The Culture of Poverty Debate

The controversial notion of “Culture of Poverty” is back, featured today in the NY Times in an article by Patricia Cohen. The piece starts with the historical roots of the debate in the work of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who drew on the anthropologist Oscar Lewis in describing a culture of poverty among African-Americans.

By “attributing self-perpetuating moral deficiencies to black people, as if blaming them for their own misfortune,” a generation of scholars working in the United States generally avoided cultural explanations for social phenomena, and “the idea that attitudes and behavior patterns kept people poor was shunned.”

But now, as Reconsidering Culture and Poverty (pdf), an introduction to a special themed issue of the American Annals of Political and Social Science, declares, “Culture is back on the poverty research agenda.”

That essay by Mario Luis Small, David Harding, and Michele Lamont is well-worth a read. They recognize and discuss the controversies over linking culture and poverty, and as part of taking stock of the present research, advocate that “the judicious, theoretically informed, and empirically grounded study of culture can and should be a permanent component of the poverty research agenda.”

Sociologists and anthropologists have developed at least seven different, though sometimes overlapping, analytical tools for capturing meaning-making that could help answer questions about marriage, education, neighborhoods, community participation, and other topics central to the study of poverty.

But in this post, I want to focus on the NY Times article, and the popular portrayal of culture and poverty. Unfortunately, this work risks recycling the pernicious effects of the original “culture of poverty” debate – where wrong ideas about “culture” are used to heap blame and twist policy.

Let us start with the very first example of good culture & poverty research that Small, Harding, and Lamont use:

An example is Prudence Carter (2005), who, based on interviews with poor minority students, argues that whether poor children will work hard at school or not depends in part on their cultural beliefs about the differences between minorities and the majority.

The NY Times article has a similar strategy – provide some big picture, and then focus on some examples.

With these studies come many new and varied definitions of culture, but they all differ from the ’60s-era model in these crucial respects: Today, social scientists are rejecting the notion of a monolithic and unchanging culture of poverty. And they attribute destructive attitudes and behavior not to inherent moral character but to sustained racism and isolation.

The NYT example then comes from the sociologist Robert Sampson. After lip-service to Sampson saying that culture is “shared understandings,” the article interprets this idea as meaning “the common perception of the way people in a community act and think. When people see graffiti and garbage, do they find it acceptable or see serious disorder?”

And there the major problem arises. Culture has been turned into beliefs and perceptions, which Americans view as something highly individual. These people will simply be seen as having unacceptable beliefs.

Take that question about graffiti and garbage – who really is going to see that as acceptable? The default answer by policy makers, the middle class, and plenty of other people will simply be, That’s not acceptable.

And look at how “graffiti and garbage” are put together. What does that say about the meaning making of the NY Times journalist? Why are graffiti and garbage her cultural examples? The “culture of poverty” is pretty poor if it’s graffiti and garbage. Why not rap music as a form of resistance and success in sports as the way out?

Let us turn to the example provided by William Julius Wilson, the esteemed sociologist. First, culture is given the individual treatment, for Wilson defines culture as the way “individuals in a community develop an understanding of how the world works and make decisions based on that understanding.” And the example then used is young black men: “If you don’t develop a tough demeanor, you won’t survive. If you have access to weapons, you get them, and if you get into a fight, you have to use them.”

I largely agree with Wilson’s analysis, as I have seen similar things among young men in Colombia. But by placing the emphasis on “individuals” and then using the example of them feeling like they have to use weapons, I am afraid that the obvious policy choice will be further repression, and offering help to those that have the “right beliefs.”

This reduction of culture – shared and meaningful – to individuals and beliefs will do little to change the pernicious social logic that sees the main route out of these types of neighborhoods as “pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” It goes against the dominant narrative of the American dream, where an individual person comes here and does well for him or herself.

If this person can’t “get his head on straight” and know that “hard work pays off,” then he or she is un-American. It just sets up a logic where outside regulation is needed, and where changing beliefs through education or other types of programs will be the main policy initiative that pops up.

I can already see it – aspiring entrepreneurs in business and education offering “culture based” programs to correct those erroneous beliefs. And if we know one thing, these are exactly the sorts of initiatives that will do little to change the meaning making going on in these neighborhoods.

What the NY Times article does not do, but what today’s essay Free Will and Responsibility in 3 Quarks Daily does in spades, is consider how values and beliefs relate to the environment.

The most effective way to control our behavior, as individuals or as a species, may be through manipulation of its determinants. We can generally modify circumstances more easily than we can modify traits.

On an individual level, this could mean limiting access to things we know we can’t resist (like butter, in my case). It could also mean enlisting the help of friends or making use of other external influences, like support groups. At the collective level, we could work toward creating social conditions that promote healthy and moral behaviors. We could ban advertising for unhealthy products, and we could work toward achieving income equality.

Whether we have free will or not, we certainly aren’t completely free, autonomous individuals. We influence and are influenced by our physical and social environments, often without our awareness. Collectively, we create circumstances that shape the behavior of individuals. And as individuals we can influence collective decision making and alter social conditions.

That type of analysis then helps us make more sense of the NYT example from Mario Luis Small who “tried to figure out why some New York City mothers with children in day care developed networks of support while others did not.”

The answer did not depend on income or ethnicity, but rather the rules of the day-care institution. Centers that held frequent field trips, organized parents’ associations and had pick-up and drop-off procedures created more opportunities for parents to connect.

In other words, the institutional rules created a different type of environment for interaction, and that environment then led to a different cultural network of support.

A similar example also comes from the work of Robert Sampson (whom we’ve featured in the post Disparity, Disorder, and Diversity):

[Sampson] found that growing up in areas where violence limits socializing outside the family and where parents haven’t attended college stunts verbal ability, lowering I.Q. scores by as much as six points, the equivalent of missing more than a year in school.

This is a very different lesson, one that highlights socialization, people growing up, and interactions among parents and children. We already know that poverty poisons the brain, as we’ve documented before – and we also know that social analysis coupled to that insight is crucial, otherwise we will focus on individuals and their brains, rather than the poverty. Similarly, the cultural analysis presented in the NY Times piece focuses too much on individuals and their beliefs, rather than how culture and poverty might interact.

So, two lessons: (1) equating culture with individual beliefs is mistaken, both as cultural analysis and as a way to think about policy and about poverty, and (2) the causal idea of culture, that it stamps a belief system onto people, is also mistaken – what we call “culture” works through interactions and through development. That is how we get culture that is shared, public, and meaningful to people.

But to understand how that works, we cannot limit ourselves to just doing cultural analysis that focuses on those shared, public, and meaningful aspects. The interactions, the human development, the socialization, the local institutions – all those can be part of what we examine. This includes how we understand how social networks interact with culture, or how biology, cultural categories, and social experience come together, as our post on Lance Gravlee and Race, Genetics, Social Inequality, and Health documented.

And here is where I took away a good message from the NY Times piece. Wilson talks about how he came to include culture into his analysis:

“[The authors of The Bell Curve] had not captured the cumulative effects of living in poor, racially segregated neighborhoods.” He added, “I realized we needed a comprehensive measure of the environment, that we must consider structural and cultural forces.”

Comprehensive measures of the environment include more than just culture. Indeed, anthropologists who traditionally have used a grab-bag notion of culture (the “complex whole” which can go from economics to religion) can tend to assert too much power to culture – it becomes the main driver, so we don’t necessarily think about how to get at comprehensive measures of the environment and also of how we interact with that environment. Greg’s recent piece on swearing, pain perception, neurobiology, and culture presents a much different notion of what we need to understand.

But in the big picture, what really matters is poverty, and the associated inequality. As the economist Robert Frank writes elsewhere in the NY Times today in Income Inequality: Too Big to Ignore:

In short, the economist’s cost-benefit approach — itself long an important arrow in the moral philosopher’s quiver — has much to say about the effects of rising inequality. We need not reach agreement on all philosophical principles of fairness to recognize that it has imposed considerable harm across the income scale without generating significant offsetting benefits.

No one dares to argue that rising inequality is required in the name of fairness. So maybe we should just agree that it’s a bad thing — and try to do something about it.

If I were to pick one pernicious example of how culture, inequality, economics and policy interact, it would be how the funding of local schools works in the US. Local taxes support local schools, so places with high local incomes provide more money to their local schools. People who have the money to move and who want the best for their children then buy homes in those neighborhoods.

And thus inequality is created, through a combination of policy, choice, and parental love. The people in those rich neighborhoods, they know they’ve done the best for their kids and that their schools are teaching what it takes to succeed. They’ve got the right culture going. Those neighborhoods with poor schools, well, they must have a culture of poverty, right?

Note: Photo by blam and found on NowPublic.

For More: I provide coverage of reactions to Patricia Cohen’s NYT article, as well as further reflections on culture, inequality, and behavior, in the post The Culture of Poverty Debate Continued.

