Maximum Feasible Participation
American Literature and the War on Poverty
Stephen Schryer



Maximum Feasible Participation

One of the most unlikely institutions to benefit from President Johnson’s War on Poverty was the Black Arts Repertory Theatre and School (BARTS) in Harlem, founded by Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), Larry Neal, and others. Its immediate patron was Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited (HARYOU), a Community Action Agency established under the Kennedy administration to deal with the problems of inner-city youth.1 In the summer of 1965, the Johnson administration channeled over two million dollars into the program, hoping to cool down tempers after the riots of 1965.2 Due to the bureaucratic chaos created by the need to spend so much money in a short period of time, it was relatively easy for Baraka and his compatriots to acquire funding for their venture; in his autobiography, Baraka estimates that “we must have got away with a couple hundred grand and even more in services when it was all over.”3 Throughout the summer, BARTS staged black nationalist street dramas that ritualistically enacted the deaths of liberal whites and integrationist blacks, accompanied by avant-garde jazz by Sun Ra, Albert Ayler, and Archie Shepp. It was not what the architects of the War on Poverty had in mind, and Sargent Shriver terminated the theater’s funding, denouncing its plays as “scurrilous” and “obscene.”4 For the War on Poverty’s congressional critics, the incident highlighted the flaws of the Community Action Program, a key part of the 1964 Economic Opportunity Act.5 The program established thousands of Community Action Agencies, federally funded organizations located in slum neighborhoods and rural areas that provided services for low-income citizens. The agencies were supposed to encourage racial integration. HARYOU’s mandate, in particular, was to prepare black inner-city youth for the integrated workforce supposedly opened up by the 1964 Civil Rights Act.6 The agency had impeccable liberal credentials; it was founded by Kenneth Clark, coauthor of the famous doll studies on the psychological effects of racial discrimination cited in Brown v. Board of Education (1954). The money for the program, however, ended up in the hands of separatists who followed the philosophies of Ron Karenga and Malcolm X.

The BARTS controversy was not an isolated case. Rather, as Karen Ferguson documents, most of the signature institutions of the Black Power era, including “ghetto-based economic development initiatives, university black studies programs, multicultural and ‘affective’ school curricula, and race-specific arts and cultural organizations,”7 were funded by the Community Action Program and the Ford Foundation, the major philanthropic organization focused on improving conditions in the inner city. Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, for example, wrote the Black Panther Party’s political platform in an office paid for by the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO).8 This pattern of liberal patronage also extended to other minority organizations that espoused cultural nationalist politics—in particular, institutions run by Chicanos/Chicanas and Puerto Ricans.9 This conjunction of liberal funding and radical politics was controversial at the time, and it has since been criticized by voices from across the political spectrum. Conservatives point to BARTS and other Black Power beneficiaries of the War on Poverty as emblematic of liberalism’s loss of pragmatic sense and moral compass during the Great Society. Black Arts scholars, meanwhile, argue that white liberals co-opted Black Power, leading to its safe institutionalization in Black Studies programs and other multicultural initiatives.10 Commenting on BARTS in particular, Geneviève Fabre complains that “by accepting government grants,” Baraka ran the risk “of appearing to blacks to be ideologically bought off, even if only to reach a state of financial autonomy.”11 Gravitating toward the latter thesis, Karen Ferguson argues that philanthropic organizations like the Ford Foundation sought to incorporate Black Power into a refashioned racial liberalism—what she calls “developmental separatism.” The Ford Foundation “promoted a balkanizing ethic for the urban poor that emphasized the need for the continuing isolation of minority communities so that they could experience a cultural revitalization” leading to their “eventual assimilation into the mainstream American political economy.”12

This debate about whether black nationalism infiltrated or was co-opted by the liberal establishment disguises a deeper affinity between BARTS and HARYOU. Both institutions were part of a broader set of experiments that tried to redefine what it meant to be a writer and, more generally, what it meant to be a professional in the years after World War II. When Baraka established BARTS, he hoped it would fulfill a political imperative facing all African American artists in the 1960s. “An artist is supposed to be right in the center of the community,” Baraka explained. “The artist has to be fully integrated into the will of his people, has to be the people himself, and not be any different.”13 Baraka envisaged BARTS as a people’s arts center, enmeshed in the community that it served. Not just a theater, it was a school, day care, spiritual center, and meeting place. The dramas that he staged there similarly enacted the artist and artwork’s integration into the community; plays like Slave Ship (1968), in which the theater becomes the hold of a slave ship, were participatory rituals, encompassing performers and audience. In spite of Baraka’s black nationalist ideology, this participatory aesthetic fit perfectly with the War on Poverty. When Lyndon Johnson addressed the nation after signing the Economic Opportunity Act, he insisted that the War on Poverty would empower the poor to help themselves. Its purpose was “not to make the poor secure in their poverty but to reach down and to help them lift themselves out of poverty.”14 To this end, the Economic Opportunity Act established funding for Community Action Agencies like HARYOU and stipulated that these agencies be “developed, conducted, and administered with the maximum feasible participation of residents of the areas and members of the groups served.”15 The resulting programs attracted young professionals on the vanguard of reformist movements that were reshaping social work, law, medicine, and other public service professions in the 1960s.16 These professionals, like Baraka, questioned practices and privileges that separated them from their clients. They pushed for a new kind of participatory professionalism that would engage people normally disempowered by the welfare state. Once in charge of Community Action Agencies, many of these idealists interpreted the mandate of “maximum feasible participation” in a fashion unforeseen by Johnson and other architects of the Economic Opportunity Act. Like Baraka, they tried to politicize the poor, organizing them to identify and fight the forces that oppressed their neighborhoods.

Maximum Feasible Participation traces the rise and fall of this Great Society–era participatory imperative in post–World War II American literature and society. The chapters that follow explore postwar writers’ efforts to rethink the relationship between artist, artwork, and audience, in ways that reflected and sometimes helped inspire broader changes in the nature of professionalism itself. For Baraka, this new relationship was central to what he called process aesthetics, a theory that he adapted from the white counterculture of the 1950s. This theory, developed by Black Mountain and New York poets like Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, John Ashbery, and Frank O’Hara, and implicit in the work of Beat writers like Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and William S. Burroughs, was a reaction against the New Critical formalism that dominated US English departments after World War II. New Critics like John Crowe Ransom, Cleanth Brooks, William K. Wimsatt, and Monroe Beardsley insisted that literary texts are organic unities, independent from the authors who create them, the historical circumstances that shape them, and the audiences who read them. The 1950s avant-garde, in contrast, emphasized literature’s origins in and continuity with lived experience. They developed an improvisatory aesthetic that emphasized orality and performance. Charles Olson, for instance, conceived of poetry as an energy transfer from poet to reader: “A poem is energy transferred from where the poet got it . . . by way of the poem itself, all the way over to, the reader.”17 This conception of literature meant that process writers also emphasized audience response. In Lisa Siraganian’s terms, while object artists insist on the “independence of art’s meaning from a spectator’s interpretations,”18 process artists believe that art cannot be separated from its embodied spectators. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Baraka claimed this process aesthetic as his own, emphasizing the priority of artistic process over the finished product. The artist, he claimed, “is cursed with his artifact, which exists without and despite him. And even though the process, in good art, is everywhere perceptible, the risk of perfection corrupts the lazy public into accepting the material in place of what it is only the remains of.”19 As Baraka evolved from a Beat writer into a black cultural nationalist, he emphasized process art’s capacity to create new kinds of political community by incorporating audiences. Participatory dramas like Slave Ship, he believed, would fashion a racially specific, politically efficacious version of Olson’s energy transfer between artist and audience.

The Community Action Program grew out of parallel assumptions, leading to the creation of what might be called “process professionalism.” Many of the welfare idealists who planned and implemented the program conceived of themselves as anti-institutional figures capable of channeling creative energies that threatened the rigidity of established bureaucratic structures. Paul Ylvisaker, the director of the Ford Foundation’s Gray Areas program, laid out this vision of the welfare professional in a series of speeches he delivered in 1964. Community organizers should not create new institutions; all welfare agencies fall prey to a “morbid life cycle” that turns them into rigid bureaucracies oblivious to their clients’ needs. He imagined Community Action Agencies as provisional organizations that can challenge local welfare establishments, rousing them from their bureaucratic slumbers. The ideal welfare professional is an institutional energizer; his or her goal is “to detect and anticipate; to correlate and differentiate; to probe and carry through; to collect energy and allocate it; to reflect and reformulate; to mobilize and individualize; to gather power and liberate it.”20 Client participation is crucial to this energizing strategy; once clients are empowered, they can function as checks against bureaucratic self-perpetuation, disrupting and restructuring local organizations—including the Community Action Agencies themselves—whenever they depart from their original purpose. HARYOU, one of the earliest test projects that Ylvisaker helped fund, put this imperative to work in a dramatic fashion. Soon after its formation, HARYOU invited a group of Harlem teenagers, known as the HARYOU associates, to become involved in the program’s day-to-day planning. The result was a perpetual state of organizational chaos, as youth took over the HARYOU offices and interfered with routine administrative work. As one HARYOU associate explained, unconsciously echoing Baraka’s description of the revolutionary artist, “HARYOU must be taught by the young person in Harlem. . . . HARYOU, in essence, must be the young person in Harlem.”21

This participatory professionalism, which aligned writers with a new generation of politically engaged welfare workers, transformed American literary culture in the 1960s. Originating in the work of the white counterculture, it became central to the various hyphenated minority literatures that proliferated after the Black Power era. More broadly, it functioned as the postwar period’s most influential model for politically engaged art. Participatory professionalism gave rise to what might be called a “process era” in American literature that persisted long after many of the War on Poverty’s legislative achievements were dismantled by subsequent Republican and Democratic administrations. I adapt this phrase from Mark McGurl’s The Program Era (2009), which in turn borrows it from Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era (1971). McGurl’s work locates the American literary field’s institutional center in the university—specifically, in the creative writing programs that flourished after World War II: “The rise of the creative writing program stands as the most important event in postwar American literary history, and . . . paying attention to the increasingly intimate relation between literary production and the practices of higher education is the key to understanding the originality of postwar American literature.”22 McGurl’s focus on these programs leads him to develop an autopoietic model of literary production. Serious (non-genre) literature is written by college-educated writers for college-educated readers. Much of that literature comes out of creative writing workshops and is consumed in English classrooms. In other words, postwar literature circulates within what sociologists call the professional-managerial or new class—a class defined by its acquisition of postsecondary educational capital.23 This internal circulation is the condition of possibility for postwar literature, including minority literature that seems to give voice to communities largely excluded from the academy. According to McGurl, the “high cultural pluralism” of writers like Maxine Hong Kingston, Chang-Rae Lee, Ishmael Reed, Toni Morrison, and Sandra Cisneros is a product of the “partially overlapping institutionalizations of elitist high modernism and cultural pluralism in university English departments of the postwar period.” Minority writers perform their racial and ethnic difference for a university audience who are “taught to savor their own open-mindedness.”24

Maximum Feasible Participation complicates this autotelic model of literary production by tracing a looping strand of institutional influence that branches out from the academy and passes through the activist welfare agencies of the War on Poverty and their beleaguered post-1970s successors. This institutional loop left an especially visible mark on the careers of minority writers in the 1960s. Writers such as Amiri Baraka, Gwendolyn Brooks, Oscar Zeta Acosta, Alice Walker, and Toni Cade Bambara all participated in War on Poverty programs. Together with the Ford Foundation, the War on Poverty provided patronage for enough fledgling writers that it should be considered a rebooted version of the Works Progress Administration, one that specifically targeted minority artists.25 For these writers, participatory professionalism provided a solution to what Madhu Dubey calls a “crisis in the category of racial community,”26 generated by the Great Migration and the growing divide between minority professionals and the underclass. The Community Action Program offered a model for how professional expertise could circulate outside the academy and directly impact lower-class constituencies, often through alternative pedagogical institutions like Baraka’s BARTS and Spirit House or Gwendolyn Brooks’s poetry workshop for Chicago’s Blackstone Rangers. This model became postwar writers’ most influential account of how a university-centered literary field might interact with its outside, and it recurs throughout the work of writers with no direct experience with the War on Poverty, such as Tom Wolfe, Joyce Carol Oates, Philip Roth, and Carolyn Chute. At the same time, the process aesthetic developed by the white counterculture and 1960s cultural nationalists provided writers with examples of how they might loosen or break free from the formalism characteristic of the late modernism institutionalized in the American academy after World War II. Process art thus contributed to several important strands of what later became known as postmodernism, whose critics and adherents often defined it in terms of its incorporation of audience response and challenge to traditional forms of literary expertise.27

As the writers discussed in the chapters that follow show, participatory professionalism was a divided enterprise, with ambivalent effects. The paradigm’s heyday was extremely short; the 1967 Quie Amendment, attached to the congressional funding bill for the OEO, put an end to maximum feasible participation by stipulating that two-thirds of the seats on Community Action Agencies must be reserved for elected officials and private-sector representatives. At its best, participatory professionalism challenged the nature of expertise itself and promised a radical democratization of the new class. At its worst, it perpetuated the very welfare paternalism it sought to dispel and lent itself to appropriation by conservatives bent on dismantling key institutions of the post–New Deal welfare state. Participatory professionalism did an immense amount of good; it established institutions that provided desperately needed help to the poor: free clinics, preschool programs, legal aid offices, and art and recreational centers. All too often, however, the strategies that participatory professionals used to bring their expertise to the inner city were manifestations of what, in an earlier book, I call “new class fantasy”: the professional-managerial class’s belief that it could reshape postwar society by disseminating practices and styles of thinking peculiar to that class.28 In particular, most War on Poverty programs, including the Community Action Program, hinged on a theory of poverty that defined it in cultural terms, as a way of life passed on from generation to generation. War on Poverty programs hoped to intervene in that culture, reconditioning the poor to make them more middle class. This project of cultural engineering neglected the profound structural changes needed to eradicate poverty in a society that was shifting from an industrial to a postindustrial base—the kind of changes increasingly demanded by the civil rights movement in the early to mid-1960s.29 Moreover, it helped establish an essentialist view of the poor that influenced the conservatives who increasingly shaped welfare policy as the War on Poverty of the 1960s gave way to the War on Welfare of the 1980s and 1990s. Paradoxically, participatory professionalism did as much to reinforce as to dismantle divisions between professionals and the poor, and it alternately undergirded and challenged existing forms of middle-class privilege.

Sutured Professionals

At its core, the participatory professionalism cultivated by postwar writers and welfare workers was an attempt to close the gap between the academy and its outside at the very moment that this gap was becoming a defining feature of American society. In the years after World War II, the professional-managerial class expanded at an unprecedented rate in response to the postwar economy’s demand for university-educated knowledge workers. This expansion coincided with an even more dramatic shift: the migration of increasing numbers of African Americans, Mexicans, and Puerto Ricans to America’s cities. Unlike the whites who attended America’s postsecondary institutions in unprecedented numbers, most of these urban migrants were not poised to benefit from the transition to a postindustrial economy. Faced with racial discrimination and urban deindustrialization, they could not take advantage of the mechanisms of upward mobility used by previous generations of white ethnics; most joined the vast, surplus army of unskilled workers growing in America’s cities. In the 1960s, many members of the new class, especially those in public professions like law, social work, and health care, tried to suture this class divide. In Steven Brint’s terms, their participatory ethos was the last major expression of the “social trustee professionalism” that guided many professionals in the first half of the twentieth century. This ideology “promised competent performance of skilled work involving the application of broad and complex knowledge, the acquisition of which required formal academic study. Morally, it promised to be guided by an appreciation of the important social ends it served.”30 However, whereas traditional social trustee professionals envisaged the poor as a client population subject to paternalistic management, participatory professionals called this relationship into question. They imagined middle-class professionals and the poor working side by side to improve conditions in the inner city. This idea found a ready home within the Democratic Party, which increasingly imagined itself as the party that would fashion a coalition of urban professionals and minorities. The Community Action Program, which brought idealistic young professionals into poor communities, while also helping select members of those communities join the professional class, was one of the initiatives that the Johnson administration used to bring this coalition into being.31

For postwar writers and welfare professionals, this belief in audience and client participation paradoxically grew out of their perception of the poor’s cultural difference. This perception at once motivated and frustrated participatory professionalism, inciting professionals to cross the gap between themselves and the poor while ensuring that it could never be fully closed. From the 1950s to the mid-1960s, most American commentators agreed that the nature of American poverty differed markedly before and after World War II.32 Michael Harrington outlined this thesis in The Other America (1962), the book that rediscovered poverty for a generation of middle-class readers. Before the war, poverty “was general. It was the condition of life of an entire society, or at least of that huge majority who were without special skills or the luck of birth.” As a result, poverty was the central political problem of the New Deal; the poor were America’s most important voting constituency. Postwar affluence solved mass poverty for most Americans, but it left behind “the first minority poor in history,”33 consisting of people who could not benefit from general improvements in the economy because of racial discrimination, lack of education, and other factors.34 The new minority poor, Harrington argued, are “invisible,” isolated from the great mass of Americans who live in the burgeoning suburbs. They are also politically silent; the poor “are without lobbies of their own; they put forward no legislative program. As a group, they are atomized. They have no face; they have no voice.” Last, the minority poor are without aspiration—the saving characteristic of the New Deal’s impoverished majority. The other America “is populated by the failures, by those driven from the land and bewildered by the city, by old people suddenly confronted with the torments of loneliness and poverty, and by minorities facing a wall of prejudice.” This loss of aspiration colors every aspect of the minority poor’s lives, making them entirely different from other Americans. “There is in short,” Harrington concluded, “a language of the poor, a psychology of the poor, a world view of the poor. To be impoverished is to be an internal alien, to grow up in a culture that is radically different from the one that dominates society.”35

This conception of the poor’s cultural difference took on a number of competing forms in postwar social science. The best-known version is Oscar Lewis’s culture of poverty thesis, developed in his 1950s and 1960s ethnographies of Mexican and Puerto Rican slum life. For Lewis, the poor’s isolation from the institutional mechanisms of upward mobility makes them “present-time oriented.” They seek immediate gratification and are compulsively promiscuous and violent. Because of their deficient impulse control, their families are female centered, with single mothers rearing children from multiple fathers. These traits originate as an adaptation to a slum environment; passed on from generation to generation, however, they become a cause rather than an effect of poverty. “By the time slum children are six or seven,” Lewis argued, “they have usually absorbed the basic values and attitudes of their subculture and are not psychologically geared to take full advantage of changing conditions or increased opportunities which may occur in their lifetime.”36 Harrington drew on Lewis’s work in The Other America, as did Daniel Moynihan in his leaked government report, The Negro Family (1965), which identified female-centered families as a leading cause of poverty among African Americans. Richard Cloward and Lloyd Ohlin offered a different formulation of the poor’s cultural distinctiveness in their differential opportunity theory of juvenile delinquency, outlined in their study Delinquency and Opportunity (1960). In contrast to Lewis, they argued that the poor share the same aspirations as middle-class Americans; like all Americans, they want social status and the rewards that accompany it. Cut off from legitimate ways of achieving that status, however, they pursue deviant shortcuts, such as gang banging, theft, and drug abuse.37 Both of these theories influenced the Community Action Program during its planning phase. President Kennedy read The Other America in preparation for developing a poverty program,38 and he included Lloyd Ohlin in the President’s Committee on Juvenile Delinquency and Youth Crime that established HARYOU and other antipoverty pilot programs.39 Both theories led to similar conclusions about the need for a special kind of welfare activism that encouraged participation by the poor. For Lewis, the best way to disrupt the culture of poverty is to politicize the poor. “Any movement,” he argued, “be it religious, pacifist, or revolutionary, which organizes and gives hope to the poor and effectively promotes solidarity and a sense of identification with larger groups, destroys the psychological and social core of the culture of poverty.”40 For Cloward and Ohlin, community action helps delinquent youth integrate into the national culture, giving them alternatives to the aberrant shortcuts normalized within the gang. For War on Poverty planners in general, the poor needed to be culturally reconditioned, and this change could be accomplished only through welfare activism that brought social workers and other professionals closer to the people they wanted to help.41

This perception of a cultural gap that experts must cross was also central to postwar process art. For the white counterculture, this gap was the condition of possibility for their work. In Michael Szalay’s terms, these writers cultivated a “hip aesthetic”; they showed “how members of the professional-managerial class might . . . view themselves as simultaneously inside and cast out from the center of political power, as possessed of both white and black skin.”42 Beat writers like Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs identified product art with the academy and white middle class. They went on the road, seeking out the class and racial outsiders who embodied the alternative, process aesthetic they hoped to realize in their work. In an oft-cited passage from On the Road (1957), Sal Paradise walks through Denver’s black neighborhood, “wishing I were a Negro, feeling that the best the white world had offered was not enough for me, not enough life, joys, kicks, darkness, music, not enough night. . . . I wished I were a Denver Mexican, or even a poor overworked Jap, anything but what I was so drearily, a ‘white man’ disillusioned.”43 Charles Olson, similarly reflecting on the Maya Indians of Mexico, claimed that they lived the bodily poetics he wanted to achieve with his poetry. They maintained “one thing no modern knows the secret of, however he is still by nature possessed of it: they wear their flesh with that difference which the understanding that it is common leads to.”44

Baraka, in his writings on the white counterculture, disavowed their racist romanticism; in Werner Sollors’s terms, Baraka diagnosed the counterculture’s admiration for African Americans as a form of “Jim Crowism,” an “inversion of white segregationist Jim Crow society in the Bohemian subculture.”45 However, he also took up and radicalized their racial ontology, making it central to the participatory art and community activism that he cultivated in the mid- to late 1960s. He embraced the idea that lower-class African Americans were the bearers of an antirationalistic black soul that challenged the rationalism of white America and the black bourgeoisie. In order to evoke this black soul in his work, he needed to destroy his own bourgeois psyche by immersing himself in the culture of the ghetto. Unlike writers such as Kerouac and Olson, who channeled the experience of poverty for middle-class readers, Baraka viewed those who lived in the ghetto as his natural audience, necessitating his move from Greenwich Village to Harlem. This radicalization of white countercultural aesthetics led him to embrace the cultural engineering espoused by many War on Poverty planners. In works like The System of Dante’s Hell (1965), discussed in Chapter 2, Baraka imagined that lower-class African Americans were prone to the alleged pathologies identified by writers like Lewis and Moynihan. In bringing his art to the black lower class, Baraka did not want to reinforce those pathologies. Rather, he wanted to rectify them; he became one of the chief promoters of Ron Karenga’s Kawaida—an Afrocentric philosophy that supposedly encapsulated the traditional ethical values and metaphysical beliefs of preconquest African societies. According to Jerry Watts, this philosophy, like the Nation of Islam’s political program, “attempted to homogenize and rationalize the black urban working classes.”46 As Madhu Dubey and other critics have pointed out, it did so by appropriating many key ideas from liberal poverty discourse—in particular, its emphasis on eradicating black, female-headed households in favor of a more conventional, patriarchal family structure.47

Participatory professionalism’s response to poverty was ambivalent. The process aesthetic that Baraka used to mediate his relationship with his inner-city audience was drawn from a white counterculture that explicitly conceived of the poor as a resource to be exploited by the middle-class writer. The process professionalism that HARYOU’s Kenneth Clark and other community action pioneers put into play in their programs similarly insisted on the expert’s ultimate authority over his or her clients. This authority was evoked by the phrase “maximum feasible participation” of the poor. Although professionals must question the protocols governing their interaction with the poor, they initiate that interaction and know best how to manage their clients. Baraka, in his application for BARTS funding, captured the resulting ambiguity about professional-client relationships in Community Action Agencies: “Acting, Writing, Directing, Set Designing, Production Management workshops will open aimed at gathering young Negroes interested in entering the professional theater world. The Black Arts will in turn make use of these ‘students’ in its own repertory company.”48 By putting the word “students” in quotation marks, Baraka highlighted his desire to challenge conventional distinctions between teacher and inner-city pupil. At the same time, he pitched BARTS as outwardly conforming to the institutional shape and purpose of conventional theater schools. BARTS would transform lower-class black youth into upwardly mobile artists capable of negotiating the New York cultural institutions that Baraka himself so ably mastered in the first half of the 1960s.

As a result of this ambiguity, one of the key complaints that the War on Poverty’s critics made about Community Action Agencies was that they merely consolidated the authority of already-established professional elites. Kenneth Marshall, one of HARYOU’s planners, complained, “The major immediate beneficiaries of these programs have been non-poor persons who have been afforded the opportunity of executive, technical and professional positions in the program.”49 Daniel Moynihan, unchastened by the controversy surrounding The Negro Family and installed as a domestic adviser for Richard Nixon, published a retrospective on the Community Action Program called Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding (1969), in which he insisted that the War on Poverty was a war fought by professionals with little impact on actual poverty rates. The War on Poverty was a consequence of what he called the “professionalization of reform.” Instituted at a time when “the American poor, black and white, were surpassingly inert,”50 the War on Poverty was the creation of social scientists whose profession was to identify society’s ills. Moynihan’s diagnosis of the class interests of the liberals who fashioned the War on Poverty prefigured neocon-servatives’ claim that American politics was dominated by what they called the new class: a liberal segment of the professional-managerial class with a vested interest in the welfare state.51 The argument neglected the idealism of many welfare professionals involved in the Community Action Program and other 1960s manifestations of participatory professionalism. These professionals sometimes put their careers in jeopardy in the service of mobilizing the poor; Southern antipoverty workers occasionally risked their lives. However, most of the social scientists, social workers, lawyers, and writers who embraced the Community Action Program’s dictum of maximum feasible participation struggled with the question of whether they were serving their own professional interests or those of the poor. This problem especially plagued minority writers and social scientists like Amiri Baraka and Kenneth Clark. These intellectuals experienced the split between professionalism and lower-class identification as an internal division, one that they tried to suture through their activism and writing. In Clark’s terms, the minority professional who tries to improve the ghetto is an “involved observer.” Unlike the participant observer of cultural anthropology, the involved observer participates “not only in rituals and customs but in the social competition with the hierarchy in dealing with the problems of the people he is seeking to understand.”52 The minority professional, in other words, is always enmeshed in the ghetto’s struggle for status and power; however, she is never fully integrated into the community. Rather, through her acquired expertise, she provides a complex, insider/outsider’s perspective on the community’s problems.

Cultures of Poverty

Discussing the relative neglect of poverty in literary studies, Gavin Jones argues that this neglect derives, in part, from the culture of poverty thesis espoused by postwar social theorists like Lewis and Moynihan. In the 1960s, this theory provoked a backlash from minority intellectuals, resulting in books like Joyce Ladner’s anthology, The Death of White Sociology (1973).53 For African American literary critics since the 1960s, Moynihan has been emblematic of everything wrong with American perceptions of black cultural pathology, and Lewis plays a similar role in Latino/Latina literary studies.54 Postwar theories of cultural deprivation, Jones argues, placed material deprivation “culturally off limits” and led literary critics to develop affirmative, identitarian projects that emphasized race, gender, and sexuality.55 These projects downplayed poverty since, as Walter Benn Michaels remarks, it is “hard to see how appreciating the poor—as opposed to, say, eliminating them—can count as a contribution toward progressive politics.”56 However, the belief that the poor inhabit a separate culture never disappeared from American politics and culture. Indeed, as Kenneth Warren argues, this belief became interwoven with many of the identitarian projects that supposedly supplanted theories of cultural deprivation; writing about Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Houston Baker, Warren claims that their commitment to lower-class black cultural difference leads them to echo white sociologists like Daniel Moynihan.57 Belief in the poor’s cultural specificity continues to lend itself to political projects aimed at expanding and dismantling the welfare state and to professional practices aimed at eliminating, appreciating, and neglecting the poor.

The culture of poverty thesis resulted from postwar social theorists’ muddled conception of class, which led them to conflate economic inequality with cultural difference. This conflation was most obvious in Oscar Lewis’s work, which attempted to synthesize cultural anthropology and Marxist class theory. In the 1930s, Lewis completed his PhD under the supervision of Ruth Benedict, the founder of the Culture and Personality school of anthropology. In Patterns of Culture (1934), Benedict argued that culture is personality writ large: “A culture, like an individual, is a more or less consistent pattern of thought and action.”58 When analyzing indigenous cultures, she reduced them to archetypes: the Apollonian culture of the Pueblo Indians versus the Dionysian cultures of the Great Plains. When Lewis began his family studies in Mexico, he rejected Benedict’s model as excessively reductive: “It was my dissatisfaction with the high level of abstraction inherent in the concept of culture patterns which led me to turn away from anthropological community studies to the intensive study of families.” Benedict’s theory, in particular, failed to account for cultural differences between classes; it was ill suited to analyzing complex, modern societies with a rapidly changing capitalist economic base. Attempting to bring Marxist insights to bear on cultural anthropology, however, Lewis developed an even more reductive version of Benedict’s theory. Accepting Benedict’s assumption that culture is an adaptive response to environmental conditions, Lewis concluded that poor people’s behavior is shaped by their relationship to their society’s mode of production; slum behavior is “both an adaptation and a reaction of the poor to their marginal position in a class-stratified, highly-individuated, capitalistic society.”59 With the globalization of capitalism, these conditions become universal, and all slum dwellers become the same; the culture of poverty cuts “across regional, rural-urban, and even national boundaries.”60 Lewis also accepted Benedict’s claim that culture is personality writ large. For those in the culture of poverty, this personality is dysfunctional, a product of class oppression and material deprivation.61 The central paradox of Lewis’s theory is that the culture of poverty is not really a culture at all. It is a liminal state of culture—the condition that results when a people have had their culture stripped away from them. Lewis characterized a Puerto Rican family as “closer to the expression of an unbridled id than any other people I have studied” and described the culture of poverty as a “thin culture,” marked by “pathos, suffering and emptiness.” “The poverty of culture,” he concluded, “is one of the crucial aspects of the culture of poverty.”62 In synthesizing Benedict and Marx, Lewis jettisoned Benedict’s cultural relativism and Marx’s distinction between superstructure and base. He replaced Benedict’s multiplicity of cultural archetypes with a simple binary distinction between healthy and pathological class cultures, and he replaced Marxist economic determinism with a circular causality whereby poverty creates cultural dysfunctions which in turn create more poverty.63

Although countercultural writers like Kerouac, Olson, and Baraka seemingly inverted Lewis’s theory, viewing lower-class cultures as necessary antidotes to the sickness of the American middle class, they conceived of the poor in strikingly similar terms. Lewis recognized this proximity between his work and that of the American counterculture, writing that the poor have a unique “capacity for spontaneity and adventure, for the enjoyment of the sensual, the indulgence of impulse, which is often blunted in the middle-class, future-oriented man. Perhaps it is this reality of the moment which the existentialist writers are so desperately trying to recapture but which the culture of poverty experiences as a natural, everyday phenomenon.”64 Postwar writers developed their own versions of the culture of poverty thesis, imagining that the poor of various racial and ethnic backgrounds inhabited the stripped-down remains of once-functioning cultures. Kerouac’s term for those who inhabited this liminal culture was the “Fellahin peoples of the world,”65 a phrase that he used throughout his fiction to refer to anyone other than middle-class whites. Kerouac borrowed this term from Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West (1918), where it refers to various conquered peoples living on the margins of the West. They experience life as a “planless happening without goal . . . wherein occurrences are many, but, in the last analysis, devoid of signification.”66 Olson similarly described the Maya as “poor failures of the modern world, incompetent even to arrange that, in the month of June, when the rains have not come far enough forward to fill the wells, they have water to wash in or to drink. They have lost the capacity of their predecessors to do anything in common.”67 The Maya’s proximity to their flesh, the quality of their life that brings them closest to Olson’s poetics, results from this dissolution of the minimal traditions that allow a people to cope with their surroundings.

The culture of poverty thesis thus gave rise to competing responses by postwar intellectuals. As a culture, a distinct way of life, it could be appreciated or even preserved by writers seeking alternatives to middle-class routine. As both the effect and ongoing cause of poverty and oppression, it required intervention by welfare professionals. In both cases, the participatory professionalism that addressed this culture of poverty was both a technique for bringing experts closer to their clients and a technique for processing those clients. The differences and affinities between these competing literary and social scientific responses are allegorized in a scene from Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), a novel set in 1964—the year that Johnson declared war on poverty. While searching for signs of the Tristero, the novel’s underground mail network, in the streets of San Francisco, Oedipa Maas encounters an old sailor outside a rooming house with the Tristero post horn tattooed on his hand. The man, an alcoholic, suffers from delirium tremens and laments the loss of his wife, whom he abandoned in Fresno. Oedipa imagines helping him: “She might find the landlord of this place, and bring him to court, and buy the sailor a new suit at Roos/Atkins, and shirt, and shoes, and give him the bus fare to Fresno after all.” However, she realizes that to reintegrate the sailor into middle-class society would destroy the distinctive experience he embodies. This experience depends on the disease responsible for his destitution; the delirium tremens (DTs), she reflects,

also meant a time differential, a vanishingly small instant in which change had to be confronted at last for what it was, where it could no longer disguise itself as something innocuous like an average rate; where velocity dwelled in the projectile though the projectile be frozen in midflight, where death dwelled in the cell though the cell be looked in on at its most quick. She knew that the sailor had seen worlds no other man had seen if only because there was that high magic to low puns, because DT’s must give access to dt’s of spectra beyond the known sun, music made purely of Antarctic loneliness and fright.

The sailor is one of many figures in the novel who offers an alternative to the closed system that America, in Pynchon’s analysis, has become. He prefigures the alternative America of squatters and drifters that Pynchon elegiacally evokes in the novel’s conclusion, an America “invisible yet congruent with the cheered land she [Oedipa] lived in.” He also embodies the aesthetic that Pynchon tries to achieve in his novel, an aesthetic that recovers the “excluded middles” pushed out by a culture in the midst of becoming a “great digital computer.”68

Through this encounter with the sailor, Pynchon comments on mid-1960s antipoverty efforts. As J. Kerry Grant notes, Oedipa’s visit to San Francisco puts her in contact with Michael Harrington’s “other America,”69 a world of juvenile delinquents, black and Latino/Latina workers, alcoholics, and abandoned elderly generally invisible to middle-class whites. Oedipa’s first response to the sailor is to cradle him in her arms “as if he were her own child,”70 replicating the maternal concern for the poor and infirm that supposedly defined the welfare state. She then envisages her transformation into a community organizer who will encourage her client to challenge her landlord, as many welfare activists did throughout the 1960s. However, in a gesture that Sean McCann and Michael Szalay identify as typical of postwar literature, Oedipa dismisses pragmatic social reform in favor of “a new political vision built in large part on the appeal of the spontaneous, the symbolic, and ultimately, the magical.”71 Once she abandons her reformist ambitions, she can appreciate the sailor’s unique perception of the world, which allows her to finally break free from the rut of middle-class routine she has been trying to escape since the novel’s opening: the “safe furrow the bulk of this city’s waking each sunrise again set virtuously to plowing.”72 As Pynchon underscores, however, Oedipa’s appreciation of the sailor is just as rooted in middle-class subjectivity as her social work fantasy. Oedipa’s interpretation of the DTs begins with a memory of one of her college boyfriends complaining about calculus and concludes—appropriately, since she is a former English major—with an allusion to Coleridge’s ancient mariner. Oedipa, in other words, can access the sailor’s visionary experience only with the help of the educational capital she acquired in college. Indeed, given that the sailor’s “high magic” resides in the “low pun” between medical and mathematical terminology, this visionary experience is embedded in that educational capital itself rather than in the laconic old man. The old man derives no benefit from his poverty and sickness, which are in the process of destroying him. Rather, his experience is valuable only insofar as it can be processed and assimilated by professionally trained readers like Oedipa.

Oedipa’s abandonment of the sailor prefigures the War on Poverty’s evolution into the War on Welfare of the 1980s and 1990s. From the late 1960s onward, the poor’s cultural difference became a justification for neglecting them entirely. In particular, American conservatives appropriated the culture of poverty thesis, turning it into a powerful weapon to attack the very Johnson-era programs that the theory originally helped inspire. The first conservative text that drew on Lewis’s research was The Unheavenly City (1970), written by Edward Banfield, a future adviser to Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Ronald Reagan. Citing Lewis, Harrington, Moynihan, and others, Banfield constructed a scale of class cultures, each defined by “its distinctive orientation toward providing for a more or less distant future.” Moving even further away than Lewis from Benedict’s Culture and Personality model, Banfield rejected any environmental origin or adaptive function for these class cultures. Present orientation, he argued, is immutably built into groups and individuals, and no government can intervene to change it; lower-class culture is a generative cause rather than an effect of poverty. Welfare is wasted on those who live in this culture; lacking impulse control, the lower class will squander whatever resources are given to them. In developing this argument, Banfield briefly distinguished his argument from biological racism:

Strong correlations have been shown to exist between IQ score and socioeconomic status, and some investigators have claimed that these correlations are largely attributable to genetic factors. These considerations suggest the possibility that one’s ability to take account of the future may depend mainly upon one’s biologically inherited intelligence. The assumption being made here, however, is a contrary one—namely that time horizon is a cultural (or subcultural) trait passed on to the individual in early childhood from his group.73

In practice, however, Banfield’s theory is indistinguishable from genetic essentialism; present orientation is immutably built into cultures associated with specific racial and ethnic groups.

