The Culture of Poverty Debate Continued

Last week journalist Patricia Cohen published ‘Culture of Poverty’ Makes a Comeback in the New York Times. That same morning I posted a critical reaction in The Culture of Poverty Debate. I acknowledged Cohen’s coverage of advances in our understanding of the links between culture and poverty but critiqued the simplistic portrayal of culture as individual beliefs and the choice of examples that did little to overturn still pernicious assumptions about the poor.

Today I want to highlight further coverage of the Culture of Poverty idea, then a range of the critical reactions to this work, and finally some of my own reflections building on work by Philippe Bourgois and my own research of drug use and abuse.

Culture of Poverty In the News

Given the contentious history of the Culture of Poverty debate, and the prominence of the New York Times, Cohen’s article prompted a broad response from many sources. I will start with some of the main players featured in the NYT article.

NPR interviewed Patricia Cohen and the sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh in their piece Reconsidering the Culture of Poverty. Here’s a sampling of what they said:

Cohen: If one actually read the whole [Moynihan] report, you could see that Moynihan was talking about entrenched problems of racism and economic deprivation and how that, in turn, would cause certain patterns of behavior that could be very self-destructive…

In the popular understanding of poverty, it is often portrayed as an either-or. You know, either people are lazy, and that’s why they’re not getting ahead, or it’s there are no jobs there. And it just goes back to what we were saying before, that it’s a much more complex picture than that.

Venkatesh: The researchers are very careful to try and show the diversity of experiences, and so on. I think there’s another thing happening in our society that probably the research is very slow to take up, and that is that inner-city poverty is actually declining.

The greatest poverty in America – and this may surprise some of the listeners – is actually in the suburbs, for one. It’s in some rural, isolated areas. So, for example, West Virginia has the second-highest poverty rate of any state, almost 20 percent.

And it’s also being reproduced by some of the fastest growing economic industries – so health care, the service sector, entertainment. The areas of greatest job growth are also the ones that are not paying a living wage. So people who come there end up being impoverished over the long run.

William Julius Wilson, author of More than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City, and Mario Small, lead author of the 2010 review article Reconsidering Culture and Poverty (pdf), were both featured prominently in the NY Times piece. Wilson and Small took to the radio waves as well, speaking on Rethinking the Roots of Poverty over at The Take Away.

The NY Times also published letters in reaction to the article with the title The Causes of Poverty, and the Cures. They were largely critical even if acknowledging some play for “culture” in poverty. Similarly, the comments on the original article hew to critique even as people acknowledged that it is not a simple either/or:

The choice of poverty being caused by either “cultural” factors or external conditions is false and even absurd.

Yes, obviously, there *are* cultural/systemic behavior patterns associated with poverty. It could also be argued that being poor and powerless and oppressed is what “bred” the cultural pathologies that some like to trumpet.

The most popular comment pointed people in the other direction:

What would make for some interesting sociology is a study of the “culture of wealth.” Why do rich people remain so willfully blind to the injustice that benefits them? Why do landlords who defer apartment maintenance pretend that it’s the tenants who “don’t care”?

Why do cops haul poor black men out of their cars during a minor traffic stop, but give prosperous-looking whites a pass? Why are there a thousand studies about unwed teenage mothers who are poor and zero about the disposition of unwanted pregnancies among Ivy League co-eds? Why don’t the sociologists at Harvard study the moral failings of their largest donors?

The historian James Patterson wrote on the History News Network, Misrepresenting the Moynihan Report—Will It Ever Stop? This piece provides the needed background to understand the Moynihan report and the controversy that arose around it. Patterson then takes on Cohen’s NYT article:

Cohen then proceeds at considerable length to argue that the phrase “culture of poverty,” long avoided by scholars as politically incorrect, is now becoming more widely accepted. This is not so—careful scholars still do not use it.

What she should have made more clear is that many scholars—she mentions Wilson among them—now believe that studies of lower-class black life should cite cultural as well as structural forces (such as white racism and economic exploitation) in studies of lower-class black life. This sensible approach is indeed widespread today, though it is hardly a new (or newsworthy) development.

Patricia Cohen responded on the same History News Network in her piece The Emotional Power of the “Culture of Poverty.”

Given Mr. Patterson’s abiding interest in poverty, it is surprising he doesn’t find the renewed interest in culture and poverty “newsworthy.” Clearly those who actually study poverty do….

The inaccurate characterization of what was actually printed seems to me further evidence of just how much emotional power the term “culture of poverty” still holds and why people have been so reluctant to use it. The phrase evokes such a strong response that readers can end up missing what is actually being said.

Critical Reactions

Ta-Nehisi Coates, senior editor at The Atlantic, provides one of the most effective portrayals of the potential and problems in his piece A Culture of Poverty.

When we talk “culture,” as it relates to African-Americans, we assume a kind of exclusivity and suspension of logic. Stats are whipped out (70 percent of black babies born out of wedlock) and then claims are tossed around cavalierly (black culture doesn’t value marriage.) The problem isn’t that “culture” doesn’t exist, nor is it that elements of that “culture” might impair upward mobility.

