U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Paternalism & Post-War Poverty Discourse

When I presented my paper last October at the S-USIH conference in Indianapolis, I was fortunate to receive some wonderful and thoughtful questions from the audience. One participant had a particularly apt question, as they noticed that the word “paternalism” kept popping up in the discussions of my subjects, and they were wondering, to put it simply, what that was about. I gave a short reply then, but I think it is worth answering more fully here because, in many ways, the dynamic revealed in how liberals, leftists, and conservatives talked about paternalism mirrors the dynamic I found shaping the majority of discourse about poverty in this time period. For the stigmatization that surrounded the notion of paternalism in post-war policy discussions revealed both where various political actors differed, and also the larger tent (or tents?) they tended to operate under despite these significant differences.

For liberals, avoiding paternalism was a key value and goal of post-war social policy. The social scientists and policy makers who talked about and suggested remedies for poverty and its related ills (such as juvenile delinquency) were almost always united in this shared concern. This worry, however, was multifaceted and based in several separate, although related, anxieties.

First, one strain of this distress clustered around the hopes for fostering authentic participatory spaces that were not merely the pet projects of elite policy makers. Aware of the perils of technocracy and ashamed of the Progressive legacy of condescending moralism, liberals insisted that any anti-poverty program worth its salt must avoid elite control. Leonard Cottrell for example – a sociologist whose work imagined self-regulating, participatory local democracies called “competent communities” – warned against the tendency of experts and professionals to take over the local decision-making process, and cautioned that “[n]o community can trust even the best intentioned specialists,” in deciding how to structure and run their participatory practices.[1] In a similar vein, the sociologist Frank Riessman pushed against the grain of much of his former work by insisting that any successful anti-poverty program had to view the poor as more than simply “culturally deprived” – a term he had helped popularize. Rather, programs had to recognize and work with the cultural skills that the poor did possess – in some cases more so than the middle class. As he put it,“[w]ithout an emphasis on strengths, which almost necessarily commands respect, programming can easily lapse into a traditional, patronizing approach.”[2]

Second, the specter of colonialism hung over liberals’ attempts to create non-paternalistic poverty policy. Aware of growing anticolonial movements abroad and the similarity between federal efforts at anti-poverty development projects overseas and their own domestic efforts, they did not fail to worry about reproducing colonial relationships at home.[3] Indeed, to what extent they actually viewed themselves as dangerously flirting with colonialism and, moreover, viewed the poor (and especially the non-white poor) as inhabiting in some sense a separate country is suggested by the frequency with which they referred to people in poor communities as “indigenous.” This anxiety, moreover, cut in both racial and class directions; as George Brager, a director for the community action program Mobilization for Youth, explained, a “major assumption” of Mobilization was that “lower income people themselves must be involved in shaping the program and effecting their environment. Without such involvement, the program may be harshly, though accurately, characterized [as] ‘middle class colonialism.’”[4]

Finally, liberals’ desire to avoid condescension and colonialism dovetailed well with traditional concerns about encouraging dependency and reducing independence. Liberal politicians, not surprisingly, picked up most of the slack in explaining to the public how Great Society anti-poverty programs would not simply be more of the same old welfare state. “Americans,” wrote the authors of the Report of the Council of Economic Advisers in 1964, “want to earn the American standard of living by their own efforts and contributions,” and Sargent Shriver, as I unpacked in my paper at the conference, reinforced the same theme when he argued that the War on Poverty, rather than being “perverted into a form of the dole – paternalistic, unilateral and degrading,” needed to rather “stake its existence on that same ideal upon which our nation gambled from the outset: Democracy.”[5] Although more emphasized by liberals acting as public officials, this theme was not absent from the work of the social scientists supposedly advising them, either. As Leonard Cottrell and co-author Nelson N. Foote put it, “chronic dependence undermines autonomy,” while quality employment, equal opportunity, and “[p]ersistent involvement or proffering of the opportunity for involvement in group activity, without forcing it,” increased it.[6]

