In memoriam, Michael B. Katz, 1939-2014.My most valued colleague, Michael B. Katz, just passed away after a long struggle with cancer. I already miss him terribly. He was a model mentor and scholar, someone who fearlessly engaged the world outside the academy, He tackled America’s most pressing social problems—public education, inequality, poverty and welfare, urban policy—with deep passion and real rigor. I first met Michael just after I started working on my dissertation, when he brought me into a group of scholars of urban poverty at the Social Science Research Council. He hired me at Penn, seeing something in me and my work when I was still ABD and untested as a scholar. He unwaveringly supported me throughout my career and in my personal life.
Michael began his career as a historian of education, publishing The Irony of Early School Reform in 1968, a book that set the agenda for the field of the history of education for the next generation. His emphasis on the relationship of education to bureaucracy and to the demands of industrial capitalism reinvigorated the mostly traditional field of educational history, one that had focused primarily on institutions and ideas, rather than on their social and economic impact. That book is still in print. He turned toward quantitative methods in the late 1960s and 1970s, writing some of the most sophisticated works in the “new urban history,” with an emphasis on class, inequality, and social mobility.
But Michael was not content to continue working in that subfield. Rather, he switched gears, writing on the history of poverty and welfare in the United States, brilliantly combining intellectual history, the history of public policy, and social history. The diversity of his methods are visible in his classic book, In the Shadow of the Poorhouse, a highly acclaimed history of American poverty policy that spans the period from the early Republic through the War on Poverty. In several articles, some published in his collection Poverty and Policy, others in his book, Improving Poor People, Michael used rich individual case records from social service agencies to tell the history of poverty from the perspective of poor people themselves, an approach that gives voice to otherwise anonymous poor people themselves. He carried this approach through his recent essay on the death of “Shorty,” a middle-aged, African American murder victim in turn-of-the-twenty-first century Philadelphia, whose troubled life he reconstructed through court records, interviews, and on-the-ground detective work.
His book, The Undeserving Poor (1988) offered an intellectual history of the War on Poverty and the emergence of anti-welfare politics in the United States in the 1980s. I read that book on a plane in 1988, and knew then that I needed to meet this guy. Michael’s work on poverty led him to the Social Science Research Council, where he convened a working group of historians to bring a much-needed long-term perspective to the stunted debate on the “urban underclass,” one that resulted in an important collection of essays published in 1993, including an important essay deconstructing the very concept of underclass itself. Michael was also interested in the ideological underpinnings of poverty scholarship and, to that end, he persuaded the SSRC to let him conduct dozens of oral histories with social scientists and foundation executives involved in the “underclass” project, providing future historians with an invaluable archive to explore the relationship between foundation funding, scholarly agenda-setting, and public policy.
Michael’s thinking about poverty evolved through his scholarship: in his most recent work—including his new edition of the Undeserving Poor—he foregrounded work on gender and welfare, building from some of the best work by younger scholars in the profession. His scholarship has had international influence, not just in Canada. He co-edited a comparative volume with German scholars of the welfare state; his books have been translated into several languages, including Chinese and Japanese; and his articles have appeared in Hungarian, Italian, and French.
Michael’s scholarly output was substantive and field defining, but he was no ivory tower academic. Throughout his career he engaged public policy debates head on and has published work intended to shape the direction of policymakers. One of his more interesting efforts in this respect was a project on the history of Chicago school reform in the 1980s and early 1990s, which he saw as one of the few promising moments in post-1960s educational history because of the district’s strong (but short-lived efforts) to give parents a voice in school governance. In the 1990s, he brought a big picture perspective to Pennsylvania’s governor, using his skills as a scholar in an effort to transform Pennsylvania’s right-leaning welfare system (which, in the 1980s, through waivers and workfare experiments in the 1980s, encouraged by the Reagan and Bush administrations, had become a model for conservative welfare reform initiatives nationwide). Michael believed in bringing his research to varied audiences: He published books with university presses and major trade publishers, and in journals as diverse as Journal of American History, the Teachers College Record, and Dissent. He has also addressed both academic audiences, but also groups of Chicago public school parents and social workers who provide assistance to the homeless.
Michael’s engagement with urban issues led him to take the leadership of the University of Pennsylvania’s Urban Studies Program, which he directed or co-directed for thirteen years. Michael was responsible for turning Penn’s program into a model for other such programs around the country. His version of Urban Studies combined academic rigor and student engagement with the wider community. Michael’s commitment to the city has extended even to his decision to give the royalties from one of his books to the Social Studies Department of a troubled, woefully underfunded public high school near his home in West Philadelphia.
Not surprisingly, Michael was a magnet for talented graduate students. In the two plus decades since I joined Penn’s faculty, he has advised more students than any other member of our department. Michael’s students have been some of our very best. The vast majority of them have gone onto distinguished careers. It is noteworthy how many of Michael’s students won dissertation or book prizes. Their success owes a lot to Michael’s rigor as a graduate teacher. He has taught seminars in urban history, social history, and the history of education that many of his students describe as formative intellectual experiences. I wish I could be half as conscientious an advisor as Michael was: Students marveled that he returned student papers, dissertation chapters and even whole dissertations, marked up, usually overnight, never later than within a few days of receiving them. Michael also encouraged graduate student collaboration in research and writing (a common practice in the social sciences and sciences but very unusual in history). He treated his students as them as co-equals, not as research assistants. Michael also introduced graduate students to the process of scholarly research and writing by inviting small groups of graduate students to read and comment on his own work-in-progress, also an unusual practice in the history profession.
The last year or so was very frustrating for Michael as his body gave way to the ravages of cancer. He was someone who—until age 74--took spinning classes several mornings a week, lifted kettle bells, and took long walks almost daily. When I last saw him, in July, during a brief respite in his illness, he insisted on taking a walk around his beloved West Philadelphia neighborhood. He was stubborn, realistic and never dour, even in the face of adversity. While his energy flagged, he set aside time to write autobiographical essays. We had many lively conversations and, even in the last few months, he provided me with indispensable advice. I will always remember his fierce intellect, his perseverance, his generosity, and especially his commitment, against the odds, to make the world a just place. May his memory be a blessing.