U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Greed of the Poor: Dependency and the Post-War Political Imagination

Sargent Shriver.

Sargent Shriver.

The following paper was given by Robin Marie Averbeck at the S-USIH Conference in Indianapolis as part of the panel titled, “No Bound For Riches Has Been Fixed For Man: Greed and the Intellectual History of Twentieth-Century American Capitalism.” Read the introduction to the panel here, and the first paper by Andy Seal here. Kurt Newman’s paper will be posted tomorrow, with my comments on the whole panel to follow. Enjoy.

In 1967, Sargent Shriver, director of the Office of Economic Opportunity, defended President Johnson’s War on Poverty in the House of Representatives. “Every one of these programs,” Shriver said, “can be perverted into a form of the dole – paternalistic, unilateral and degrading.” Johnson’s new programs, however, would be different. As Shriver explained, “the poverty program must stake its existence on that same ideal upon which our nation gambled from the outset: Democracy. Community action is the democratic antidote to the dole.”

Now, I want to worm my way into my talk today by unpacking this quote. What is Shriver saying? At first blush, his point seems obvious – in touting the democratic, grass-roots nature of the federal anti-poverty programs known as Community Action, Shriver is appealing to the spirit of participatory democracy so prevalent in the political atmosphere of the mid-1960s, and associating Johnson’s reforms with that movement.

From another perspective, however, Shriver’s statement can be very puzzling. After all, what is he here contrasting to democracy? The dole – a phrase that in general use refers to welfare payments but has it roots as the colloquial name given to the one of the key pillars of social democratic reform in early twentieth century Britain. So here we have a policy intended to ameliorate inequality and ensure a standard of living for the poor, being described as undemocratic. Moreover, when Shriver describes the dole as “paternalistic, unilateral and degrading,” he appeals to a history of thinking about welfare that entails a broadly shared set of assumptions about political economy and individual autonomy.

And these are the assumptions I want to poke at today by talking about the relationship between the post-war discourse of dependency and the rhetoric of the “greedy poor” which rose to prominence shortly thereafter. I want to start this exploration, however, in what might seem like an unlikely place – the body of social scientific work, often referred to as pluralism, the consensus school, or even post-capitalist thought, that focused on the discontents of mostly middle-class life in the decades following World War II. In particular, I hope to illuminate the ways in which this scholarship, although primarily preoccupied with the problems of the financially secure, infused and shaped the way scholars and policy makers thought about poverty.

So first I want us to turn our attention to the problem of dependency in pluralist scholarship. David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd, easily the most famous and widely read book of this school, is nothing if not deeply concerned with dependency. For the primary problem with the “other-directed” personality Riesman believed was on the rise was precisely that it depended, all too much, on the other. As Riesman wrote, “while all people want and need to be liked by some of the people some of the time, it is only the modern other-directed types who make this their chief source of direction and chief area of sensitivity.”It was an erosion of individuality and independence that worried Riesman.

And the consequence of this “other-directed” dependency was anxiety – in particular, an anxiety about one’s position in the social landscape of American communities, what Richard Hofstadter famously referred to as “status anxiety.” Crucial to understanding status anxiety, pluralists argued, was to understand how it was an anxiety detached from material, or economic, concerns. As Seymour Martin Lipset explained, “status insecurities and status aspirations are most likely to appear as sources of frustration, independent of economic problems, in periods of prolonged prosperity.” Of course, affluence itself, the pluralists argued, made purely psychological anxiety possible – indeed, it was the very lack of satisfaction that ensued after economic security was obtained that made status anxiety so dangerous. As Riesman and Nathan Glazer explained, speaking here of the typical member of the fundamentally irrational New Right, “it is not jobs or goods they do not have that worry them; indeed, what worries them is often that they do not know what worries them, or why, having reached the promised land, they still suffer.” But my concern here is not to launch into an exploration of how flimsy pluralist school explanations for such New Right phenomena as McCarthyism actually were, as was brilliantly accomplished by Michael Paul Rogin over 40 years ago. Rather, I hope to remind us of how deeply the post-war sociological imagination, if you will, was embedded in a framework that ignored, downplayed, or simply thought past questions of class and political economy.

But what does this have to do with how intellectuals, social scientists and policy makers thought about poverty in the post-war era? Well the most obvious parallel, of course, is the concern with dependency. The national discussion about poverty was often explicitly framed in these terms, as good welfare policy was understood as that which reduced dependency, and bad welfare policy was that which increased it. As President Johnson put it, his War on Poverty was “a program which relies on the traditional time-tested American methods of organized local community action to help individuals, families, and communities to help themselves.” Depending on state or federal governments for survival was obviously bad, and the Johnson administration, as we have seen, was sure to disassociate the programs of the War on Poverty with such a result.