However, liberals were not alone in their concern about paternalism. Many further to the left also approached the problem of poverty from the perspective that paternalism was one of their primary opponents. For example, Warren C. Haggstrom, a professor of social work involved in the Alinsky-style Community Action program in Syracuse, pursued a somewhat peculiar argument that in an affluent society, money lost its ability to alleviate poverty – so much of it was going around that it was essentially a degraded currency that could not in itself increase the status of the poor or their political clout. What the poor really needed, Haggstrom argued, was not so much income as power. “The opportunity to participate in interdependent relationships, as a member of the majority society, requires an increase in power.” Simply having more money would unlikely change much, for “social arrangements which take responsibility out of the hands of the poor” failed to address their powerlessness.[7] So in this sense, giving the poor more money could serve simply to reinforce dependent relations of inequality. Moreover, this type of thinking – that it was a broadly defined power which poor people needed more than income, as if the two could be clearly separated – was hardly uncommon on the left; indeed, many critiques of the New Left point out how leftists in the 1960s also participated in a kind of qualitative liberalism where questions of material sustenance were crowded out by analyses concerned with cultural or psychological empowerment.

Finally, conservatives, too, claimed the mantle of being opposed to paternalism. Significantly, they often did so in order to attack the very programs that liberals so prided themselves on as being anything but paternalistic. Walter B. Miller, a social scientist who had been an early participant in discussions about the “culture of poverty,” deployed the most extreme form of this argument. In an essay entitled “The Elimination of the American Lower Class as National Policy: A Critique of the Ideology of the Poverty Movement of the 1960s,” Miller argued that liberal poverty programs  – and the social science that informed them – reflected the disdain liberals had for the poor; a disdain that ran so deep, they were willing to do anything to rid the country of the culture they so little understood. Indeed, the very vocabulary they used to describe the lives of the poor – phrases such as “broken families,” “unskilled labor” or even “substandard housing” – revealed liberals’ moralistic overtones and the pitiful way they depicted the poor. Miller pushed this line of thinking to the point of comparing liberals’ desire to end poverty with fascist desires. Like the Jews, Miller wrote, “[t]he Poor of the Poverty Movement can be accorded only one possible future. Their way of life must be liquidated, and they themselves transformed into something different as rapidly and as efficiently as possible.”[8]

Less harsh and much better known is the critique of an advocate of Miller’s work, Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Moynihan argued – most extensively in the book I discussed in my paper, Maximum Feasible Misunderstandingthat liberal and leftist social reformers, misinformed and misguided by a mix of careerism, bad social science, and self-serving savior narratives, had effectively used the poor to stir up political trouble. As he succinctly put it, “[t]he war on poverty was not declared at the behest of the poor: it was declared in their interest by persons confident of their own judgment in such matters.”[9] The poverty warriors, “at once condescending and naïve,” not only had no idea what they were doing, but no real respect for the people they were doing it for.[10] Moreover, Moynihan also used this theme to participate in what would become a classic backlash move – pointing to liberals’ concern for one group of poor people to argue that they felt nothing but disgust for another (usually white) group of traditionally disadvantaged Americans. “Mayor Daley wanted the poor to be employed by the program,” Moynihan wrote of Community Action in Chicago. “He wanted to make the decisions about it. From the point of view of the tradition of working class politics, his position was impeccable. From the point of view of the middle class liberals who devised and now ran the antipoverty program, it was sinister, evil, hateful.”[11]

So by the time the 1960s ran its course, liberals, leftists, and conservatives all appeared to agree that paternalism was bad. (The fact that social conservatives like Moynihan had no real concern about, and in fact advocated for, the form of paternalism that refers directly to the authority of the father is another point for another post.) The problem being, of course, that everyone disagreed about what, exactly, it was. Indeed, the idea of “paternalism” seemed to operate more as a political bomb thrown in whatever direction need be than an idea affixed firmly to a coherent critique. This flexibility might lead one to conclude that “paternalism” therefore operated as an empty signifier – it did not mean anything at all, and worked solely as a rhetorical weapon.

