Friday, September 5, 2014

OBIT | Michael Katz, Poverty Historian

Prof. Michael B. Katz
Today's New York Times has a four-column obituary of Michael B. Katz, Harvard '61, Ph.D. '66, Walter H. Annenberg Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania, who died on August 23 in Philadelphia.

It is worth reading.  It recognizes a long life spent on the topic of poverty, which recently has regained mainstream interest because of U.S. and global trends toward greater inequality. The obit by Paul Vitello identifies succinctly the core questions about poverty that Katz addressed in his histories of how America has treated its poor people.

Katz was a Penn history professor for 36 years and founded its urban studies program. Less than one year ago, he wrote in The New York Times about NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg's antipoverty record, suggesting that it was significant and insufficiently recognized.

The two best-known books by Prof. Katz were "In the Shadow of the Poorhouse" and "The Undeserving Poor". His history of poverty programs extends from the poorhouses modeled on England's, to the Progressive Era reforms, to a Freudian analysis of poverty in the 1920s and FDR's New Deal.

Katz contrasted the microeconomic idea that as economic agents we are masters of the marketplace - and therefore the poor must be defective or "undeserving" in some way - with the macroeconomic idea that the poor remain poor because rich people who control the rules of the economic game make sure the game is rigged in their favor.

The "deserving poor" are, he concluded:
  • disabled war veterans
  • widows with children
  • anyone else with Anglo-Saxon forebears
Everyone else was undeserving.

Katz chronicled the ways in which prejudice in the workplace, in lending practices, in housing, in business location and in the political process kept the poor in their place. The thrust of his published work was to question the idea that there is an "underclass" and a "culture of poverty" that is beyond the help of public policy. He asked whether public policy might not be a major source of the problem.