In the following interview, Mical Raz, author of What’s Wrong with the Poor?: Psychiatry, Race, and the War on Poverty discusses how the understanding of poverty and mental health has affected social policy in the United States.
Mical Raz (photo by Daniel Mazza Levin)
Q: You are a physician and a historian of medicine. How did you become interested in American psychiatry and social policy and how has your interdisciplinary training uniquely prepared you to write this book?
A: As a physician, I am interested in questions of disparities in medical care and in providing quality medical care to disadvantaged populations. While volunteering at an open clinic in Israel, serving undocumented workers and asylum seekers, I became more aware of how political conditions shaped individuals’ access and experience of health care. This interest intersected with my training in the history of psychiatry as I embarked on this study of poverty and mental health in the 1960s.
As a historian of medicine, my analysis reconstructs what understandings of mental health were reflected in policy makers’ decisions and interventions, bringing an uncommon view to social policy analysis. As a practicing physician, I think I can better comprehend and even identify with the predicament of clinicians in the 1960s, who often pathologized poor, black men and women in order to be able to offer medical solutions to social problems which had no ready resolution.
Q: Your book centers around cultural deprivation theory and its impact on both policy and practice. Could you briefly explain this theory?
A: Theories of cultural deprivation focus on what low income children lack in their disadvantaged homes. It refers to a wide range of experiences experts believed these children were lacking; this image was deeply stereotyped. Parents were seen to be non-verbal, mothers did not adequately stimulate their children, homes were bleak and drab, and there were no books or educational toys for the children to play with. Accordingly, these children lacked what was seen as necessary stimuli for mental and psychological development, leading to scholastic disadvantage reflected in subsequent attempts to join the work force.
Q: How did the theories of cultural deprivation and the cycle of poverty come to permeate left-leaning research and policymaking in the 1960s, only to be later disavowed and attributed to conservatives?
A: I believe these were seen to be non-racialist explanations for why communities of color were lagging in traditional measures of success (income, education, employment). Rather than blaming an innate racial inferiority, left-leaning researchers and policy makers sought to locate the defect in the home lives of disadvantaged communities. This was a palatable explanation for perceived African American underachievement that rejected racially based explanations, but also did not threaten the hegemonic structure of American society.
Q: How has American society explained poverty and how has that history contributed to the narrative of deprivation you explore in this book?
A: Poverty is often seen as a personal failure, whereas success is a mark of hard work; thus economic status serves a surrogate for individual self-worth, and not an indicator of society’s structure and its limitations. Poor men and women are still often portrayed in stereotypical terms as being lazy and unmotivated. Continue reading ‘Interview: Mical Raz on poverty, mental health, and U.S. social policy’ »