This essentialist adaptation of Lewis’s theory was central to the invention of what later conservatives called the underclass: a group culturally defined by its failure to embody middle-class values, especially the Protestant work ethic.74 This group, conservatives claimed, absorbed most welfare expenditures and was responsible for most criminal violence. For Banfield, the lower class was relatively small, consisting of “perhaps 10 to 20 percent” of all families with incomes below the poverty line.75 As Adolph Reed documents, this statistic appeared again and again in essays about the underclass published between the 1970s and 1980s.76 It has never been empirically verified; Banfield drew it from Lewis, who offered the “rough guess” that “only about 20 percent of the population below the poverty line (between six and ten million people) in the United States have characteristics which would justify classifying their way of life as that of a culture of poverty.”77 This statistical vagueness is intrinsic to the underclass concept; unlike income level or occupation, culture cannot be recorded in the census. Indeed, as its name implies, the underclass exists outside all typical conceptions of class and all of the metrics used to measure it. Not all poor people belong to the underclass; many who live in slums exhibit the same cultural traits as other Americans and will eventually escape their circumstances. Not all members of the underclass are poor; drug dealers and pimps can be affluent. Although conservatives generally use the term as shorthand to refer to inner-city blacks and Latinos/Latinas, the underclass is also not simply a racial category. Following the lead of Moynihan, who insisted in The Negro Family that “the Negro community is in fact dividing between a stable middle-class group that is steadily growing stronger and more successful, and an increasingly disorganized and disadvantaged lower-class group,”78 virtually all conservatives distinguish between the underclass and the black bourgeoisie. The underclass is a malleable, abject category that absorbs all of the social animosity hitherto directed toward a variety of nonwhite and impoverished groups, while ostensibly liberating its user from charges of racism or class bias. Over the course of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, this category became a pervasive feature of public discourse about the welfare state, invoked by both Republicans and Democrats. It featured centrally in the debate leading up to the Clinton-era Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (1996), which eradicated Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), one of the cornerstones of the New Deal.

The paradox of participatory professionalism, then, is that a paradigm oriented toward assimilating the poor drew on a conception of poverty that so readily lent itself to their abjection. The readings that follow trace multiple moments when the process impetus to dissolve boundaries between artists and the poor instead reinforces those boundaries. This abrupt turn to abjection is especially characteristic of writers who drew on a process aesthetic to help fashion the idea of the underclass. Tom Wolfe, discussed in Chapter 4, exemplifies this turn. His New Journalism, formally influenced by Beat prose, drew on his supposed capacity to channel the anarchic energies of juvenile delinquents, rural Southerners, and other plebeian figures into his reporting. In his satire of Great Society liberalism, Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers (1970), the minority recipients of Community Action largesse embody these same anarchic energies as they perform their racial difference in ways that overwhelm and terrify War on Poverty administrators. Wolfe mimics this performance with his style, which similarly explodes bureaucratic procedures meant to contain San Francisco’s welfare recipients. However, Wolfe appropriates this style to expose liberal sympathy for the poor as a dangerous illusion that fosters underclass criminality. Radical Chic draws a sharp line between process art’s aesthetic and political projects in ways that appealed to the conservative reviewers who lauded the book.

Juvenile Delinquents and Welfare Mothers

Throughout the postwar era, two figures alternately facilitated and interrupted the process identification between participatory professionals and the poor: juvenile delinquents and welfare mothers. These figures have been central to debates about welfare since the 1960s, and they play a key role in many of the readings that follow. For conservative critics like Banfield, they were the two gendered sides of the underclass, figures in need of tough discipline that liberals were incapable of providing. Appealing to the racial animosities of white working- and middle-class voters (usually in ways that worked against their economic interests), politicians from Richard Nixon to Bill Clinton presented delinquents and welfare mothers as people who had rejected the middle-class work ethic. These politicians created a post-welfare state in which tough discipline became the norm for American social policy toward the poor, as crime laws targeted lower-class African American and Latino men and as workfare replaced welfare for single mothers. Loïc Wacquant describes the gendered effects of these two institutional changes:

The public aid bureaucracy, now reconverted into an administrative springboard into poverty-level employment, takes up the mission of inculcating the duty of working for work’s sake among poor women (and indirectly their children): 90 percent of welfare recipients in the United States are mothers. The quartet formed by the police, the court, the prison, and the probation or parole officer assumes the task of taming their brothers, their boyfriends or husbands, and their sons: 93 percent of US inmates are male.

These complementary institutions reinforce an economy defined by “the erosion of stable and homogeneous wage work.”79 They ensure that those at the bottom of the occupational hierarchy pursue low-wage jobs, even when those jobs are not available.

This post-1968 abjection of juvenile delinquents and welfare mothers was partly a response to their perceived status as privileged objects of professional concern during the War on Poverty. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the juvenile delinquent was the major figure that stood, in the eyes of most Americans, for the dangers of urban poverty.80 As originally conceptualized by John F. Kennedy, the War on Poverty was a war on delinquency; the Community Action Program, in particular, originated in the Kennedy-era President’s Committee on Juvenile Delinquency and Youth Crime. Most War on Poverty programs continued to focus on youth; Title I of the Economic Opportunity Act established the Job Corps “to increase the employability of young men and women aged sixteen through twenty-one,”81 and one of the unstated aims of the War on Poverty was to prevent young black men from rioting. Much of the sociological theory that informed the War on Poverty also focused on the problem of delinquency—in particular, Cloward and Ohlin’s Delinquency and Opportunity. In the War on Poverty’s later years, this focus on delinquency became a target for the program’s conservative critics, who pointed to several instances where Community Action Agencies paid salaries to gang leaders.82 Meanwhile, one of the most important effects of the War on Poverty was to expand AFDC, the primary New Deal program that helped single mothers. When President Johnson signed the Economic Opportunity Act, he insisted, “We are not content to accept the endless growth of relief rolls or welfare rolls. We want to offer the forgotten fifth of our people opportunity and not doles.”83 However, welfare activists associated with the Community Action Program successfully challenged discriminatory eligibility criteria that prevented many black single mothers from applying for AFDC, leading to a dramatic rise in welfare rates, especially in New York City. Between 1960 and 1970, the percentage of the city’s population receiving public assistance (mostly in the form of AFDC), rose from 4.9 to 14 percent.84

Of these two figures, the juvenile delinquent was more often adopted by participatory professionals as a synecdoche for the energies they associated with the poor. Juvenile delinquents were especially important for many postwar writers as mediating figures enabling their transition from product to process art. As I argue in Chapter 1, white delinquents played this role for Jack Kerouac. His novels depict them as class hybrids, caught between lower-class subcultures and a middle-class society. As such, they mirror Kerouac’s own sense of split class identity. Other countercultural writers, like Norman Mailer, similarly used white delinquents to imaginatively bridge the gap between middle-class whites and lower-class minorities. In Greenwich Village in the 1940s, Mailer imagined, “a ménage-a-trois was completed—the bohemian and the juvenile delinquent came face-to-face with the Negro, and the hipster was a fact in American life.” For both Kerouac and Mailer, the white delinquent embodied the present-oriented ontology that they wanted to capture in their work; in particular, both writers were fascinated by the delinquent’s capacity for spontaneous violence and willingness to court danger. “It can be suggested,” Mailer argued,

that it takes little courage for two strong eighteen-year old hoodlums, let us say, to beat in the brains of a candy-store keeper. . . . Still, courage of a sort is necessary, for one murders not only a weak fifty-year old man but an institution as well, one violates private property, one enters into a new relation with the police and introduces a dangerous element into one’s life. The hoodlum is therefore daring the unknown, and so no matter how brutal the act it is not altogether cowardly.85

For Mailer, the delinquent’s ability to live with danger, if properly channeled by the white writer, could be used as a force to disrupt the bureaucratic stasis of the welfare state and the formal rigidity of product art. Baraka’s version of the Black Arts similarly insisted that revolutionary artists can tap into the violent energies of juvenile delinquents; The System of Dante’s Hell imagines delinquent violence as a medium through which the black artist must pass in order to escape from the deadening influence of white literature.

Kerouac, Mailer, and Baraka’s romanticization of delinquent violence did not appeal to War on Poverty officials. However, activists associated with the Community Action Program similarly targeted delinquents as figures who best exemplified the need for more fluid forms of welfare work capable of reaching the urban poor. Chicago’s largest Community Action Agency, the Woodlawn Organization, received $927,000 to provide education and training to two of the city’s most violent street gangs, the Blackstone Rangers and Disciples. The program ran into problems almost immediately; the Rangers’ leader, Jeff Fort, was arrested for murder shortly after being hired as a teacher, and “trainees falsely signed checks and routinely didn’t show up to the programming.”86 Drawing on Cloward and Ohlin’s Delinquency and Opportunity, supporters argued that gang membership was the product of black youths’ inability to pursue social goals through legitimate means. Gangs were a sign of youths’ self-esteem and desire for community, and they could be turned into legitimate political organizations once assimilated into established institutions like the black church. As Reverend John Fry, who promoted the venture to the OEO, explained, the Blackstone Rangers’ “answer to the chaos and violence and banality of life in an antidemocracy has been to create a large organization capable of producing some genuine order and some safety from this exceedingly hostile environment.”87 The Woodlawn Organization’s gang outreach project, Fry believed, would not just transform the Rangers; it would change Chicago’s welfare establishment, making it more attentive to the legitimate concerns of the city’s black youth.

In perceiving delinquents as a rejuvenating force for middle-class experts, postwar writers and welfare professionals drew on a rich tradition of literary and journalistic representations of youth criminality. As Keith Gandal points out, although Progressive-era writers and journalists demonized lower-class criminals as threats to social order, they also titillated their readers with representations of delinquent violence. Stephen Crane, in Maggie, a Girl of the Streets (1893), underscored the ruthlessness, empty bravado, and moral hypocrisy of Bowery toughs like Maggie’s brother, Jimmie, and lover, Pete. At the same time, he imagined that they embodied an ethic of manly self-esteem that he counterpoised against the effete conformism of bourgeois society. The tough “has the proper relation to others: he is dedicated to defiance, immune to their opinions of him, and thus capable of resistance.”88 Slum violence, for Crane, was a sign of the ongoing energy of the lower class, an energy that he hoped to channel into his fiction and journalism and offer to the reader as an entertaining spectacle. Jacob Riis, in How the Other Half Lives (1890), was similarly fascinated by violent toughs. He distinguished between the toughs and thieves who preyed on the middle class and the paupers who depended on begging and charity: “The thief is infinitely easier to deal with than the pauper, because the very fact of his being a thief presupposes some bottom to the man. Granted that it is bad, there is still something, a possible handle by which to catch him.”89 As in the case of the Rangers, the very extremity of the thief’s challenge to middle-class institutions was a sign of his adaptability to them.

The other figure most often associated with the War on Poverty, the welfare mother, has rarely functioned as a sympathetic object of identification, either in literature or social science. While Crane’s Bowery toughs elicit his qualified admiration, destitute women like Maggie’s alcoholic mother, Mary, are wholly abject. In Maggie, Mary embodies a grotesque, feminine agency, and the novel highlights the violence that she unleashes on her children and furniture. Contemporary texts and films that ostensibly elicit sympathy for welfare mothers, such as Sapphire’s Push (1996) and its film adaptation, Precious (2009), often depict them in similar terms.90 For several of the writers discussed in the chapters that follow, single mothers function as figures who interrupt, rather than enable, the process impetus to deconstruct received literary forms and dissolve boundaries between artist and audience. In Kerouac’s On the Road, Dean Moriarty’s wives and girlfriends threaten to halt his cross-country, delinquent flights, confining him in lower-middle-class domesticity and silencing his improvisational raps. In Oscar Zeta Acosta’s autobiographical fiction, discussed in Chapter 3, Oscar’s Legal Services work for welfare mothers leaves him trapped in the static bureaucracies of Oakland’s poverty program; he becomes a radical lawyer and process artist when he begins to work for and write about male Chicano activists and delinquents in Los Angeles. In black nationalist dramas like Madheart (1966), Amiri Baraka chastens black women and seeks to reincorporate them into male-headed nuclear families; meanwhile, his poems celebrate black delinquents as potential revolutionaries.91 In general, whereas postwar writers imagine male delinquency as an expression of admirable, if exaggerated masculinity, they depict welfare mothers as monstrously aberrant. At times, the welfare mother resembles Riis’s pauper; she is a passive woman without character who loses her willpower when offered public charity. At other times, she is too willful—a domineering matriarch who castrates her male children and defrauds the state.92 When postwar writers offer sympathetic portraits of welfare mothers, they usually do so by rejecting the participatory thrust of process art. Gwendolyn Brooks, discussed in Chapter 2, is a case in point; her long poem “In the Mecca” seeks to rethink black nationalist depictions of single black mothers by insisting on the critical distance that the poem opens between the artist and her subject matter.

This abjection of welfare mothers reflects gender inequities embedded in the welfare state since the 1930s. The New Deal established a two-track system of welfare entitlements. Social Security programs in the first track, like unemployment insurance and old-age pensions, largely benefited white working- and middle-class men. These programs excluded most women and minorities; they did not apply to agricultural and domestic workers or to those in female-dominated professions like teaching and nursing.93 Programs in the second track, like AFDC (originally called Aid to Dependent Children, or ADC), specifically targeted poor women. Unlike programs in the first track, these programs were means tested; women had to prove that they had no other means of support. This division re-encoded a series of Victorian-era sentimental assumptions about women’s place in the public and private spheres.94 Unemployment insurance and old-age pensions were entitlements for working men, who were imagined as their families’ primary breadwinners. AFDC provided charity for poor mothers who, through no fault of their own, could not rely on those men; the program was designed for widows.

Through the War on Poverty, Democrats attempted to redress the racial inequalities of New Deal welfare redistribution. However, they replicated the New Deal’s treatment of single mothers as exceptional figures whose problems could be solved only by reintegrating them into families with fully employed male heads. Daniel Moynihan offered the most infamous version of this argument in The Negro Family. Drawing on earlier studies of the black family, especially E. Franklin Frazier’s The Negro Family in the United States (1939), Moynihan argued that black men’s exclusion from employment had damaged the African American family, creating a matriarchal pattern in which fathers “have unusually low power” or are altogether absent. Moynihan conceived of black women as both the victims and aggressors in this family structure. The high incidence of divorce and illegitimacy increases black women’s poverty and welfare dependency. However, black women also perpetuate a sense of inferiority in their husbands and sons, in part due to their own comparative success in finding domestic and secretarial work: “Both as a husband and as a father the Negro male is made to feel inadequate. . . . To this situation he may react with withdrawal, bitterness toward society, aggression both within the family and racial group, self-hatred, or crime.” Deprived of the example of strong working fathers, black sons in turn grow up to be weak or absent fathers, perpetuating the “tangle of pathology” for another generation.95 For Moynihan, black matriarchy was a problem that could not be resolved through Community Action Programs aimed at politicizing the poor.96 Instead, one of his chief recommendations was to enlist more black men in the army, “a world away from women, a world run by strong men of unquestioned authority.”97 In Moynihan’s work, participatory professionalism gives way to disciplinary solutions to the problem of lower-class cultural difference.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the delinquent and the welfare mother presided over the Democratic Party’s repudiation of the War on Poverty, dramatized by the emergence of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council and Bill Clinton’s signing of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act. With this legislation, Democrats largely abandoned their unfinished project of suturing the class divide between professionals and the underclass. They capitulated to Republican efforts to brand them as the party of liberal elitists invested in maintaining the nonwhite poor as a permanent welfare clientele. The perils and allure of process professionalism, however, continue to shape American political culture. This ongoing influence was evident in the presidency of Barack Obama, who began his career as a community organizer in Chicago, and by the white middle- and working-class backlash against that presidency, which culminated in the election of Donald Trump. America continues to work through the cultural debates provoked by the War on Poverty’s unrealized promise of an expanded welfare state. Maximum Feasible Participation traces the evolution of these debates in postwar literature, exploring the possibilities and limitations of welfare politics at the moment of its apotheosis and disappointing failure.


1. By 1965, HARYOU had merged with Adam Clayton Powell’s Associated Community Teams (ACT) to form the new hybrid organization HARYOU-ACT.

2. Herbert Krosney, Beyond Welfare: Poverty in the Supercity (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1966), 83.

3. Amiri Baraka, The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones / Amiri Baraka (1984; repr., Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 1997), 211.

4. Robert Levine, The Poor Ye Need Not Have with You: Lessons from the War on Poverty (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1970), 55.

5. Paul A. Fino, Republican congressman from New York, complained that BARTS’s plays “advocated Negro revolution and murder of white people.” Quoted in Erik Nielson, “White Surveillance of the Black Arts,” African American Review 47, no. 1 (2014): 174.

6. As Kenneth Clark announced in his proposal for HARYOU, its purpose was to cultivate “the strength of personality, the stability of character, and confidence which are required to achieve, and to function effectively within, a non-segregated society.” Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited, Youth in the Ghetto: A Study of the Consequences of Powerlessness and a Blueprint for Change (New York: Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited, 1964), 9–10.

7. Karen Ferguson, Top Down: The Ford Foundation, Black Power, and the Reinvention of Racial Liberalism (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), 1.

8. J. Phillip Thompson III, Double Trouble: Black Mayors, Black Communities, and the Call for a Deep Democracy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 148.

9. K. Ferguson, Top Down, 17–18. See also Devin Fergus, Liberalism, Black Power, and the Making of American Politics, 1965–1980 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2009), which similarly explores connections between liberalism and black nationalism.

10. See Roderick Ferguson, The Reorder of Things: The University and Its Pedagogies of Minority Difference (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012), for a recent account of the institutionalization of Black Power and other cultural nationalist movements within the post-1960s university.

11. Geneviève Fabre, Drumbeats, Masks, and Metaphor: Contemporary Afro-American Theatre, trans. Melvin Dixon (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983), 20.

12. K. Ferguson, Top Down, 7.

13. Amiri Baraka, Conversations with Amiri Baraka, ed. Charlie Reilly (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1994), 20–21.

