A veteran of poverty research and welfare reform presents a broad retrospective of his career.
In this memoir, Corbett (Ouch, Now I Remember, 2015, etc.) offers the third volume of his professional reminiscences about his experiences studying poverty and methods of combating it in both an academic and government context. The author recounts stories from his decades of work, providing an answer to the question he poses in the book’s introduction: “How could a young man so dense that he could not handle basic high school algebra rise to a leadership position in a leading research institute at a top-flight university?” The answer, shared with a mix of merited self-assurance and self-deprecating humor, is Corbett’s holistic approach to both responding to the challenges of poverty and to bridging the gap between theoretical and applied social sciences. With frequent references to his previous writings, both the earlier memoirs and his academic publications, the author leads the reader through trends in understanding poverty and providing government assistance as they evolve through the later decades of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st. One of the book’s strongest sections addresses the sudden popularity of a metaphor Corbett used to explain poverty programs: “I did not know fame was so easily secured, or that silly notions had such permanency in the intellectual firmament,” he reflects. Although the volume’s length is daunting, and portions could benefit from being shortened, as a whole it is an effective narrative, blending academic pursuits with making a concrete difference in individual lives and institutional procedures. The account recognizes the many ongoing problems of combating poverty while celebrating advances that have been made. And despite Corbett’s acknowledgment that “talking about bureaucracies had little to recommend itself to someone interested in actually selling books,” his experiences with President Bill Clinton’s and Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson’s reform initiatives are far from dull and make for often compelling storytelling.
A longtime policy wonk delivers an engrossing look at his work fighting poverty in government and academic environments.