Research at Yale

Psychiatry, Politics and Civil Rights

The Poor Have Less: How Theories of Deprivation Shaped the War on Poverty

In the 1960s, psychiatric theories of deprivation, particularly maternal, sensory and cultural, became the leading framework by which mental health experts and social policy makers viewed the needs and abilities of low income children and adults of color. Mical Raz, MD, PhD, post-doctoral fellow at the Section of the History of Medicine focuses on this moment in American history in her new book project: The Poor Have Less: How Theories of Deprivation Shaped the War on Poverty. She examines the interplay between psychiatric theory and social policy, analyzing how the discourse of experts influenced public policy throughout the War on Poverty, ending with President Nixon’s 1971 veto of a bill which would have provided universal day care. Raz argues that theories of deprivation became the main currency for an exchange of ideas, fostering professional cooperation between mental health experts and liberal-minded policy makers. Most of the questions addressed through the framework of deprivation, however, were about two overlapping sections of American society – poor and Black. The poor had less; African Americans, disproportionately represented amongst America’s poor, were seen to have practically nothing. New theories and terms were developed to describe what it was that low income and mainly African American families lacked, and how these deficits could be most effectively remedied.

 The Poor Have Less examines the historical origins of the deprivation hypothesis, and argues that “cultural deprivation” was based on race and class-specific interpretations of sensory and maternal deprivation. It examines how the highly political term “cultural deprivation” became the leading framework by which to conceptualize the needs and challenges of children from low income and minority homes. Yet, Raz suggest, this process was not inevitable. Her book project examines the political and cultural context that led child mental health experts, educators and policy makers to embrace the deprivation theory and its translation into liberal social policy. By the early 1970s, many liberals became disenchanted with deprivation theory, which has been aptly described as a form of “blaming the victim,” and within a few years, it became overwhelmingly identified with conservative politics. In the 1960s, however, it was the bon-ton of well-intentioned liberals, who believed that correcting perceived deficiencies was the first step in rectifying social inequalities. The interventions modeled on deprivation theory have had a long-lasting effect on American culture, reinforcing racial and class stereotypes.

 In her interdisciplinary study, Raz examines the different sites in which politics, psychiatry and civil rights intersected – from early childhood intervention programs, to the institution of “tracking systems” in recently desegregated schools, to the use of psychiatric theories in interpreting the urban race riots of the 1960s. She argues that deprivation theory has had a long-lasting effect on American culture, profoundly shaping how both health professionals and educators view children from low income and culturally and linguistically diverse homes. Focusing on what is missing, rather than what is there; on deprivation, rather than on differences or strengths and coping mechanisms, the legacy of deprivation theory lives on. Her new book, The Poor Have Less examines an important chapter in American social policy, and provides a provocative analysis of liberal politics.