Drawing New Lines: Economists and Other Social Scientists on Society

This article investigates the expansion of the scope of economics in the 1960s. We show that the public policy problems raised by the issue of poverty reinforced the expansion, as economists became progressively involved in the social issues of the day. Until the early 1960s, poverty was a neglected issue, as most Americans had experienced an increase in their living conditions since the late 1940s. In such a context of affluence, the rediscovery of poverty came as a shock, and it drove scholars and the government to address many poverty-related problems. Defined as relative deprivation, poverty linked low income to many social issues, thus blurring the traditional boundary separating economics from the other social sciences. As a result, economists and other social scientists contributed to the social scientific literature on these problems, which raised the following question: to what extent could economists be considered as legitimate advisers on social policy? We study how Washington economists came to tackle poverty-related issues through, among other things, the work of CEA members and the development of social indicators by Mancur Olson at the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. This growing influence of economists sheds light on the emerging economic analyses of social phenomena, such as human capital theory, health economics, and the economic analysis of crime, which appeared as valuable tools for public policy. We also study the reaction of other social scientists (mainly sociologists and political scientists) to the economists’ growing influence, by studying the debates regarding the possible creation of a Council of Social Advisers, which would complement the work of economists as public policy advisers. Although critical of economics, many other social scientists were unwilling to get involved in social policy-making, which, ultimately, strengthened the image of economists as experts on social policy.

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