14. Lyndon Johnson, “Remarks upon Signing the Economic Opportunity Act,” August 20, 1964, in The American Presidency Project, ed. Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, available at

15. “The Economic Opportunity Act of 1964,” Public Law 88-452, August 20, 1964, available at

16. For an account of changes taking place within social work in the 1960s, see John Ehrenreich, The Altruistic Imagination: A History of Social Work and Social Policy in the United States (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985), 187–208. I discuss the emergence of Legal Services, the Community Action Program’s network of legal aid offices, in Chapter 3. For a history of the free clinic movement among medical professionals, see Robert Castel, Françoise Castel, and Anne Lovell, The Psychiatric Society, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), 214–255.

17. Charles Olson, Collected Prose, ed. Donald Allen and Benjamin Friedlander (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 240. For an account of the centrality of ideas of process to post–World War II avant-garde poetry, see William Watkin, In the Process of Poetry: The New York School and the Avant-Garde (Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 2001).

18. Lisa Siraganian, Modernism’s Other Work: The Art Object’s Political Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 6.

19. Amiri Baraka, Home: Social Essays (1966; repr., Hopewell, NJ: Ecco Press, 1998), 173.

20. Paul Ylvisaker, quoted in Peter Marris and Martin Rein, Dilemmas of Social Reform: Poverty and Community Action in the United States (New York: Atherton Press, 1969), 42, 44.

21. Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited, Youth in the Ghetto, 349.

22. Mark McGurl, The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), ix.

23. For an overview of the massive literature on the professional-managerial class, see John Frow, Cultural Studies and Cultural Capital (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 89–130. See also Stephen Schryer, Fantasies of the New Class: Ideologies of Professionalism in Post–World War II American Fiction (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011).

24. McGurl, The Program Era, 59.

25. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) was founded in 1935 to carry out public works projects, including arts projects. Michael Szalay explores the WPA’s impact on 1930s literature in New Deal Modernism: American Literature and the Invention of the Welfare State (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000). In her account of the Ford Foundation’s interest in 1960s black theater, Karen Ferguson provides a sense of the massive number of minority artists funded through War on Poverty–related programs. She focuses on Robert Macbeth’s New Lafayette Theatre and Douglas Turner Ward’s Negro Ensemble Company, both located in New York. These two theaters alone were “hothouses for cultivating African American artists, producing hundreds who joined and enriched the American cultural mainstream.” Top Down, 209.

26. Madhu Dubey, Signs and Cities: Black Literary Postmodernism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 5.

27. Michael Fried’s “Art and Objecthood” (1967) was one of the first texts to characterize postmodern art in terms of its incorporation of audience response. Disparaging contemporary art trends as “theatrical,” he argued that by depending on audience engagement, they negate the “absorption” and “presentness” that characterizes modern painting. Art and Objecthood: Essays and Reviews (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998). As Michael Szalay notes, this concept offered critics “a way to map the distinction between a modernist, politically apathetic formalism on the one hand, and a proto-postmodern, proactive commitment to ‘the performative’ on the other.” New Deal Modernism: American Literature and the Invention of the Welfare State (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000), 261. Other early critics defined postmodernism as an art form that challenges modernist conceptions of literary expertise. Leslie Fiedler famously characterized postmodern novels as “anti-art” that try “to straddle the border, if not quite close the gap between high culture and low, belles lettres and pop art.” “Cross the Border—Close That Gap: Post-modernism,” in Postmodernism and the Contemporary Novel: A Reader, ed. Brian Nicol (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2002), 163, 164.

28. Schryer, Fantasies of the New Class.

29. As Sargent Shriver’s deputy, Adam Yarmolinsky, later reflected, “It was less expensive to prepare people for jobs than to create jobs for people.” Quoted in Michael Katz, The Undeserving Poor: From the War on Poverty to the War on Welfare (New York: Pantheon Books, 1989), 93. According to Alice O’Connor, the federal government’s embrace of community action was an effort to sidestep the structural demands of the civil rights movement, which was “building toward their own version of a ‘domestic Marshall Plan’ that would come to include job creation and income guarantees as well as more specifically race-targeted measures to combat segregation, discrimination, and the absence of capital in black urban communities.” Poverty Knowledge: Social Science, Social Policy, and the Poor in Twentieth-Century U.S. History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001), 149.

30. Steven Brint, In an Age of Experts: The Changing Role of Professionals in Politics and Public Life (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), 2.

31. For an account of how post–World War II writers helped the Democratic Party imaginatively synthesize its two new constituencies, see Michael Szalay, Hip Figures: A Literary History of the Democratic Party (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012).

32. For an overview of American social scientific theories of poverty throughout the twentieth century, see Katz, The Undeserving Poor; and O’Connor, Poverty Knowledge. Critics interested in connections between mid-century American literature and social science have mostly focused on the sociology of race. See in particular Carlo Rotella, October Cities: The Redevelopment of Urban Literature (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998); Roderick Ferguson, Aberrations in Black: Toward a Queer of Color Critique (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004); and Thomas Heise, Urban Underworlds: A Geography of Twentieth-Century American Literature and Culture (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2011).

33. Michael Harrington, The Other America: Poverty in the United States, with a New Introduction (1962; repr., New York: Macmillan, 1969), 8, 10.

34. Harrington borrowed this conception of poverty from John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Affluent Society (1958; repr., New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1998), where Galbraith distinguished between case and insular poverty, the two kinds of poverty that he claimed persisted after World War II. Case poverty “is commonly and properly related to some characteristic of the individuals so afflicted.” Insular poverty is restricted to islands of poverty where “everyone or nearly everyone is poor” due to “some factor common to their environment” (236).

35. Harrington, The Other America, 1, 6, 11, 18.

36. Oscar Lewis, La Vida: A Puerto Rican Family in the Culture of Poverty—San Juan and New York (New York: Random House, 1966), xlvi, xlv.

37. Richard Cloward and Lloyd Ohlin, Delinquency and Opportunity: A Theory of Delinquent Gangs (New York: Free Press, 1960).

38. James Sundquist, “Origins of the War on Poverty,” in On Fighting Poverty: Perspectives from Experience, ed. James Sundquist (New York: Basic Books, 1969), 7.

39. Marris and Rein, Dilemmas of Social Reform, 22.

40. O. Lewis, La Vida, xlviii.

41. As Charles Valentine complained in an early critique of Lewis, the culture of poverty thesis was used “to justify programs designed to inculcate middle-class values and virtues among the poor and especially their children, rather than changing the conditions of their existence.” “The ‘Culture of Poverty’: Its Scientific Significance and Its Implications for Action,” in The Culture of Poverty: A Critique, ed. Eleanor Burke Leacock (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1971), 213.

42. Szalay, Hip Figures, 4.

43. Jack Kerouac, On the Road (1957; repr., New York: Penguin Books, 1999), 169–170.

44. Olson, Collected Prose, 158.

45. Werner Sollors, Amiri Baraka / LeRoi Jones: The Quest for a “Populist Modernism” (New York: Columbia University Press, 1978), 25.

46. Jerry Watts, Amiri Baraka: The Politics and Art of a Black Intellectual (New York: New York University Press, 2001), 118.

47. Madhu Dubey, Black Women Novelists and the Nationalist Aesthetic (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), 17. Roderick Ferguson also notes this connection between black nationalism and the Moynihan report: “Black nationalist groups, while they contested Moynihan’s argument about the state being the appropriate catalyst to masculine agency, agreed with Moynihan’s thesis about the emasculating effects of black women and the need for black men to resume their role as patriarchs.” Aberrations in Black, 123.

48. Amiri Baraka and Edward Dorn, Amiri Baraka & Edward Dorn: The Collected Letters, ed. Claudia Moreno Pisano (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2013), 208.

49. Kenneth Marshall, cited in Daniel Moynihan, Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding: Community Action in the War on Poverty (New York: Free Press, 1969), 130.

50. Moynihan, Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding, 21, 24.

51. See Barry Bruce-Briggs, ed., The New Class? (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 1979), a collection of a series of essays outlining the neoconservative theory of the new class. See also Schryer, Fantasies of the New Class, 111–139.

52. Kenneth Clark, Dark Ghetto: Dilemmas of Social Power (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), xvi.

53. Joyce Ladner, ed., The Death of White Sociology: Essays on Race and Culture (1973, repr.; Baltimore: Black Classics Press, 1998). Other social scientists criticized Oscar Lewis’s specific formulation of the culture of poverty thesis throughout the 1960s. Eleanor Burke Leacock edited an anthology of these critiques, The Culture of Poverty.

54. In African American studies, the most influential critique of Moynihan is Hortense Spillers’s “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Diacritics 17, no. 2 (1987): 64–81. Latino/Latina writers’ critical response to Oscar Lewis’s work is addressed in Marta Sánchez, “Shakin’ Up” Race and Gender: Intercultural Connections in Puerto Rican, African American, and Chicano Narratives and Culture (1965–1995) (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005); and John Alba Cutler, Ends of Assimilation: The Formation of Chicano Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).

55. Gavin Jones, American Hungers: The Problem of Poverty in U.S. Literature, 1840–1945 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008), 15.

56. Walter Benn Michaels, The Shape of the Signifier: 1967 to the End of History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004), 180.

