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.