In one of his many books, sociologist Martin Rein wrote that “what is needed in social policy is not so much good tools, but good questions.”
During a career that spanned nearly 60 years, taking him from counseling street gangs as a social worker in New York City to teaching at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Dr. Rein’s questions never ceased. Even the questions themselves prompted more questions.
“I approach policy questions skeptically,” he wrote in his 1976 book, “Social Science and Public Policy,” adding that he believed “skepticism is valuable, essentially because it seeks to confront people with the results of their actions. Unless we are realistic, we are likely to fail, to blind ourselves to consequences, and to rationalize illusions as achievement.”
Dr. Rein, who was 89 when he died Oct. 15 in Springhouse in Jamaica Plain of complications from Alzheimer’s disease, studied and compared welfare programs in the United States and European countries for much of his career, and in later years examined the income sources people draw from in retirement.
Programs that are set up for one reason sometimes end up being used for something entirely different, he found — an unintended blending of purposes.
“Public policy isn’t what you expect it to be,” said Barry Friedman, a professor emeritus at Brandeis University with whom Dr. Rein worked on articles and coedited a book. “Things change and boundary lines between programs begin to blur.”
In fragile economic times, for example, laid-off workers might initially receive unemployment checks and then devise a way to qualify for disability payments when their unemployment runs out. Likewise, Dr. Rein found, those who find themselves out of work just shy of retirement age might try to supplement their income with disability payments until they’re old enough to collect their pensions. Under such scenarios, disability benefits that originally were designed to help only those with disabilities are instead used as part of a patchwork to help support the unemployed and those on the cusp of retirement.
“I always try to question the orthodox and established pattern, trying to discover where it is valuable and what alternative approaches are required,” Dr. Rein wrote in 1976.
Dr. Rein “never met a theory that he couldn’t find some way of working around or saying something new about,” said Langley Keyes, a professor emeritus in MIT’s department of urban studies and planning.
“He was very good at turning them on their head and looking at them from a different perspective,” said Keyes, who formerly taught a housing and human services course with Dr. Rein in which students studied the relationship between various types of public housing and the social services attached to them.
“Dilemmas of Social Reform,” a 1967 book Dr. Rein coauthored with Peter Marris, “had a huge influence” on the field, Keyes said.
“The writing conveys the impression of Greek tragedy,” Ralph E. Pumphrey wrote in a review published in December 1967 in the journal Social Service Review. In their book, Marris and Dr. Rein studied the impact of community action projects on poverty in the United States. Even then, Dr. Rein was chronicling consequences that strayed from the intended effects.
“In the end, the specific goals envisioned by the reformers have not been achieved, and most of the ‘successful’ activities sponsored by them have been swept up into the war on poverty with its quite different ends and means,” Pumphrey wrote.
Dr. Rein “was a bit of an iconoclast — certainly a broad thinker,” said Christopher Winship, the Diker-Tishman professor of sociology at Harvard University.
“Ideas interested him a lot,” Winship added. “He had a deep commitment to trying to understand the world, but also to play with ideas as a way to do that. He was about as far away from being an ideologue as one could imagine.”
The youngest of four siblings, Dr. Rein spent his early years in the East New York neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y.
His father, Mendel Rein, sold produce and died of a heart attack when Dr. Rein was 5. His mother, the former Esther Strenger, took in boarders after she was widowed, but the family was so poor that Dr. Rein lived in a foster home for much of his childhood.
Later on, as an adult, “there was this incredible warmth, because I think he had a need to embrace people,” said his daughter, Lisa Rein of Silver Spring, Md., who is a Washington Post reporter.
The experience of growing up in poverty during the Great Depression stayed with Dr. Rein, who could never bring himself to purchase a new car. He loved the music of Rachmaninoff, and liked to buy orchids and antiques — purchases that passed muster with his Depression-era frugality.
The first in his family to attend college, he graduated in 1950 with a bachelor’s degree from Brooklyn College, where he studied experimental psychology. Four years later, he received a master’s in social work from the Columbia University School of Social Work.
After working with street gangs in New York as a social worker, he went to Brandeis University and graduated with a doctorate from what is now the Heller School for Social Policy and Management. He stayed at Brandeis for a year as a faculty associate in research, and then taught for several years at Bryn Mawr College’s Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research. In 1970, he joined the faculty of MIT’s department of urban studies and planning.
Dr. Rein’s marriages to Mildred Steinberg, with whom he had two children, and Dalia Marin both ended in divorce.
For a time while teaching at MIT, Dr. Rein would head off in the morning before his own classes met to take classes in German, which he learned to speak with proficiency.
While politically liberal, “he was always at an arms-length from being an activist,” his daughter said. “Everything for him was sort of theoretical. He always wanted to elevate the issue of the day to a higher level: ‘What frame can we put this in? Let’s understand the motivation and how we can see this in a larger frame.’ ”
A service has been held for Dr. Rein, who in addition to his daughter leaves his son, Glen of Rohnert Park, Calif., and a sister, Rosalie Carmi of Israel.
“He was always very smart,” Lisa Rein said of her father, “but he also had a curiosity about other people and what made them tick and what they’re doing.”
Friedman recalled that “even walking down the street he would look for opportunities to talk to stray people, strangers.” That was the case even when the two of them traveled to China. “He was always interested in what’s really driving people,” Friedman said.
All those conversations were fodder for Dr. Rein’s career-long examination of government programs and policies, and how they affect people. The “social understanding” that sociologists can achieve, he wrote in 1976, depends on telling and hearing “relevant stories; that is, deriving from past experience a narrative which interprets the events as they unfolded and draws a moral for future actions.”Bryan Marquard can be reached at email@example.com.