Michael B. Katz, an influential historian and social theorist who challenged the prevailing view in the 1980s and ’90s that poverty stemmed from the bad habits of the poor, marshaling the case that its deeper roots lay in the actions of the powerful, died on Aug. 23 in Philadelphia. He was 75.
His wife, Edda Katz, said the cause was cancer.
Professor Katz, who taught history at the University of Pennsylvania for the last 36 years and was a founder of its urban studies program, wrote more than a dozen books chronicling public welfare policies in the United States from the start of the republic through the 20th century.
The limited success of those efforts, he said, argued for adoption of a universal minimum-standard-of-living policy, sometimes known as theguaranteed minimum income. (Its supporters, on both sides of the political spectrum, included President Richard M. Nixon.)
Professor Katz’s best-known books, “In the Shadow of the Poorhouse: A Social History of Welfare in America” (1986) and “The Undeserving Poor: From the War on Poverty to the War on Welfare” (1990), examined American policy as it evolved from the poorhouses of the 18th century to the humanitarian reforms of the Progressive era; from the heavy-handed 1920s prescriptions for curing “behavioral dysfunction” in the poor (inspired by Freud) to the broad-based social safety-net measures of the New Deal.
Throughout American history, Professor Katz wrote, there was a fundamental tension between the micro and macro views of poverty. In the micro view, individuals were the authors of their lives and impoverishment proof of their moral failing. In the macro analysis, large historic forces and economic trends — war and peace, the shifting interests of capital — favored some people and disadvantaged others.
Professor Katz saw the predominant thinking in the Reagan and Clinton administrations as updated versions of the micro view. In the work requirements and eligibility restrictions imposed on welfare recipients in those years, he saw traces of 18th-century notions that divided the poor into two classes: the “deserving” poor (disabled war veterans, widows with children and others with Anglo-Saxon forebears) and the “undeserving” (everyone else).
Welfare did not create the entrenched poverty of the American urban ghetto, he wrote, and the welfare reforms enacted by President Bill Clinton in 1996 would not end it.
That, he said, would require an unflinching look at the history of racism and its effects in the United States: centuries of slavery followed by the failures of Reconstruction, including federal policies that hurt black farmers and forced them into low-wage work in the North; another hundred years of racial discrimination at every level of the law, including access to New Deal programs and the G.I. Bill of Rights; federally sanctioned banking rules that denied loans to blacks; the exodus of manufacturing jobs from American cities in the postwar years; and machine politics that undercut the power of the urban poor, especially the African-American poor. In a 1992 essay, “The Underclass as Metaphor,” Professor Katz said the causes of entrenched poverty had been long established. He quoted the Rev. Stephen Humphreys Gurteen, a 19th-century leader of charitable groups, who wrote in a 1882 article: “A terrible chasm already exists between the rich and the poor, for the existence of which the well-to-do of the country are largely responsible.”
Alice O’Connor, a professor of history and urban affairs at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said in an interview that Professor Katz’s influence in the field of social science research was “immense,” particularly since the 1990s, when the welfare reform consensus threatened to shut down debate on the problem of poverty.
“He helped a generation to rediscover the tools of social science,” Professor O’Connor said, and “reintroduced them to a language — a counternarrative — for discussing poverty.”
Michael Barry Katz was born in Wilmington, Del., on April 13, 1939, the only child of George Katz and the former Beatrice Goldstein. His father was an industrial chemist and his mother a homemaker. He received his bachelor’s degree from Harvard in 1961, a master’s in social studies there in 1962 and a doctorate in the history of education, also from Harvard, in 1966.
He wrote his first books on the history of education and school reform movements. In “The Irony of Early School Reform” (1968), he looked at the efforts of 19th-century industrial barons to tailor educational programs to suit their needs while cutting costs.
Professor Katz taught history at the University of Toronto from 1974 to 1978 before joining the faculty at the University of Pennsylvania, where he was the Walter H. Annenberg professor of history from 2001 until his death.
He is survived by his wife, Edda Katz; their daughter, Sarah; two children from a previous marriage, Paul and Rebecca; seven grandchildren; and a great-grandchild.
In the 1990s, Professor Katz joined a heated debate about a segment of the poor referred to as “the underclass” — drug addicts, dropouts, unwed mothers, long-term welfare recipients and others who formed a “culture of poverty” supposedly beyond help.
In the introduction to an anthology he edited in 1992, “The Underclass Debate: Views From History,” Professor Katz said the idea of poverty as an “underclass” problem was misguided.
“The processes creating an underclass degrade all our lives,” he wrote, adding, “We will flourish or sink together.”