In Memoriam: Michael B. Katz

In Memoriam: Michael B. Katz

We at Dissent are deeply saddened by the loss of our longtime contributor and friend Michael Katz, who passed away on Saturday. Katz’s contributions to Dissent in recent years included “Why Aren’t U.S. Cities Burning?” (2007), “The Death of ‘Shorty’” (2009), “Public Education as Welfare” (2010), and, most recently, “Borders and Bootstraps” (2013). With Mike Rose, he was the co-editor of Public Education Under Siege (2013), a collection of essays on education reform, many of which were first published in these pages. A full list of Katz’s articles for Dissent can be found here.

Here, we offer tributes from Michael Katz’s friends and colleagues Mike Rose and Thomas Sugrue.

Mike Rose

My friend Michael Katz died this weekend. Michael wrote brilliantly about the history of cities, of poverty, and of education. His books are meticulously researched and argued; they sharpen, and often change, the way you think. Among my favorites are The Irony of Early School Reform, In the Shadow of the PoorhouseThe Undeserving PoorThe Price of CitizenshipOne Nation Divisible (with Mark Stern); and there are others, all wonderful.

He helped me immeasurably over the last twenty years with my work. Immeasurably. And a few years back, we got to collaborate, editing a series of essays on school reform. As I’m sure his many students would verify, Michael’s feedback was something. He was tough-minded and didn’t hold back, though he provided the hard news in a way that made your writing better. And when you got praise—and he was generous with praise—well, you could take it to the bank, for Michael was not a bullshitter. I will always remember and celebrate his intellectual integrity. I am going to miss him very much.

I reprint below a post I wrote in October 2013 when a revised edition of The Undeserving Poor came out. It’s a phenomenal book, and it couldn’t be more timely.

Sometime in the early 1990s, I found historian Michael B. Katz’s book The Undeserving Poor, which had been published a few years before. I still remember sitting in my small back bedroom—a makeshift study—scribbling notes all over the pages of the book as Katz described and analyzed the ways Americans have defined and discussed poverty. He had me hooked from the first sentence: “The vocabulary of poverty impoverishes political imagination.”

The Undeserving Poor was not so much a history of poverty in the United States as a history of ideas about poverty, and the ideas were complex and, for the most part, troubling. I began to understand how it is that poor people are so often categorized and characterized in such one-dimensional and insidious ways: as shirkers, or passive, or morally defective, or stupid—as people responsible for their poverty because of some damning personal or cultural quality. I also began to understand the reasons behind various interventions aimed at poverty—or refusals to intervene. I had never read a book quite like this, one that demonstrated just how much the ideas and language in the air matter in the construction of public policy. As someone who had a background in literature and in psychology, I certainly was trained to appreciate the power of language, but Katz helped me see the intimate connection between words (and the ideas driving those words) and specific social attitudes, political positions, and legislative initiatives. The book was eye-opening, and it would have a profound effect on my own way of understanding social issues and writing about them.

Let me admit that Michael Katz is a friend, and we have recently written together, but my initial impression of The Undeserving Poor was formed years before I met him. I thought it was a hugely important book when I first read it, and I think this new edition is hugely important as well. Especially now. We as a nation pretty much ignore poverty as a public policy issue. The ideas in the air regarding poverty in the United States are, to use Katz’s 1989 phrase, “impoverished.” The solutions that have political sway are either market-based (during the last election some conservatives were suggesting that the poor needed to start their own businesses) or involve educational or social-psychological interventions, such as helping the poor develop mental toughness or “grit.” There is no serious talk about jobs programs or housing or expanded social services or restoring the safety net. Within such comprehensive policies, educational and market-based interventions would make more sense and have a chance of succeeding.

More than any book I know, The Undeserving Poor helps us understand why Americans talk about poverty the way we do and why our public policy—sometimes noble, sometimes mean-spirited—takes the shape it does. It is one of the important social science books of our time.

Thomas Sugrue

My most valued colleague, Michael B. Katz, just passed away after a long struggle with cancer. I already miss him terribly. He was a model mentor and scholar, someone who fearlessly engaged the world outside the academy. He tackled America’s most pressing social problems—public education, inequality, poverty and welfare, urban policy—with deep passion and real rigor. I first met Michael just after I started working on my dissertation; he went on to hire me at Penn, seeing something in me and my work when I was still finishing that dissertation and untested as a scholar. He unwaveringly supported me throughout my career and in my personal life.

