By Elisa Minoff
“Selected Readings in Law and Poverty” is a remarkable document. Gary Bellow compiled the bibliography with the help of several law students in 1964, for a course he was teaching at Georgetown Law called Poverty and the Administration of Justice. At the time, Bellow was a young public interest lawyer working at the Legal Aid Agency of the District of Columbia. Bellow would later work at two other organizations funded by the War on Poverty—the United Planning Organization (a community action agency in DC) and California Rural Legal Assistance (a pioneering legal services organization serving California’s farm workers)—before leaving legal practice for academia, where he helped found modern clinical legal education.
In 32 well-organized and quickly-digestible pages, the bibliography transports us back in time to those heady early days of the War on Poverty. It reminds us that what we have come to think of as the intellectual influences on the War on Poverty amount to only a sliver of the popular and scholarly writing on poverty at the time. And it gives us a taste of the ambition of practitioners like Bellow who were considering how to use the law in the fight against poverty.
Part I of the Bibliography, “The Elements of Poverty,” is most interesting to the general historian and reader. In it, Bellow and his fellow contributors list some of the most influential works on poverty from the early 1960s. Notably, the list does not stop at Michael Harrington’s The Other America or Ben Bagdikian’s In the Midst of Plenty. Bellow wanted to stimulate “law students in becoming more concerned with the legal problems of the poor and the urban condition,” as he wrote in the introduction. Accordingly, the selections tend to focus on the underlying causes of poverty, especially urban poverty, and the structural conditions that account for its persistence. Subsections on politics, race, class structure, and psychology include works by Saul Alinksy, Seymour Martin Lipset, Herbert Gans, Oscar Lewis, Ralph Ellison and Charles E. Silberman. These books were not low-circulation editions read by a handful of academics and poverty experts, but trade (and in some cases mass-market) paperbacks that became part of the larger public discourse about contemporary social problems.
As a historian of migration and social welfare, I was particularly excited to see Oscar Handlin’s The Newcomers listed among the “General Considerations.” Handlin was a prolific historian of immigration who had written the pulitzer-prize winning The Uprooted in 1951. In the late 1950s, he had turned to the study of contemporary internal migration. In The Newcomers, Handlin chronicles the experiences of Puerto Ricans and African Americans who had recently moved to New York City. When Handlin published The Newcomers, popular commentators had begun to blame migrants for the struggles of America’s inner cities, and social workers had come to believe that helping migrants “adjust” or “assimilate” to urban life was a prerequisite to solving urban poverty. Migration, in other words, was very much a part of the debate about poverty in the years leading up to Lyndon Johnson’s declaration, and Bellow’s bibliography manages to capture this too.
Considering the trends in anti-poverty research over the last several decades, the subsection on “The Psychology of Poverty” is particularly interesting. Psychology is yet another subject that has been largely missing from discussions of poverty, but was very much a part of the debates in the 1960s. Historian Alice O’Connor describes the “behavioral sciences revolution” that infused poverty research in the 1950s and 60s. During these years, the National Institute of Mental Health funded a number of influential studies and conferences on poverty. Bellows himself admitted to being especially concerned with the psychology of the poor. As he observed in a fascinating interview in 1964: ”It seems to me that poverty is something more than just economic deprivation. It seems to be characterized by a psychological dimension, a feeling of hopelessness, of powerlessness, of an inability among the poor as we call them to belong to any institution or feel a part of our society.” (Bellows and others involved in the legal services movement, believed that the law could help the poor combat this feeling of powerlessness bring them into the fold of American society.) In later years, anti-poverty activists became disenchanted with psychology as a subject that could help explain poverty’s persistence and gravity. After decades of marginalization, however, psychology is once again a part of the discussion, as researchers have started to unveil the long-lasting repercussions of phenomena like poverty-induced toxic stress in early childhood.
(As a footnote on the subject of psychology and poverty, Bellow includes Oscar Lewis’ book, The Children of Sanchez, in the list of works on psychology. In this book, Lewis develops his idea of a culture of poverty—another concept that has recently enjoyed something of a rebirth).
What is most notable about Part II of the bibliography, “The Legal Problems of the Poor,” is how broadly Bellow conceived these problems. Among the legal problems of the poor highlighted in the bibliography are housing issues, such as urban renewal and relocation, zoning, and landlord tenant disputes; consumer protection issues, such as loan and debt problems and purchasing on credit; criminal justice issues, such as arrest and the right to counsel; as well as, to randomly select just a few: juvenile delinquency, unemployment compensation, and discrimination. Part II, which primarily consists of law review articles, includes much more technical works than Part I, which is populated with books by academics, journalists, and activists written for a general audience. But the technicality does not suggest narrow or small mindedness. Poverty law, a la Bellow, addressed any and all issues that arose in the everyday lives of America’s poor. It was far more than the law of public assistance benefits.
Bellow’s bibliography poses something of a challenge to scholars concerned with poverty today: to think broadly, and ambitiously, about the problems of the poor, and to circulate our ideas widely so that they too may become part of the public discourse—fifty years after the War on Poverty.
About the author: Elisa Minoff is a political and legal historian, who will be teaching as an Assistant Professor of History at the University of South Florida beginning in the fall of 2014. She has conceptualized and developed the collaborative War on Poverty bibliography, which is available as a google doc.
More information about the bibliography can be found on NEJL’s War on Poverty — Legal Services Resources Center website.
Other related resources:
“Selected Readings in Law and Poverty,” prepared by Gary Bellow for a seminar at Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and the Administration of Justice taught in 1964-1965.
Interview with Gary Bellow on the Role of the Lawyer and the Problem of Poverty by Richard D. Capparella, District Roundtable, WWDC, May 9, 1964. Gary Bellow collection, NEJL. Reformatted vinyl recording is available as a streaming mp3 file at: https://repository.library.georgetown.edu/handle/10822/707482