Must Read Book

O’Connor, Alice, Poverty Knowledge: Social Science, Social Policy, and the Poor in Twentieth-Century U.S. History (2001).

This is a splendid new book that traces the long gestation of poverty theory in the twentieth-century United States. It is what Foucault would have called a true “genealogy” of knowledge. Wonderful readings of such classics as The City, Black Metropolis, and Middletown shape the first third of the book, followed by a succinct and smart recounting of Cold War social science and the War on Poverty, followed by a final section on the post-1960s “industry” of poverty research. Free of the internecine debates and ideological sledge hammers that often characterize writing on poverty, O’Connor’s scholarship stands alongside (and fills gaps in) the work of Michael Katz as the best of the genre. She brings both liberal and conservative antipoverty researchers to the mat across the century as she pieces together how universities, think tanks, and the federal government together produced “poverty” and “the poor” as social and cultural categories. Though her conclusions are not surprising—that U.S. poverty research has consistently identified poverty as related to any number of factors other than capitalism—the way she gets us there is impressive, sinking her teeth into concrete policies, studies, books, and events, refusing to skim along the surface. She confirms the connections between and explains the debates among W.E.B. DuBois, Robert E. Parks, E. Franklin Frazier, Richard Wright, John K. Galbraith, and Daniel P. Moynihan (to name a few) better than anyone has. Very readable—indeed, wonderfully written—this is a must for social historians and almost anyone working on the twentieth century.

Recommended by Robert Self, University of Michigan

Robert Self is currently Assistant Professor of History and a fellow in the Michigan Society of Fellows at the University of Michigan. His first book, American Babylon, to be published by Princeton University Press in 2003, deals with race, class, and the geographies of urban political culture in Oakland, California in the civil rights and black power eras.