Penn historian examines poverty and school reform

President Obama spoke movingly about poverty and income inequality in his Aug. 28 speech commemorating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.

Michael Katz, the Walter H. Annenberg Professor of History in the School of Arts & Sciences, says he hopes the president’s speech signals that poverty is moving back onto the national agenda and into the national conversation, after a long absence.

Katz, who has been at Penn since 1978, has spent decades studying the history of American education, the history of urban social structure and family organization, and the history of social welfare and poverty.

His latest book, “The Undeserving Poor: America’s Enduring Confrontation with Poverty,” revisits topics he first explored in his seminal 1989 bestseller, “The Undeserving Poor: From the War on Poverty to the War on Welfare.”

“It’s really a new book, and one that’s appropriate for this historical moment,” Katz says. It examines the history of the forces behind America’s public policies on poverty, from the 1960’s War on Poverty, to welfare reform in the 1990s, to the current “rightward movement” in the poverty war.

Katz says three questions animate the book’s discourse on poverty: Who deserves to be helped? What is the impact of assistance on people’s willingness to work and maintain families? And what do we owe to each other as members of families, communities, and as citizens?

In late June, Penn Press published another new book by Katz, “Public Education Under Siege,” which he co-edited with Mike Rose, a professor at the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at UCLA. The book examines education reform in America and lays out a case for an alternative to the dominant current view of education reform, which stresses market models and high-stakes testing.

Chapters were written by education policy experts and practitioners, and cover topics such as public policy, teacher unions, economic inequality, and race. The book opens with a chapter on “The Mismeasure of Teaching and Learning: How Contemporary School Reform Fails the Test.”

Katz’s contribution to the book includes an introduction with Rose, a chapter titled, “Public Education as Welfare,” and a substantive conclusion with Rose titled, “What is Education Reform?”

“It is an unusual, and, we think, important book that is accessible to non-specialists and of wide interest,” Katz says.

Katz Poor