57. Gates, writes Warren, “has been all too ready to posit the idea of an underclass desperately in need of leadership from the talented fifteenth of black America,” while Baker proffers “a Moynihanesque remedy for black impoverishment.” So Black and Blue: Ralph Ellison and the Occasion of Criticism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 92, 98.

58. Ruth Benedict, Patterns of Culture (1934; repr., Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005), 46. Susan Rigdon explores Benedict’s impact on Lewis in The Culture Facade: Art, Science, and Politics in the Work of Oscar Lewis (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988), 6–15.

59. O. Lewis, La Vida, xv, xliv.

60. Oscar Lewis, Five Families: Mexican Case Studies in the Culture of Poverty (New York: Basic Books, 1959), 2.

61. Lewis’s confusion of class and culture is evident in the catalog of traits he associated with the culture of poverty, which includes female-headed families (arguably a cultural trait) but also “poor housing conditions” and “the use of second-hand clothing and furniture.” La Vida, xlvi. As Anthony Leeds notes about Lewis’s inclusion of “pawning” in his lists of traits, “this is a structural response to needs, usually rational and problem-solving, under extremely difficult conditions, rather than a specific trait of a postulated subculture.” “The Concept of the ‘Culture of Poverty’: Conceptual, Logical, and Empirical Problems, with Perspectives from Brazil and Peru,” in Leacock, The Culture of Poverty, 250.

62. O. Lewis, La Vida, xxiv, lii. By insisting on the culture of poverty’s thinness, Lewis echoed 1960s psychiatrists, who drew on sensory-deprivation studies to argue that the poor suffer from “cultural deprivation.” For more on this psychiatric trend and its impact on the War on Poverty, see Mical Raz, What’s Wrong with the Poor? Psychiatry, Race, and the War on Poverty (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013).

63. This same reductio ad absurdum of anthropological relativism featured centrally in the work of liberal social scientists whom Lewis influenced, such as Daniel Moynihan. In The Negro Family: The Case for National Action (Washington, DC: US Department of Labor, 1965), Moynihan gestured toward cultural relativism. “There is, presumably,” he admitted, “no special reason why a society in which males are dominant in family relationships is to be preferred to a matriarchal arrangement” (29). Nevertheless, Moynihan went on to describe lower-class black families as pathological aberrations from a white middle-class norm, citing research demonstrating that children from female-centered families are more likely to suffer from mental illness than those from patriarchal homes.

64. O. Lewis, La Vida, li.

65. Kerouac, On the Road, 91.

66. Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West, trans. Charles Francis Atkinson (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1926), 170–171.

67. Olson, Collected Prose, 158.

68. Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49 (1966; repr., New York: Harper & Row, 1986), 103, 105, 149, 150.

69. J. Kerry Grant, A Companion to “The Crying of Lot 49” (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1994), 125.

70. Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49, 103.

71. Sean McCann and Michael Szalay, “Do You Believe in Magic? Literary Thinking after the New Left,” Yale Journal of Criticism 18, no. 2 (2005): 436.

72. Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49, 102.

73. Edward Banfield, The Unheavenly City: The Nature and Future of Our Urban Crisis (Boston: Little, Brown, 1970), 46, 48.

74. Key texts that developed the concept of the underclass in the 1980s include Doug Glasgow, The Black Underclass (San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 1980); Ken Auletta, The Underclass (New York: Random House, 1982); and Lawrence Mead, Beyond Entitlement: The Social Obligations of Citizenship (New York: Free Press, 1986). By the mid-1980s, the term had gained traction among liberal as well as conservative writers; William Julius Wilson used it in The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987).

75. Banfield, The Unheavenly City, 127.

76. Adolph Reed Jr., Stirrings in the Jug: Black Politics in the Post-segregation Era (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), 180.

77. O. Lewis, La Vida, li.

78. Moynihan, The Negro Family, 5–6.

79. Loïc Wacquant, Punishing the Poor: The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009), 15, 4.

80. Until the mid-1960s, this figure was not necessarily black. The typical delinquent imagined by politicians and depicted in popular films like The Wild One (1953) and West Side Story (1961) was just as likely to be white ethnic or Puerto Rican.

81. “The Economic Opportunity Act of 1964.”

82. In particular, the Woodlawn Organization, a Chicago-based Community Action Agency, came under fire for paying salaries to the Blackstone Rangers.

83. Johnson, “Remarks upon Signing the Economic Opportunity Act.”

84. Much of this rise can be attributed to the migration of African Americans and Puerto Ricans to the city, rather than to the activities of the welfare rights movement. However, the movement was instrumental in pushing the city to increase welfare grants, which rose “in real terms by more than 37 percent while average wages were nearly stagnant.” Felicia Kornbluh, The Battle for Welfare Rights: Politics and Poverty in Modern America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007), 92.

85. Norman Mailer, Advertisements for Myself (1959; repr,, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992), 340, 347.

86. Natalie Moore and Lance Williams, The Almighty Black P Stone Nation: The Rise, Fall, and Resurgence of an American Gang (Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2011), 59.

87. John Fry, cited in ibid., 52.

88. Keith Gandal, The Virtues of the Vicious: Jacob Riis, Stephen Crane, and the Spectacle of the Slum (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 123.

89. Jacob Riis, How the Other Half Lives (1890; repr., Boston: Bedford / St. Martin’s, 1996), 222.

90. See, for example, Sapphire’s description of a typical meal eaten by Claireece Precious Jones and her abusive mother, Mary: “collard greens and ham hocks, corn bread, fried apple pies, and macaroni ’n cheese,” consumed until Claireece is “so full I could bust.” Push (New York: Vintage, 1996), 19, 20. It is not clear how the two women can afford this amount of food on the money they get from AFDC; at this moment in the text, Sapphire reinforces right-wing discourse about welfare queens. More generally, Sapphire splits her depiction of welfare mothers between the two women, echoing conventional distinctions between the deserving and undeserving poor. In spite of her two illegitimate children (the result of incestuous rape), Claireece is a would-be middle-class subject, as evidenced by her pursuit of literacy and desire to go to college. Mary, in contrast, grotesquely embodies all of the negative stereotypes associated with AFDC recipients.

91. In a climactic moment in Baraka’s Madheart, BLACK MAN slaps BLACK WOMAN. She responds, “I am your woman, and you are the strongest of God. Fill me with your seed.” Madheart, in Black Drama: 1850 to Present, ed. James V. Hatch, Will Whalen, and Jeremy Caleb Johnson (Chicago: Alexander Street Press, 2015), 17, available at

92. Riis, in How the Other Half Lives, provides his readers with an early example of a welfare queen—a woman who begs for money alongside her famished child. She turns out to be a “pauper capitalist” (223) with three thousand dollars in savings—in today’s money, about seventy-five thousand. Riis appears unaware that this example problematizes his distinction between the pauper and the tough; by deliberately committing fraud, the pauper exhibits the same character as the tough. This anecdote prefigures Ronald Reagan’s use of grotesque exaggeration. During his 1976 presidential campaign, Reagan described a Chicago woman arrested for welfare fraud: “She has eighty names, thirty addresses, twelve Social Security cards and is collecting veteran’s benefits on four non-existing deceased husbands. And she is collecting Social Security on her cards. She’s got Medicaid, getting food stamps, and she is collecting welfare under each of her names. Her tax-free cash income is over $150,000.” “‘Welfare Queen’ Becomes Issue in Reagan Campaign,” New York Times, February 15, 1976, 51.

93. Apart from excluding most African Americans from Social Security, the New Deal also helped enforce and extend urban segregation. The New Deal adopted another two-track system for dealing with the housing problems of whites and blacks. The Federal Housing Administration provided low-cost mortgages for whites buying suburban houses, while the United States Housing Authority built public housing for inner-city minorities. Racial discrimination was also built into AFDC. The states determined most eligibility requirements, which meant that many states, especially in the South, included rules that excluded women of color from receiving support. See Jill Quadagno, The Color of Welfare: How Racism Undermined the War on Poverty (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996).

94. See in particular Linda Gordon, Pitied but Not Entitled: Single Mothers and the History of Welfare, 1890–1935 (New York: Free Press, 1994); and Gwendolyn Mink, The Wages of Motherhood: Inequality in the Welfare State, 1917–1942 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996). See also Brandon Gordon, “Professions of Sentiment: Culture, Poverty, and the Social Work of American Literature” (PhD diss., University of California, Irvine, 2012), which traces AFDC’s impact on a sentimental tradition of American fiction stretching from the 1930s to the 1960s; and Susan Edmunds, Grotesque Relations: Modernist Domestic Fiction and the U.S. Welfare State (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), which situates New Deal–era domestic fiction in the context of the gender-bifurcated welfare state.

95. Moynihan, The Negro Family, 30, 34, 28. Moynihan’s feminist critics argue that he fundamentally misunderstands black family structure. In particular, beginning with Carol Stack’s All Our Kin: Strategies for Survival in a Black Community (1974; repr., New York: Basic Books, 2013), feminist social scientists have shown that black communities exhibit extended female kin networks that offer a viable alternative to the American patriarchal nuclear family.

96. While Moynihan promoted work training programs for African American men, he was one of the Community Action Program’s most outspoken Democratic critics. The program, he claimed, raised expectations it could never fulfill, pushing hitherto quiescent lower-class minorities into open conflict with society. The unanswered question of Community Action “is whether the poor are ever to be politicized save in terms of conflict and fear and the creation of hate objects.” Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding, 163.

97. Moynihan, The Negro Family, 42.