However, less obvious are the ways in which the political and intellectual discourse about poverty also reflected a deep concern with psychological dependency, of a sort not terribly different from the type of status anxiety that plagued the middle class. Indeed across the spectrum of sociological studies of poverty at the turn of the 1960s, the psychic insecurities of being poor usually received more attention than the material deprivations. From Edward Banfield’s paranoid and amoral peasants, to Michael Harrington’s psychologically destroyed Other America, the miseries and misfortunes of poverty seemed mostly to do with the common and widespread modern conditions of alienation and anxiety. As Harrington put it, “even more basic,” than the material sufferings of poverty was how “this poverty twists and deforms the spirit. The American poor are pessimistic and defeated, and they are victimized by mental suffering to a degree unknown in Suburbia.” (One almost gets the feeling, reading The Other America, that Harrington had Riesman in the back of his mind as he was writing – if talk of psychological anguish was the currency of the pop cultural analysis of the day, surely the poor ought to be able to compete with status anxious suburbanites!)

But why were the post-war poor, in particular, such a despondent set? The answer, replied social scientists and policy makers, was that although the poor may be more materially well-off than ever before, the relativity of their poverty was adding a special dimension of misery to their condition. As sociologist Lee Rainwater explained, “what causes the various lower-class pathologies that disturb us is not the absolute deprivation of living below some minimum standard, but the relative deprivation of being so far removed from the average American standard that one cannot feel himself part of society.” The American poor felt isolated from the rest of America, and alienated from meaningful networks of community and identity; or, as Harrington put it, previous generations of poor might have “found themselves in slums, but they were not slum dwellers.” This image of a hopeless and resentful poor was, of course, one of the hallmarks of the newly emerging discourse of the culture of poverty; a phrase which in and of itself reflected and reinforced the pluralist discourse of the supposedly post-ideological age of affluence where one’s feelings drove national politics more than one’s income or material interests.

Both the poor and the middle class, then, were awash in anxiety, status insecurity, and dissatisfaction with their lot. Yet the anxiety of the middle class was of a decidedly different nature – for however dependent they might be on the good opinion of their boss or an unblemished reputation in the neighborhood, they were at least on the surface financially independent. Of course, the regular appearance of a sufficient paycheck papered over the fact that most of the recently affluent owed their new status to the robust welfare state that had emerged after WWII to build the middle class. Nonetheless, quality employment allowed the middle-class man to be gazed upon as at least somewhat independent and provided status anxious breadwinners with some psychological consolation and, moreover, an investment in the continuation of the status-quo.

The same could not be said, however, for the poor. And in the context of relative deprivation, pluralists and policy makers feared, the relative discontent of the poor could have disastrous consequences. Indeed, despite often focusing on the possibility that the newly affluent would turn to anti-democratic solutions for their angst, in many respects pluralists viewed the working class and the lower class as the segments of contemporary society most likely to reject liberal democracy. After all, the working class and the lower class lived in communities even more uprooted than the freshly sprung suburban areas, for they lacked even the shallow social stability to be found in middle-class neighborhoods. Ironically, they were dependent because they had so little to depend on. As political scientist William Kornhauser explained in his book on the threat of mass society, “it will be seen that within all strata, people divorced from community, occupation, and association are first and foremost among the supporters of extremism.” And while the resulting “atomization” could be found in all classes, Kornhauser believed that “this process is accentuated in the lower strata.” Seymour Martin Lipset agreed, noting that of all income levels, the poor were the least likely to be members of community organizations or participate in local politics, a condition which could contribute to increased alienation.

Now to Great Society liberals, the solution to this isolation was obvious; bring the poor into the national community through political participation. As for those who thought the War on Poverty promised too much, administration defenders replied that the entire affluent society had already made these promises to the poor. Former Ford Foundation staffer and chief assistant to Sargent Shriver Adam Yarmolinsky, for example, explained that those expectations were “created not primarily by the Poverty Program itself but by the image of affluent America as portrayed on the omnipresent box in the darkened living-room of the still-darker ghetto.” For liberals, this was a state of deprivation and dependency to be pitied and remedied; not, significantly, primarily through wealth redistribution or job creation, but through increased community participation in a benign politics of cultural incorporation. The wretchedness of being poor, after all, appeared to the mid-century liberal mind as being mostly a matter of mental health; and this, in turn, fed the logic of viewing the poor – and especially the black poor – with what Daryl Michael Scott has referred to as “contempt and pity.”

Yet in the hands of a coalescing conservative movement, this logic turned even more vicious – and the dependency of the poor began its transformation into the greed of the poor. Indeed, as the New Deal consensus began to crack – undone by reaction against the civil rights movement, feminism, and the counter-culture – the dependency of the poor proved especially troubling. For in a way much more obvious than the anxious and psychologically fragile middle class, the dependency of the poor threatened to expose as fallacious the link between work and reward, productivity and citizenship; a relationship which all mainstream political actors, as political winds drifted rightward, strove to position themselves as defenders of.

