Newsletter #32: The New Democrats and an Old Approach to Poverty, with Lily Geismer

By Maia Silber

In March 1929, Werrett Wallace Charters, director of the Bureau of Educational Research at Ohio State University, proposed an experiment. Charters worried that Ohio’s recently passed compulsory school attendance laws failed to benefit adolescents unsuited to academic education, who would finish high school only to “drift into the ranks of the dependent and delinquent classes.” For these students, Charters recommended the creation of a new school program dedicated to manual training. After all, young people of certain backgrounds were innately suited to the completion of simple, repetitive industrial tasks — shouldn’t schools cultivate this capacity?

Initially, Charters was an outlier among his allies in the era’s progressive campaigns for child welfare, who had long seen schooling as a bulwark against industrial labor. But over time, his position became more mainstream. By the 1950s, the organizations that had once sought to outlaw child labor now collaborated with employers to create work training and placement initiatives for adolescents, even establishing programs for students to work part-time as janitors and cafeteria staff in their own schools.

I’ve been puzzling over this trajectory while researching the history of child labor, and The Dig’s recent interview with Lily Geismer helped me make some sense of it. Geismer’s new book Left Behind: The Democrats’ Failed Attempt to Solve Inequality examines a more recent vintage of progressivism: the Clintonite anti-poverty agenda of charter schools, microcredit, and welfare work requirements. As Geismer explains on The Dig, the Democratic Party’s neoliberal turn wasn’t merely a response to or cooptation of Reaganism, but rather a sui-generis vision for saving the victims of global capitalism by bringing them more thoroughly into the market.

Listen to this week’s episode of The Dig here.

As Geismer argues, the New Democrats’ commitment to addressing social inequality through the market grew in part out of the old Democrats’ New-Deal era efforts to save capitalism from itself. I think that the vision Geismer articulates goes even further back: to Progressive Era efforts to uplift those deemed the “deserving poor” by integrating them into a supposedly more moral, more efficient market economy. Tracing the continuities of this vision over the course of the twentieth century is essential because it allows us to move away from a framework that sees liberalism only as a foil to conservatism or even as a moderate version of leftism. Liberalism, at least as manifest in US policymaking, comes to take on distinctive qualities: a commitment to individual uplift, technocratic expertise, and public-private collaboration.

If the limited vision of conventional progressivism seems depressingly resilient, then hope lies in understanding and exploiting its tensions: between its critique of capitalism and its optimism that capitalists themselves can address that critique, between its identification of structural inequality and its tendency to treat poverty as a matter of personal responsibility. Leftists have at times succeeded in pushing mainstream Democrats closer toward the promotion of the public good by leveraging the party’s ostensible commitment to justice and equality against its individualizing, technocratic tendencies. While some postwar child welfare reformers tinkered with work training programs, others fought to extend legal protections to young migrant agricultural laborers. The New Democrats are, after all, our old problem.

Further Reading and Listening:

From The Dig archives, interviews that chart the long history of neoliberalism include the show’s discussion with Melinda Cooper on “family values” and our conversation with Quinn Slobodian on the Geneva School. We’ve interviewed Lily Geismer before on her excellent first book, Don’t Blame Us: Suburban Liberals and the Transformation of the Democratic Party.

Before Bill Clinton told the story of Lillie Harden, a black mother from Little Rock, Arkansas, to illustrate the merits of work over welfare, the idea of the “deserving poor” had a long history. The best books on the history of individualizing poverty include Michael Katz’s The Undeserving Poor: America’s Enduring Confrontation with Poverty, Alice O’Connor’s Poverty Knowledge: Social Science, Social Policy, and the Poor in Twentieth-Century US History, and Brent Ruswick, Almost Worthy: The Poor, Paupers, and the Science of Charity in America, 1877-1917.