I also delved deeper into the work of Mario Small and Michele Lamont, offered some more ideas of my own, and rounded up analysis and policy related posts in Culture of Poverty: From Analysis to Policy.

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19 Responses to The Culture of Poverty Debate

  1. Pingback: Quick Links….a lot of them…all good. | A Blog Around The Clock

  2. Chan Stroman says:

    Enjoyed this post very much…but William Julius *Wilson*. (Please feel free to discard this comment after correction.)

  3. This issue is much broader than cultural, as I mention here:

    In brief, a combination of robotics and other automation, better design, and voluntary social networks are decreasing the value of most paid human labor (by the law of supply and demand). At the same time, demand for stuff and services is limited for a variety of reasons — some classical, like a cyclical credit crunch or a concentration of wealth (aided by automation and intellectual monopolies) and some novel like people finally getting too much stuff as they move up Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs or a growing environmental consciousness. In order to move past this, our society needs to emphasize a gift economy (like Wikipedia or Debian GNU/Linux or blogging), a basic income (social security for all regardless of age), democratic resource-based planning (with taxes, subsidies, investments, and regulation), and stronger local economies that can produce more of their own stuff (with organic gardens, solar panels, green homes, and 3D printers). There are some bad “make work” alternatives too that are best avoided, like endless war, endless schooling, endless bureaucracy, endless sickness, and endless prisons.

    Simple attempts to prop things up, like requiring higher wages in the face of declining demand for human labor and more competition for jobs, will only accelerate the replacement process for jobs as higher wage requirements would just be more incentive to automate, redesign, and push more work to volunteer social networks. We are seeing the death spiral of current mainstream economics based primarily on a link between the right to consume and the need to have a job.

    So, whether there is a culture of poverty or not, there is a bigger picture where economic forces are sucking more and more people into the whirlpool of poverty in the USA. There was poverty in the past in the USA, but the reasons now are very different. It’s really just wishful thinking on the parts of the politicians or even the general populace that this emerging new whirlpool of poverty will just go away without major social changes. Sure, a few lucky or smart people might stay out of that whirlpool longer (like a demand for highly skilled labor). But eventually, the whirlpool will drag down more and more people until we have a major paradigm shift in the USA . Some countries in Western Europe are doing somewhat better than the USA in many of these respects (because of a stronger social safety net), but ultimately, they’ll need to change a lot more too.

    Still, correlation does not prove causation, and the culture of poverty might emerge out of the experience more than vice versa. Vitamin D deficiency (see Dr. John Cannell) and a lack of vegetables and fruits and DHA and so on (see Dr. Joel Fuhrman) could explain a lot of health disparities (including mental health disparities and depression) related to poverty (where ill health contributes towards a downward spiral). Google on: “In U.S., Health Disparities Across Incomes Are Wide-Ranging”. And certainly what we eat is partially cultural, but also partially what is advertised and made convenient (see also the books “The Pleasure Trap” and “Supernormal Stimuli” about the psychology of this). And Google on “Blue Zones” to see some real alternatives being implemented starting in Albert Lea, MN, and Dr. Cannell and Dr. Fuhrman, as above, have ways to get on an upward spiral of better health. It’s a lot easier to have a positive optimistic attitude towards life (and even exercise more) when you feel healthier.

    • lolwut says:

      dude, you must have gotten lost or something. this isn’t about scientism or any kooky stuff Mr kurzweil got you running on. And also, nothing is more broader than culture 😉

    • walter rodriguez says:

      dude, great marxist analysis of the united states capitalist society. Next thing your going to be saying is that we need to get in tuned with nature and become more of a “species being”. The whole point of this post, a very good one, is the debate between the culture and structural issues of poverty int he united states. The reason why the post is so vague is because there is no clear grounds, it is not black and white but more of a grey stand on the issue. Both factors influence poverty in America. Also culture is a really vague term because it is so interchangable amongst different environments. For some, culture could be a set of beliefs, while for other culture is a set of ideals or even a set of values. Overall, I am very pleased that i stumbled across this post

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  11. Corey Souza says:

    Thank you for posting this. I am writing about the characterizations of Brazilian carnival as inherently violent and chaotic – quite similar to the culture of poverty concept. This article is going in my workes cited list!

    Corey Souza
    Ph.D. student
    Department of Anthropology
    University of Florida

  12. Michael Scullin says:

    I went to school at the University of Illinois back in the late 1960s when Oscar Lewis was still there (although he was so carefully private that I never met him). I have read a lot of his work and had it demonstrated to me by my experiences on various Indian reservations. What first struck me (after the poverty) was the almost complete absence of books in people’s houses. Then I noticed that there were no mail boxes. Finally I recognized that what I was seeing was not something “Indian” but American poverty.

    I grew up on the Eastern shore of Maryland in a poor county. A frequently heard declaration from one of my buddies was, “You can’t learn nothin’ from books.” Aside from the bible the only book I can recall in that household was the Sears catalog in the outhouse.

    Books were part of my early enculturation. My mother was a librarian and I spent quite a bit of time in the library. Our house was full of books. My father was a writer and editor who at one time or another worked with a lot of then prominent and popular magazines. Mother read to both me and my sister. There were plenty of magazines in the house.

    My kids grew up in a house with lots of magazines and books and were read to often.

    To end this all I can say is that my enculturation was a hell of a lot different than what I observed on reservations . Has anyone actually read Oscar Lewis? I’m very familiar with the rejection of “culture of poverty” by virtually all sociologists and anthropologists.

    By the way – what ever happened to anthropology? No one seems to “ask an anthropologist” about anything. It’s almost as though the discipline disappeared after Margaret Mead died. Margaret Mead had a column in Red Book about the time my father was editor. Visibility and straight talk helped a lot. I don’t even know (or care) what anthropologists talk and write about these days.

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  14. I know I’m a bit late in weighing in on this debate, but the comment by “walter rodriguez” has compelled me. This comment illustrates the weak link in the “culture of poverty” debate, which is the lack of understanding about culture. Culture is not something vague that can be applied differently in different contexts. Culture is a system of meaning, and meaning (or meaningfulness, or meaning-making) is the ability to make inferences. Culture is a pool of knowledge that facilitates human networks by defining (not rigidly) patterns of inference. Cognitive anthropologists have made major strides in developing an explicit theory of culture, though we have not had great success in disseminating this knowledge. Readers are encouraged to look at the journal Anthropological Theory (March 2006 Volume 6 issue 1) for details regarding the following explanation and debate over the concept of culture.
    Since the early 80s Roy D’Andrade has been especially poignant in developing an explicit culture theory. D’Andrade borrows from John Searle’s social ontology, which provides a logical foundation to build upon. Searle asserts a few key points. First, he differentiates between brute facts and institutional facts. A brute fact is a material reality, something that can affect one or more of the five senses. An institutional fact is symbolic and becomes a reality through social will, or what Searle calls “we-intentionality”. Individuals cannot give force to symbols, only groups can. Of course, there is a great deal of overlap between brute and institutional facts and this provides humanity with such a rich environment. Institutional facts are based on the logical structure that “we” agree that some fact X counts as some fact Y in some context C. The human ability to symbol allows us to “chunk” (to use a popular psychological term) huge strings of such logical inferences together into simpler concepts. These concepts and their logical structure (though not in the explicit sense ) are learned through processes of socialization and are the meat of what we call social norms.
    Another concept that D’Andrade has more recently included in his theorizing about culture is “values” (see D’Andrade 2008 A Study of personal and Cultural Values; American, Japanese, and Vietnamese. USA: Palgrave-MacMillan). Values are judgments of desirability, what is good and what is bad. While many believe that values are key variables that distinguish cultures, the evidence suggests otherwise (see also Charles Morris 1956 Varieties of Human Value. Chicago: University of Chicago Press). Various groups tend to value similar things. What is different is the application of social norms, the what-counts-as-what rules.
    So, returning to the “culture of poverty” debate it becomes clear that living within the factual environment of poverty, the social norms (cultural knowledge and appropriate behaviors) used to express more widely shared values such as “success” will be different. In the context of poverty, appropriate expression of successful behavior appears to be athleticism rather than technical education. In order to change the social norm, the context must be altered. This approach to culture is clearly in agreement with the Free Will and Responsibility essay published in 3 Quarks Daily and cited above.
    Human reason is based on premises. The premises of living in poverty are different from the premises of not living in poverty. People living in poverty do not intend to perpetuate poverty or many of the behaviors linked to it. What they intend to perpetuate are the life skills needed to cope with the material and institutional facts of living in poverty. When the premises change, so will the coping strategies and behaviors. The “culture of poverty” as we see it today is an outcome of contemporary capitalism.

    Richard A. Brown II, PhD
    Postdoctoral Research Fellow
    University of Alaska Anchorage
    Insitute for Circumpolar Health Studies

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