Some Quick Thoughts on History, Media, and the War on Poverty

Note: I wrote this quickly so please think of it more as an extended tweet than a polished foray 

Whether and how academics should engage with that vague entity known as “the public” has been a topic of much conversation this winter/spring, from Nick Kristof’s ham-handed call for a renewal of the “public intellectual” to Ta-Nehisi Coates’s plea for historians to be more involved in debates about poverty and race. Coates stirred up a lot of back-and-forth in that reality-TV-for-office-workers entertainment known as “the blogosphere” by basically synthesizing some fairly mainstream consensus views of academic historians about white supremacy’s imbrication in American history and political structures, views which apparently (we have now learned) sound scary, radical, and “fatalistic” when translated into the pundit realm but which I can assure you I have encountered from many very far-from-radical, in fact fairly conventional bourgeois university-employed academics, because such views represent the most fitting interpretation of the historical evidence that we currently have uncovered and as we currently understand it (sorry to be a conventional bourgeois empiricist or whatever).

When I read Coates’s plea for historians to be involved in these debates, I had the following reaction: I certainly agree that historians have useful insight to offer (having found historians so insightful that I decided to try and become one), but I also think, as I noted somewhere on Twitter that I can’t find now, that the problem is not that historians are not participating in debates. Historians’ work is out there as much as any academic work is out there (open-access type questions being a separate issue but not one along which I think history meaningfully differs from other disciplines; and if anything, since historians have professional incentives to publish books rather than articles, their work is usually available for purchase or at the library, not locked in secret Elsevier gardens), and moreover, academic history, certainly the literature on twentieth-century American history, tends to be much less jargon- and model-laden than the social sciences, thus should be more accessible. So, I think the problem is not so much access or a lack of participation on historians’  part but more that journalists sometimes have a real resistance to seeing history as a separate domain of expertise, akin to economics or poli sci, rather than just a more esoteric and backwards-looking version of what they do.

Anyway, so I was thinking about all this as I was doing some reading on the War on Poverty the other day, and I want to quickly note how I saw this this journalist-historian divide playing out in that context. Back in January the New York Times and many other outlets ran 50th-anniversary postmortems on said War and whether it had, or had not, “worked.” To answer this question they generally defined “working” as “eliminating [or sharply reducing] poverty” and then rounded up a bunch of statistics and spoke to economists about whether people are or are not still poor. Of course, one giant problem with this metric is that Reagan dismantled or restructured the marquee War on Poverty programs such as the Office of Economic Opportunity, but these articles seemed to imply that the War on Poverty was some clearly definable still-ongoing thing they were measuring (a sort of loose grab bag of all government aid programs that may or may not exist), so it wasn’t entirely clear to me what these articles were even concluding: “Government programs to help the poor can sometimes help the poor, if they exist, although sometimes they don’t, for various reasons,” I guess. But the other, bigger problem with this metric is that it’s just very simplistic and top-down; it’s measuring a government program along the question of whether it achieved its most obvious, explicit goal as announced in dramatic presidential speeches, and yet we know that all human endeavors tend to have unintended consequences and ramifications beyond their purported purposes.

So, take the NYT article as illustrative. In this article declaring the War on Poverty a “mixed bag,” it cites “a broad range of researchers” and “many economists” and quotes economist James Ziliak of the University of Kentucky. If the author spoke to any historians among that “broad range of researchers,” they are not mentioned by name; the article does not quote, for instance, Dartmouth professor Annelise Orleck, who co-edited this book collecting research on how the War on Poverty played out in grassroots communities.

Now, if you read Orleck’s intro to that collection — and no, it’s not open-access, but it’s $27 and hey, the NYT presumably has a research budget if anyone does; if not we’re in bigger trouble than I realized — you find that Orleck also thinks the War on Poverty was a “mixed bag,” but along a much more interesting and multifaceted set of criteria than the NYT article proposes. As Orleck observes, “The top-down view of the War on Poverty has been written many times over, by historians and politicians from across the political spectrum. … But to truly understand its impact on American cities and rural areas, on men and women, on children and the elderly, on blacks, whites, Latinos, Native Americans, and Asian Americans, requires looking from the bottom up” (4).

By taking that grassroots view, it’s possible to see (as the NYT also notes) that the War on Poverty programs did have a significant and lasting effect in reducing the incidence of extreme hunger, illness, and other ill effects of poverty in the United States while having less certain long-term effects in part because of political backlash that resulted in cutting back the programs. But with the grassroots perspective you can also see (as the NYT and similar articles generally do not) something else — how War on Poverty grant programs, which at least initially required “maximum feasible participation” from the poor themselves as a condition of funding, generated a tremendous amount of new political awareness and activism in local communities around the country. To be sure, in many places local politicos merely co-opted War on Poverty funding as a handout for cronies, but there are many examples of OEO-funded programs stimulating groups like welfare mothers to see themselves as political actors, to learn to navigate bureaucracies, and to develop and implement strategies for agitating for more generous and more accessible service from local, state, and federal agencies. In fact, the tendency of War on Poverty programs to stimulate activism among the poor themselves was a large part of what higher-up politicians from LBJ himself to Nixon to Reagan, as well as state and local politicians around the country, came to find most discomfiting about the programs.

By focusing primarily on economists’ metrics, the NYT article doesn’t get into any of this. Just like the older generation of historiography against which Orleck defines her collection, the NYT offers a top-down history of the War on Poverty that proceeds from LBJ’s rhetoric and macroeconomics, rather than considering the goals and initiatives and conversations and conflicts that the War on Poverty sparked in communities on the ground.

So, where does this leave us? Well, I think there is sometimes a perception that historians merely narrate events, little different than journalism except set in the past, and that the “real truths” are to be found from economists and political scientists, the ones who really investigate how things work underneath the surface of events. But actually historians are not merely narrating things that happened, they have their own set of methods and sources and modes of expertise and ways of thinking, and here is an example of how not including the historian’s perspective led journalists to leave out an entire chunk of the “truth” of the War on Poverty.