of a major, head-on confrontation with poverty. With 50 years’ hindsight, however, it’s clear that the War on Poverty’s legacy is far more positive than its critics recognize.

What were its successes?

The federal government helped millions of Americans find medical care, food, housing, legal aid, early childhood education, and income security at an unprecedented level. Poor Americans also helped themselves: The day-to-day War on Poverty took place at the grassroots level in the complex interactions between activists on the ground, local officials, and the federal government. During the years when the programs flourished, poverty dropped to its lowest recorded point in U.S. history. Many women and men gained new power over institutions and programs that affected their lives and were set on the road to new careers.

What made you decide to update The Undeserving Poor?

The historical context had undergone dramatic change, scholarship on key topics had experienced substantial revision, and my own reading of the subsequent research had led me to new interpretations. Yet poverty endures.

What has changed in this edition?

Three fresh ideas frame the new version: First, that the view of groups is found in actions at least as often as it is in words. Watching who is cut off from cash assistance, denied social services, imprisoned, or deported shows how the definition of the undeserving poor has shifted over time. This allowed me to incorporate immigration into the story.

The second idea is that markets may be enlisted as mechanisms for alleviating poverty. The effectiveness remains to be proven, and these ideas have their down sides. But they do have the capacity to rub off some of the rough edges of capitalism, while their emphasis on poor people as responsive to the same incentives as everyone else provides a welcome antidote to poverty discourse which presents them as different and inferior.

Third is that the concept of the undeserving poor, which defines poverty as a problem of persons, is only one definition. Poverty is several kinds of problem, including a problem of place. The spatial transformation of American cities since the 1970s reproduced and intensified isolation and new forms of marginalization.

What else is new about the book?

Biology—the role of genetic influences, the idea that poverty inhibits the expression of genes related to future success in life. Epigenetics is interesting because it bridges the gap between hereditarian and environmentalist interpretations of the achievement gap. As a historian, I see it in a long line of attempts to apply genetics to human social behavior, including the eugenics movement. With this history, I could not but feel a chill reading the recent literature on epigenetics, despite its sophistication, qualifications, and good intentions. I wanted to move it to the center of attention because it demands careful exploration and debate.

What next?

There are two issues where The Undeserving Poor remains incomplete: the link between inequality and poverty, and the idea of poverty as a violation of human rights and the growing literature on poverty in the Global South. Scholarship is an iterative process, and I hope others will take off from this version of The Undeserving Poor to produce scholarship that will build on its ideas, remedy its weaknesses, and, ultimately, transcend it.