Now an excellent place to look for understanding the way in which the discourse of the dependent poor paved the road for the discourse of the greedy poor is in the political writing of Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Of course, Moynihan’s most often referenced contribution to the national discussion about poverty is his famous report on the black family, which to this day goes through almost annual cycles of both defense and declamation. However, Moynihan’s contribution to the emerging political culture of post-New Deal America goes far beyond his 1965 report, and provides a valuable glimpse ata backtracking liberalismreacting against what many viewed as the excesses of the 1960s.

Of particular relevance is Moynihan’s 1969 book, Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding, which focused on attacking the Community Action programs. In particular, I want to focus on one aspect of Moynihan’s approach that is consistent throughout the book, which is his use of psychological analysis to explain the origins and unfolding of the War on Poverty’s Community Action programs. Throughout the text, Moynihan deploys psychological speculations to explain the motivations and behaviors of everyone involved in Community Action, from the left leaning social scientists who he considered its architects to the blindly led poor he believed they manipulated. Community Action, Moynihan argues at one point, was the product of a deep Protestant desire to save the souls of individuals, and thus perhaps these “suffering servants of the Lord,” as he put it, “had to perceive in the whole miserable business the morally autonomous individual struggling for salvation[.]” Or perhaps local culture, not religion, accounted for this tendency – the generally conservative and practical policy makers of Washington D.C. versus the more cerebral, utopian intellectuals of New York. For certain, however, the architects of community action, like many intellectual elites before them, romanticized the proletariat – after all, as Moynihan bluntly put it, “social scientists love poor people.”

My point here in emphasizing this aspect of Moynihan’s argumentation is not to point to the importance of any particular argument Moynihan makes, but rather, to highlight how in sync his speculations are with the pluralist school of which he himself was an active participant. Throughout Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding, Moynihan treats the very existence of the Community Action programs as something in obvious need of explanation, dismissing off hand the possibility that local activists were motivated by an attempt to overcome unresponsive, elitist, and fundamentally exploitative institutions. For example, when discussing New York’s Mobilization for Youth, one of the more militant community action programs, Moynihan dismisses the idea that Mobilization’s tactics resulted from the opposition they quickly encountered from established institutions. “This is not,” Moynihan emphasized, “to be explained in terms of the particular social and political setting in which MFY was trying to function.”

Yet Moynihan declined to make his own extended defense of established institutions, but instead adopted the pluralist assumption that the political structures of the United States provided all interested parties with the opportunity to be heard and have their interests integrated into the political behavior of elites. Thus, rather than engaging the arguments of community action activists about the anemic state of social democracy, Moynihan assumed the speciousness of their viewpoints self-evident, and focused his attention instead on how so many intelligent people could have possibly been attracted to such a wrong-headed perspective.

And how about the poor themselves? Throughout Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding, the poor appear as a duped group, misled by bourgeois, white utopians who, Moynihan argues, were motivated primarily by the desire to “prove a case against middle-class society.” Indeed, in the rhetoric of “the more militant whites,” Moynihan detected a call for complete community control for black people, a call which resulted in “denying the legitimacy of those institutions of electoral representation that had developed over the years – indeed, the centuries – and which nominally did provide community control.” Local Community Action activism, in other words, could not be read as a response to structural inequality and racism; rather, it was the unhealthy output of middle-class reformers bent on raising the expectations of the poor and then manipulating that manufactured anger. Thus, Moynihan actually fused the pluralist traditions of talking about the anxiety of both the middle class and the poor in psychological and cultural, rather than economic or structural, terms.

But Moynihan also sprinkled his synthesis with a decent dose of hysteria – indeed a full two years before the publication of Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding, Moynihan had argued that white members of the counter-culture had emerged as skilled leaders of the black underclass, successfully “persuading them both of the inevitability and the desirability of a nihilistic solution.” Unfortunately, Moynihan wrote, the signs were clear: “we must prepare for the onset of terrorism.” Place this concern next to the epigraph that Moynihan approvingly opened Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding with, a long passage from a political scientist which proposed a “recipe for violence,” in which promising a lot and delivering little began the list of ingredients, and midway through included getting “some poor people involved in local decision-making, only to discover that there is not enough at stake to be worth bothering about.”

