Reject The History of Blaming the Poor for Poverty

In 1964, President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the landmark Civil Rights Act into law, and launched the War on Poverty. A year later, the predominantly African American Watts neighborhood in Los Angeles erupted in violence not seen in decades; 34 lives were lost and more than 1,000 people were injured. In some other urban centers, uprisings were becoming more frequent. With the expansion of the Vietnam War causing Johnson’s War on Poverty to be largely tossed by the wayside, a report titled “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” written by Daniel Patrick Moynihan —then a high ranking official in the Department of Labor—was leaked to the press.

The Moynihan Report, as it commonly came to be known, was an attempt to examine the cycle of poverty. It declared that “the fundamental problem…is that of family structure,” concluding that “the Negro family in the urban ghetto is crumbling.” The report was greeted by a firestorm of criticism, with some critics suggesting that the report’s language was overly alarming, its data misinterpreted, and its conclusions oversimplified.

It wasn’t until the mid-1980s that the Report gained a measure of acceptance when such esteemed sociologists as William Julius Wilson, controversial writers like Charles Murray, and others began to embrace it. Since that time—especially in light of the Report’s 50th anniversary—more often than not, many on both sides of the political spectrum have venerated Moynihan’s work.

Susan Greenbaum, professor emerita of anthropology at the University of South Florida, and a long-time community activist in Tampa, Florida, has a markedly different take on the Moynihan Report. The Report, Greenbaum writes in her new book Blaming The Poor: The Long Shadow of the Moynihan Report on Cruel Images About Poverty (Rutgers University Press, 2015), “reflected the liberal end of a growing backlash against increasingly belligerent protest and unease with a revolution against traditional thinking about racial differences and the alleged deficiencies of poor people.”

Blaming The Poor takes on the commonly held wisdom expressed in the Moynihan Report, and boldly illuminates the flaws in its analysis. But, Greenbaum notes, “The ideas contained in the moldy report he [Moynihan] hastily created in 1965 are very fresh indeed.”

According to Greenbaum, who, coincidentally, was employed by Moynihan in her first job after earning her BA in sociology, believes that the 78-page Moynihan Report led to perpetuating “negative stereotypes about poor mothers, fathers, and teens, especially those who are African American,” views that are “omnipresent across a fairly wide political spectrum,” and which makes it extremely difficult to effectively “alleviate these inequities.”

Greenbaum‘s book “reviews the long history of anthropological research on culture and family structure, contemporary studies of poverty and race, and argues that “current policies that seek to solve poverty related problems with workshops and tough love are ineffective and reinforce negative stereotypes.” I had the opportunity to interview Greenbaum.

BILL BERKOWITZ: Why did you decide to write Blaming The Poor?

SUSAN GREENBAUM: I had recently retired from a long career of teaching and research about issues related to poverty and racism. The anthropology program I was part of is dedicated to applying what we learn and learning by involvement with the communities we purport to describe. Over a long period of work in Tampa’s low-income neighborhoods I was constantly confronted with well-meaning middle class public officials and philanthropists who expressed very paternalistic and judgmental attitudes and beliefs about the people they were trying to help.

Their interpretation was that bad choices and defective parenting caused poverty, and that their clients needed to be re-socialized to get rid of their pathological culture. My own experiences and scholarship contradicted that belief, and was, I thought, the reason their programs were so miserably unsuccessful. They were not much open to my views on this subject and I mostly learned to hold my tongue and work with allies who agreed with me wherever I could find them. When I left my position as Director of Community Engagement at U-South Florida, I had a greater opportunity to express my beliefs and interrogate those experiences. At the same time, a growing number of publications and commentaries were praising the Moynihan Report as laying the foundation for the kinds of programs that I had been encountering in Tampa, an anointment of the idea that poverty, especially black poverty, is caused by bad culture and faulty family values. In 2013, with the 50th anniversary of Moynihan’s report only 2 years away, I realized that it would probably produce a lot of praise and doubling down on the neoliberal programs that try to save individuals from the cultural trap of poverty “mindsets.” So, I decided to organize my own discontent with this set of ideas around a book that offered both critique and alternative explanations. It took me a year to research and write it, and nearly that long to get it into print. In the time I was working on it, a series of events brought obscure issues and problems into prominent public attention. Criminalization of black and brown youth, the new revenue strategies of cities that prey on the poor by inventing a host of new penalties, and police violence were just some of the issues I have encountered in my work in Tampa that became widely known in the aftermath of Ferguson.

BB: What did you hope to achieve?

SG: Blaming The Poor unveils the serious shortcomings in the Moynihan Report, as it was originally written and as it has been interpreted through the years. The first chapter is about research and the nature of the criticism that welled up in the aftermath of the report’s release, as well as the rehabilitation of the report’s message and value in the 1980s when punitive and stingy new laws were passed and venomous rhetoric about welfare queens and super predators were gaining currency, even among well-regarded liberal academics. These narratives have only gotten stronger in the aftermath of the financial collapse that spiked poverty rates and squeezed public funding for programs that help poor people. I am hoping that contradictions and obvious canards contained in this reasoning can be unmasked and discredited. One section of my book deals with the evident pathology of wealthy Wall Street traders and other rich folks whose social isolation and Ayn Rand-influenced upbringing has caused far more damage to our social fabric than anything poor people have done.

BB: Describe how the report went from being criticized to being readily accepted?

SG: The rehabilitation of the report after nearly 20 years of criticism is attributable to two factors. First was the reaction against multiculturalism and what was termed leftist takeovers of faculty scholarship that tracked the rightward turn in the Reagan era. Second was the renewed appreciation of Senator Moynihan’s liberal stance and burnished reputation. Charles Murray had written a blistering, yet popular, book about the culture of dependency citing Moynihan’s report. William Julius Wilson, African American sociologist, identified as liberal, reacted by excoriating neither Murray nor Reagan, but rather accused his liberal colleagues of vilifying Moynihan and not following up on his work in the report. His work on the urban “underclass” that included language about family problems and pathological black teens was attractive to both center left liberals and right wing pundits. Once again, the refrain, if even liberals agree with the pathological interpretation, then it must be right.

BB: What about the veneration of Moynihan?

SG: A lot of people conflate criticism of the 1965 report he did and the character of the man who most people knew through his public persona in later life. I am not really concerned with that aspect of his life, and I have tried to confine my writing to the outcomes of his report and the various bad purposes it has been used to justify. Moynihan died in 2003. His report lives on, and it is the target. The fact that it was written by a liberal soldier in the War on Poverty has given it legitimacy that is undeserved and very unfortunate. His own personal motives do not matter and should not be a cause for discussion.

BB: Who do you hope will read Blaming The Poor?

SG: I have tried to make my book rigorous, interesting and readable. Although the main audience is probably undergraduates in social science. I also hope to reach a more general readership of folks who are interested in poverty. Community activists have said kind things about its insights and readability.

BB: Wha issues are you currently working on?

SG: I continue to be involved with anti-poverty work in Tampa. I am also planning a book with a colleague in Boston and the director of a non-profit that funds research based on social justice, community collaboration, and action strategies. The Sociological Initiative Foundation has been funding such projects for more than a decade. There are some terrific examples of work done with communities that have borne results in fair wage, anti-foreclosure, immigrants’ rights, and other issues. Sometime I get tired of writing critiques with few substantive suggestions for real change. These projects are the antidote to that weariness.



Bill Berkowitz is a freelance writer covering conservative movements.