Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Mical Raz's "What’s Wrong with the Poor?"

Mical Raz, M.D., Ph.D., is a physician and historian of medicine. She is author of The Lobotomy Letters: The Making of American Psychosurgery.

Raz applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, What's Wrong with the Poor?: Psychiatry, Race, and the War on Poverty, and reported the following:
Page 99 of What’s Wrong with the Poor? finds us in the middle of a discussion of early intervention programs, and it begins in introducing Project Head Start. This is particularly apt, as Head Start is one of the best-known legacies of the War on Poverty, and as I argue in the chapter, was based on theories of deprivation. The debate over Head Start demonstrates how theories of mental health and development were utilized in discussions of poverty, its causes and its prevention. In particular, these theories highlighted the role of deprivation, focusing on what was it that poor men, women and children lacked.

Throughout the book, I look at different theories of deprivation, which focused on a wide range of experiences mental health experts believed low income children were lacking. These perceptions were deeply stereotyped. Parents were described as non-verbal, mothers failed to adequately stimulate their children, homes were drab and colorless, and there were no books or educational toys for the children to play with. Low income children were seen as lacking the necessary stimuli for mental and psychological development, and hence early intervention programs were designed to provide that which these children lacked in their homes.

Project Head Start set out to combat these deficiencies. While the goal to provide quality educational experience for the poor may have been laudable, it was based on flawed and racialized perceptions of low income families and children, many of whom were African American. Rather than focusing on the strengths and resilience of low income families and examining the structural causes of racial and socioeconomic inequality in American society, theories of mental health provided policy makers a means by which to turn poverty into an intra-psychic deficiency. This view of poverty led to funding priorities that privileged mental health and educational interventions, thus circumventing a discussion of the structural factors that create and perpetuate such disparities within American society. What’s Wrong with the Poor? examines the interrelations between mental health and public policy and asks how can we effectively combat poverty without pathologizing the poor.
Learn more about What's Wrong with the Poor? at the University of North Carolina Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue