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Michael B. Katz, 75; historian studied poverty’s roots

Dr. Katz said the idea of poverty as an “underclass” problem was misguided.
Dr. Katz said the idea of poverty as an “underclass” problem was misguided.University of Pennsylvania/Picasa

NEW YORK — Michael B. Katz, an influential historian and social theorist who challenged the prevailing view in the 1980s and ’90s that poverty stemmed from the bad habits of the poor, marshaling the case that its deeper roots lay in the actions of the powerful, died Aug. 23 in Philadelphia at 75.

His wife, Edda, said the cause was cancer.

Dr. Katz, who taught history at the University of Pennsylvania for the past 36 years and was a founder of its urban studies program, wrote more than a dozen books chronicling US public welfare policies.

The limited success of those efforts, he said, argued for adoption of a universal minimum-standard-of-living policy, sometimes known as the guaranteed minimum income. (Its supporters, on both sides of the political spectrum, included President Richard M. Nixon.)

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Dr. Katz’s best-known books, “In the Shadow of the Poorhouse: A Social History of Welfare in America” (1986) and “The Undeserving Poor: From the War on Poverty to the War on Welfare” (1990), examined US policy as it evolved from the poorhouses of the 18th century to the humanitarian reforms of the Progressive era; from the heavy-handed 1920s prescriptions for curing “behavioral dysfunction” in the poor (inspired by Freud) to the broad-based social safety-net measures of the New Deal.

Throughout US history, Dr. Katz wrote, there was a fundamental tension between the micro and macro views of poverty. In the micro view, individuals were the authors of their lives and impoverishment proof of their moral failing. In the macro analysis, large historic forces and economic trends — war and peace, the shifting interests of capital — favored some people and disadvantaged others.

Dr. Katz saw the predominant thinking in the Reagan and Clinton administrations as updated versions of the micro view. In the work requirements and eligibility restrictions imposed on welfare recipients in those years, he saw traces of 18th-century notions that divided the poor into two classes: the “deserving” poor (disabled war veterans, widows with children, and others with Anglo-Saxon forebears) and the “undeserving” (everyone else.)

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Welfare did not create the entrenched poverty of the American urban ghetto, he wrote, and the welfare reforms enacted by President Clinton in 1996 would not end it. That, he said, would require an unflinching look at the US history of racism and its effects: centuries of slavery followed by the failures of Reconstruction.

“He helped a generation to rediscover the tools of social science, and reintroduced them to a language — a counternarrative — for discussing poverty,” said Alice O’Connor, a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara.