A Walk on the Supply Side

A Walk on the Supply Side

Michael B. Katz

Vol. 12, No. 4, 1990, p. 6

“One of the most enduring and indivious social categories is ‘stranger.’ We engage the world as a series of concentric circles based on degrees of relation: family, friends, neighbors, community, strangers. The composition of the circles shifts over time, but strangers remain always on the outside. Not surprisingly, they are the primary objects of a continuing debate about, to use Michael Ignatieff’s evocative phrase, the ‘needs of strangers.’ As in England, colonial American poor laws were clear about the limits of social obligation. Parents and children remained responsible for each other; communities were to ease the suffering of their members. But the public owed nothing to strangers, who were to be shunted back to their community of origin.

“Within cities, poor people have almost always remained strangers. We pass their houses on a train or in a car; read about them as individual cases; study them as abstract statistics; and encounter them asking for help in public places. Most of the writing about poor people, even by sympathetic observers, tells us that they are different, truly strangers in our midst. Poor people think, feel, and act in ways unlike middle-class Americans. Their poverty is to some degree a matter of personal responsibility, and its alleviation requires personal transformation, such as the acquisition of skills, commitment to the work ethic, or the practice of chastity. This “supply-side” view of poverty, often despite powerful evidence, has coursed through American social thought for centuries.”

–from the introduction to The Undeserving Poor, by Michael B. Katz (Pantheon Books, 1989).