book review

Book Review Preview: Blaming the Poor

By David Imbroscio

Susan D. Greenbaum, Blaming the Poor: The Long Shadow of the Moynihan Report on Cruel Images About Poverty (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2015). blaming the poor

The Moynihan Report’s “regrettably durable impact” on “race relations and social policy in the US, with an emphasis on the humiliating image the report cast of poor black families and the misleading explanation for where poverty comes from” serves as backdrop for Susan Greenbaum’s wonderfully engaging new book.  The book also is a professional memoir of sorts, discussing aspects of her long and productive career as an urban anthropologist and steadfast poverty warrior.

The best way to read Greenbaum’s book is as an extended critique of the liberal perspective on urban poverty.  While she offers some passing criticisms of neoliberals and conservatives, her main targets are New Deal/Great Society liberals (whom she characterizes as “otherwise sensible people” who hold “disingenuous, distanced, and delusional beliefs” about poverty).  Naming the names, she writes:

From the eugenics enthusiasts of the early twentieth century (which included an embarrassing number of social liberals) to … eminent researchers like William J. Wilson, Douglas Massey, and Robert Sampson who proudly declare their liberal bona fides, the implication that poor people are incapable of or not ready for … any real say in decisions that affect their lives and futures, reflects a set of assumptions that conform rather directly to the tangle of pathology meme.

Also called out are bastions of liberal thinking such as the Urban Institute, as well as liberal concepts like “neighborhood effects” and (ostensibly “enlightened”) liberal “social engineering” as best illustrated by programs like Hope VI and MTO.

While it is well understood that neoliberal and conservative views on urban poverty are bankrupt, her book helps us understand why liberal views are perhaps equally so. For teaching purposes, juxtaposing her critique with the near-hegemonic liberal view affords students the opportunity to assess their relative merits rather than presenting the latter as unchallenged dogma.


David Imbroscio’s full JUA review of Blaming the Poor: The Long Shadow of the Moynihan Report on Cruel Images About Poverty is available in Early View.

David L. Imbroscio is a Professor of Political Science and Urban & Public Affairs at the University of Louisville.

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