Michael began his career as a historian of education, publishing The Irony of Early School Reform in 1968, a book that set the agenda for the field of the history of education for the next generation. His emphasis on the relationship of education to bureaucracy and to the demands of industrial capitalism reinvigorated the mostly traditional field of educational history, one that had focused primarily on institutions and ideas, rather than on their social and economic impact. That book is still in print. He turned toward quantitative methods in the late 1960s and 1970s, writing some of the most sophisticated works in the “new urban history,” with an emphasis on class, inequality, and social mobility.

But Michael was not content to continue working in that subfield. Rather, he switched gears, writing on the history of poverty and welfare in the United States, brilliantly combining intellectual history, the history of public policy, and social history. The diversity of his methods are visible in his classic book In the Shadow of the Poorhouse (1986), a highly acclaimed history of American poverty policy that spans the period from the early Republic through the War on Poverty. In several articles, some published in his collection Poverty and Policy, others in his book Improving Poor People, Michael used rich individual case records from social service agencies to tell the history of poverty from the perspective of poor people themselves, an approach that gives voice to otherwise anonymous poor people themselves. He carried this approach through his recent essay on the death of “Shorty,” a middle-aged, African American murder victim in turn-of-the-twenty-first-century Philadelphia, whose troubled life he reconstructed through court records, interviews, and on-the-ground detective work.

His book The Undeserving Poor (1988) offered an intellectual history of the War on Poverty and the emergence of anti-welfare politics in the United States in the 1980s. I read that book on a plane in 1988, and knew then that I needed to meet this guy. Michael’s work on poverty led him to the Social Science Research Council, where he convened a working group of historians to bring a much-needed long-term perspective to the stunted debate on the “urban underclass,” one that resulted in an important collection of essays published in 1993, including an important essay deconstructing the very concept of underclass itself. Michael was also interested in the ideological underpinnings of poverty scholarship and, to that end, he persuaded the SSRC to let him conduct dozens of oral histories with social scientists and foundation executives involved in the “underclass” project, providing future historians with an invaluable archive to explore the relationship between foundation funding, scholarly agenda-setting, and public policy.

Michael’s thinking about poverty evolved through his scholarship: in his most recent work—including his new edition of The Undeserving Poor—he foregrounded work on gender and welfare, building from some of the best work by younger scholars in the profession. His scholarship has had international influence; his books have been translated into several languages, including Chinese and Japanese, and his articles have appeared in Hungarian, Italian, and French.

Michael’s scholarly output was substantive and field defining, but he was no ivory tower academic. Throughout his career he engaged public policy debates head on and has published work intended to shape the direction of policymakers. One of his more interesting efforts in this respect was a project on the history of Chicago school reform in the 1980s and early 1990s, which he saw as one of the few promising moments in post-1960s educational history because of the district’s strong (but short-lived) efforts to give parents a voice in school governance. In the 1990s, he brought a big-picture perspective to Pennsylvania’s governor, using his skills as a scholar in an effort to transform Pennsylvania’s right-leaning welfare system (which, in the 1980s, through waivers and workfare experiments in the 1980s, encouraged by the Reagan and Bush administrations, had become a model for conservative welfare reform initiatives nationwide). Michael believed in bringing his research to varied audiences: He published books with university presses and major trade publishers, and in journals as diverse as Journal of American History, the Teachers College Record, and Dissent. He has addressed academic audiences with the same energy as groups of Chicago public school parents and social workers who provide assistance to the homeless.

Not surprisingly, Michael was a magnet for talented graduate students, the vast majority of whom have gone onto distinguished careers. Their success owes a lot to Michael’s rigor as a teacher. He has taught seminars in urban history, social history, and the history of education that many of his students describe as formative intellectual experiences. I wish I could be half as conscientious an advisor as Michael was: Students marveled that he returned student papers, dissertation chapters and even whole dissertations, marked up, usually overnight (and never later than within a few days of receiving them). Michael treated his students as them as co-equals, not as research assistants.

The last year or so was very frustrating for Michael as his body gave way to the ravages of cancer. He was someone who—until age seventy-four—took spinning classes several mornings a week, lifted kettle bells, and took long walks almost daily. When I last saw him, in July, during a brief respite in his illness, he insisted on taking a walk around his beloved West Philadelphia neighborhood. He was stubborn, realistic, and never dour, even in the face of adversity. While his energy flagged, he set aside time to write autobiographical essays. We had many lively conversations and, even in the last few months, he provided me with indispensable advice. I will always remember his fierce intellect, his perseverance, his generosity, and especially his commitment, against the odds, to make the world a just place. May his memory be a blessing.

Mike Rose is on the faculty of the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. This tribute first appeared on his blog.

Thomas J. Sugrue is David Boies Professor of History and Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. His most recent book is Not Even Past: Barack Obama and the Burden of Race (2010).