Yet despite its various uses, the fear of paternalism did participate in larger ideas structured by shared assumptions. In order for it to work as an accusation, after all, those accusing others of paternalism relied upon their opponents being unable or unwilling to respond, “yeah; so what?” To be sure, the various political actors participating in debates about poverty policy and paternalism wanted different things – liberals dreamed of smoothly functioning participatory democracies in poor communities, leftists about politicizing those communities to resist and dismantle the power structure, and social conservatives (or conservative liberals, if you will) like Moynihan desired the federal government to intervene in poor communities by creating jobs for fathers and moderately expanding the safety net to make sure no one could fall below a certain income. Yet while they all tried to use the specter of paternalism to advocate for these various initiatives, they were also all at least in part restrained by the core assumption of the concept, at least as it operated in the American post-war context – that, as I argued in my paper, dependency on the federal government was clearly a fate to be avoided. Given this agreement, arguments that subsumed this conception of paternalism had difficulty pushing, at the same moment, for any program of nationalized, massive wealth redistribution.

This is not to say that everyone explicitly signed their name to the key political tenet of stigmatizing dependency – many leftists did not, and from within circles involved in anti-poverty programs, the critique of Richard Cloward and Francis Fox Piven is the most brazen and significant departure from the assumptions that infused most of the poverty policy debate. However, the diversity of political identities that engaged in the discussion about paternalism and thus reinforced, intentionally or not, key assumptions of the post-war liberal welfare state is a compelling testament to how political ideology is not merely a set of propositions consciously subscribed to, but a set of assumptions so basic as to barely be noticed and rarely challenged. The most powerful ideology, perhaps, is the one that doesn’t declare itself; the one that provides a big tent under which all the various viewpoints combat each other constrained, nonetheless, by unspoken standards and strictures.

In any case, the specter of paternalism was an assumption that would lose much of its flexibility in decades to come, as conservatives would rigidify its basic premises into one of many rhetorical battering rams used to shut down considerations of political options outside of a reactionary attack on the welfare state.

Post-script disclaimer: Just in case anyone out there is worried about what direction I’m taking this whole critique of paternalism discourse, don’t worry! – I’m not going all Eugene Genovese on you. I’m not at all suggesting that paternalism is a-okay, or some kind of Only Way Out of our neoliberal condition; I’m just interested in how, in the context of post-war political discourse, it seemed mostly, if not entirely, to reinforce the limitations of liberal assumptions rather than push against them. But that, I suspect, has to do with the historical moment of post-war America, and is not at all any argument for any particular version of paternalism.

[1]Leonard S. Cottrell, “The Competent Community,” University of North Carolina, Revised Draft, June 11, 1973, 15, Leonard S. Cottrell Papers, Box 2, American Philosophical Association (Philadelphia).

[2] Frank Riessman, “Low-Income Culture: The Strengths of the Poor,” Journal of Marriage and Family, Vol. 26, No. 4 (Nov. 1964), 421.

[3] This was a well founded concern, as is brilliantly unpacked by Aloysha Goldstein in Poverty in Common: The Politics of Community Action During the American Century (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2012).

[4] George Brager, “Some Assumptions and Strategies of the Mobilization for Youth Program,” September, 1962, 6, Francis Fox Piven Papers, Box 55, Folder 12, Sophia Smith Collection (Northampton, Massachusetts).

[5]Council of Economic Advisers, Economic Report to the President (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1964), 77; Quoted in Richard M. Flanagan, “Lyndon Johnson, Community Action, and Management of the Administrative State,” Presidential Studies Quarterly 31, No. 4 (December 2001), 599.

[6] Nelson N. Foote and Leonard S. Cottrell, Jr., Identity and Interpersonal Competence: A New Direction in Family Research (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1955), 80.