So consider these claims about the artificial nature of the poor’s political anger in the context of this passage by Moynihan, written as early as 1965: “From the wild Irish slums of the 19th century Eastern seaboard, to the riot-torn suburbs of Los Angeles, there is one unmistakable lesson in American history: a community that allows a large number of men to grow up in broken families, dominated by women, never acquiring any stable relationship to male authority, never acquiring any rational set of expectations about the future – that community asks for and gets chaos. Crime, violence, unrest, disorder – most particularly the furious, unrestrained lashing out at the whole social structure – that is not only to be expected; it is very near to inevitable. And it is richly deserved.”

Now there is a lot going on here in relation to race and to gender that I haven’t had time to really touch on in this talk, but what I want to highlight about this rhetoric is how easily a decade’s worth of talking about the psychologically dependent, dysfunctional poor led itself to a discourse of a poor not merely unhappy, but consumed with bitterness and entitlement – a greedy poor, in other words. For in the eyes of someone like Moynihan, the major miscalculation of Community Action was that it taught the poor not to get their own house in order, but to expect more from the affluent society. The consequences, he clearly argued, could only be dangerous to American democracy.

Finally, it is telling that despite being neo-conservative curious, Moynihan never fully went over to that other side, and remained concerned about poverty for the rest of his career. But in fact considering how steeped he was in the post-war political imagination, I think this is not a contradiction, but rather makes a great amount of sense. For the greataccomplishment, if you will, of the post-war pluralists was to talk about the consequences of capitalism without, actually, talking about capitalism. And in the case of the poor, the discourse of psychological dependency, and the more acute accusation of “greed,” took what is a structural and non-voluntary relationship and turned it into a personal moral failing, while simultaneously obscuring the also precarious dependency of even those in the middle class.

Which brings us back to Shriver and his comment about the degrading nature of the paternalistic dole that we started with. Shriver doesn’t think past the stigma of dependence – he does not consider, in other words, that the middle class may be in their way just as dependent or, that dependency is a natural and necessary condition of social relations, especially under capitalism – and therefore, he couches everything in terms of the desirability of independence. Couple this with a political imagination that understands poverty mostly in psychological terms, and what you get is a logic that, when under pressure, will lead to simply declaring that the poor are not merely dependent, or envious, but greedy; pathologically so, even. So in refusing to think past the dream of financial and psychological independence and confront the reality of mutual interdependence, liberals actually set the ideological stage for the conservatives who would manipulate the same logic to its full potential in the decades to follow.

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. This whole paper is fascinating, but the penultimate paragraph alone is something to be proud of. (The last paragraph ain’t bad either.) What a fruitful reading of the therapeutic turn as foundational to (later) conservative anti-welfare arguments.

    On that note, I am interested in your take on “the conservatives who would manipulate the same logic.” In tracing this trajectory forward, do you think that a conservative/neoliberal distinction would be helpful here, or is that a distinction without a difference for the purposes of your inquiry?

  2. This really is such a great piece. I think it’s interesting how Andy’s piece came to focus on the question of sincerity, and your piece came to focus on something similar: the psychic artificiality, I guess you might say, ostensibly incurred by being on the “dole.” It would be very interesting to put these essays in conversation with JL Austin’s short chapter on “Pretending.” It would also be interesting to think about how one might narrate the passage from the historical formation you describe to the most recent iteration of the poor-as-greedy–the 2012 election cycle’s obsession with the need to tax the poor more so that they have what the Right calls “skin in the game.”

  3. @LD: This is a great question. I haven’t gone out of the early 1970s to look into detail yet about how the culture of poverty stuff percolates (future research plans!) but my instinct here is that the distinction only matters insofar as emphasis goes; there were some variations in conservative commentary on whether or not the welfare state, through contributing to social dysfunction, made people *more* irrational, or, whether, as in Murray’s Losing Ground, their “greed” and “laziness” was a deeply rational response to the supposedly anti-work and anti-marriage incentives of welfare programs. However, I am not sure if these differences map onto cultural conservatives (who I would think would incline more towards the moral decline narrative of irrational behavior) versus neo-liberals in any reliable way.

    But regardless, the idea of the greedy poor was very useful for both; on the one hand, there is the rhetoric of dysfunction and pathology which very easily becomes about moral vice and waywardness; on the other, for the neo-liberals, there is the idea about the discipline of the market being distorted by anti-poverty programs and thus naturally leading to this kind of “get something for nothing” mentality that they believed the poor had. So ultimately, they both end up finding the culture of poverty idea very hospital to their agendas.

    @Kurt: Thanks for these suggestions, more great avenues to explore! At first blush, of course, the funny thing about the “skin in the game” argument is that there seems to be a similar dynamic of projection going on here; somehow it’s not those with the most “skin in the game,” so to speak, who are viewed as dangerous agents of political corruption, but those with the least; as though having more wealth to protect makes you somehow a more reliable and *less* self-interested voter or political actor. But then, that’s just classical republicanism there for you, isn’t it? Hm, thinking aloud.

Comments are closed.