[7] Warren C. Haggstrom, “The Power of the Poor,” in Mental Health of the Poor, 219, emphasis in original, and 218.

[8] Walter B. Miller, “The Elimination of the American Lower Class as National Policy: A Critique of the Ideology of the Poverty Movement of the 1960s,” in On Understanding Poverty: Perspectives from the Social Sciences, ed. Daniel P. Moynihan (New York and London: Basic Books, Inc, 1968/1969), 263,301.

[9] Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding: Community Action in the War on Poverty (New York: The Free Press, 1969/70), 25.

[10] Moynihan, Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding, 76.

[11] Moynihan, Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding, 145.

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. This is a really great post.
    One thing that strikes me is that both liberals and conservatives in the 1960s had inherited sociological commitments to the idea of social harmony as natural, and to protest as largely about psychological failure–status anxiety, the “pathology” of the militant, etc. Under these frameworks, “paternalism” was reconfigured from the broad ideology of a ruling class to a weird and atavistic fetish of some disturbed social actor.

    There is also the fascinating question of the gendering of the state–from authoritarian father to “Nanny” (recently re-gendered and racialized as “Uncle Sugar” by Mike Huckabee). I wonder how one ought to make sense of this?

    • Oh man, your guess is as good as mine at this point; so much to unpack and I hope, in the future, to continue tracing these developments in political discourse into the 70s, 80s, and beyond.

      Two thoughts come to mind at the moment: first, as we all know neo-conservatives and social conservatives were very much concerned with the “matriarchy” of the black poor; the Moynihan Report being the most famous but not most obvious example of this; and I wonder if this emerging figure of the “welfare queen” has anything to do with imagining the welfare state herself as feminine, as a nanny?

      Second, you’re absolutely right about the way social scientists viewed social harmony as natural, and you can see the weird dynamic you pointed out in the writing of someone like (again, what can I say the dude is all over the place, in both senses of the phrase) Moynihan, who seems so genuinely confused as to *what* is going on with these “poverty warriors” — so much so that much of Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding is spent on speculating about what went awry with them, psychologically speaking.

  2. Very interesante! This had me wondering about the other end of the spectrum: participation, the discourse from democracy from below. To what extent the rhetoric (if not also the practice) of participatory democracy was present in the liberal currents of sociopolitical paternalism? How would a genealogy of counter-paternalism, from the US left, look like?

    • You hit the nail on the head here 🙂 I was actually torn between doing this post on paternalism, or doing it on participation. Participation was this term that was also all over the place — liberals loved it, leftists loved it, yet once again, it wasn’t really clear what they meant by it, either.

      Conservatives were, however, not as enthused. In MFM, actually, Moynihan says something like, well, maybe poor people aren’t really ready to participate in politics, anyway. They don’t know how to handle it responsibly, basically.

      So, I think people became much more precise about what they meant by participation as time went on, largely because liberals and leftists got into pretty pitched battles about it. Meanwhile, conservatives (and/or, again, conservative liberals) figured out they weren’t really on board for it at all, whatever it meant. (A line of thought that was rooted partially in pluralists’ concerns about the threat of “mass” society i.e., totalitarian modes and models of participation; but I digress.)

      But for these reasons I think a full history of the idea of participation could be a really important project; in my research, at least, it was very interesting to see how leftists had this, indeed, very lefty idea in mind!, i.e. participation as politicization, participation as a strategy to challenge power structures, etc. But at the same moment liberals are also very much into the idea or at least the rhetoric of participation; and they create programs designed partially to try to foster it, and well, in cases where leftists got control of them much conflict ensued! And in the past few decades, corporations have taken this liberal ideal of participation and integrated it into labor management & organization; it’s an idea that is still very much with us, a concept which legitimizes a lot of other shitty conditions and, moreover, does so while aping a lot of the rhetoric of the left that was originally, at least, intended to push in much more radical directions. So it’s another story of a concept embraced by both the left and the center, but ultimately, the liberal version is the one that ends up, not surprisingly, being much more influential.

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