It defies logic to think that any group, in a generationally entrenched position, would not develop codes and mores for how to survive in that position. African-Americans, themselves, from poor to bourgeois, are the harshest critics of the street mentality. Of course, most white people only pay attention when Bill Cosby or Barack Obama are making that criticism. The problem is that rarely do such critiques ask why anyone would embrace such values. Moreover, they tend to assume that there’s something uniquely “black” about those values, and their embrace.

If you are a young person living in an environment where violence is frequent and random, the willingness to meet any hint of violence with yet more violence is a shield. Some people take to this lesson easier than others. As a kid, I hated fighting–not simply the incurring of pain, but the actual dishing it out. (If you follow my style of argument, you can actually see that that’s still true.) But once I learned the lesson, once I was acculturated to the notion that often the quickest way to forestall more fighting, is to fight, I was a believer. And maybe it’s wrong to say this, but it made the rest of my time in Baltimore a lot easier, because the willingness to fight isn’t just about yourself, it’s a signal to your peer group.

On Salon, Alyssa Battistoni writes about the structural forces behind poverty in her piece The “Culture of Poverty” Myth Returns.

To be fair, the [culture of poverty] variation described in the Times isn’t your mother’s culture of poverty — there’s less focus on Reagan’s mythological welfare queens and more on structural forces — but still, the idea that there’s some set of “attitudes and behavior patterns that keep people poor” persists. And it’s a shame — not because we shouldn’t talk about the interplay of class and culture, but because the culture of poverty framework limits our ability to do it…

Despite a backlash among liberal scholars, cultural explanations for poverty only grew more prevalent in the 1980s, as books like “Losing Ground” portrayed inner cities as wastelands populated by scheming drug dealers and slothful single mothers. The rhetoric was toned down in the debates over welfare reform in the ‘90s, but the idea that the poor were lazy and needed to be made to work remained steadfast.

It seems we can’t say it enough: poverty is first and foremost a result of structural forces, from economic growth and job opportunities to segregation and discrimination. Structural poverty can shape cultural responses in ways that perpetuate poverty, but the relationship is much more complicated than the “culture of poverty” thesis implies. Rather than being self-destructive, many patterns of behavior among the poor can be seen as coping strategies that make sense given their circumstances.

On the other side of the ideological fence, Robert Rector at The National Review Online writes that Liberals Reexamining the Culture of Poverty? Guess Again.

One of the goofier notions behind the War on Poverty is the idea that that those in the underclass behave differently than the middle class because they have less money — and, therefore, the way to improve behaviors is to give the poor more income. The U.S. already has “invested” over $15 trillion in anti-poverty spending based on this idea, and the problem has gotten markedly worse.

It just plain troubles liberals to forthrightly examine the behaviors that lead to poverty. Following tradition, The Annals’ experts tiptoe circumspectly around the main cause of child poverty today: the collapse of marriage.

In low-income communities, the overwhelming majority of children are born outside marriage and raised by single mothers on welfare. If these single mothers were married to the actual fathers of their children, two-thirds would immediately be lifted out of poverty. But, despite these obvious facts, the Left is reluctant even to mention the connection between marital collapse and poverty.

The main problem for liberals in talking about the “culture of poverty” is that any honest examination of behavioral roots of poverty will, almost certainly, diminish public support for the welfare state. Thus, any clear discussion of the links between poverty and behavior is to be scrupulously avoided.

Taking the Culture of Poverty debate to the international level, I want to highlight the essay by Duncan Green, head of research for Oxfam. Green highlights the World Bank study “Moving Out of Poverty,” and provides a great summary of what we know about how people move out of poverty around the world. He critiques the culture of poverty idea along the way, while also providing a link between the two sets of views displayed above.

Oscar Lewis was wrong: there is no ‘culture of poverty’: ‘Poor people are not listless, passive and alienated. ‘Instead, they take initiatives, often pursuing many small ventures simultaneously to survive and get ahead. Some do manage to move out of poverty. In country after country, when we asked movers to name the top three reasons for their move out of poverty, the answers most frequently emphasized people’s own initiative in finding jobs and starting new businesses’…

‘Power within’ can be a vital first step: ‘inner strength and confidence emerge time and again as a key factor in moving out of poverty. Moreover, self-confidence increases quickly as poor people experience some success. …. [this is] important for how development is done. Development interventions should be carried out in ways that respect and increase—rather than detract from—people’s confidence in themselves and their families. Participatory and community-driven approaches reinforce people’s own sense of agency.’

Structural Inequality, the Culture of Poverty, and Addiction

Where does this leave us? In my original essay on the Culture of Poverty, I discussed how to approach the problem of poverty, behavior, and beliefs in an interdisciplinary way that examines multiple factors in the environment, not just “inequality” or “culture.”

Today I want to highlight two things. First, it is in the interactions between people from different backgrounds, with different degrees of power and different understandings of how to act, that problems often emerge. This is not quite the “culture of poverty,” but rather “cultural inequality.” Ways of interpreting and acting in the world clash, and too often the outcome of that clash is determined by who has power – but the fact that clash happens is because culture is deeply meaningful.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, at the end of his Atlantic piece, writes:

I think one can safely call that an element of a kind of street culture. It’s also an element which–once one leaves the streets–is a great impediment. “I ain’t no punk” may shield you from neighborhood violence. But it cannot shield you from algebra, when your teacher tries to correct you. It cannot shield you from losing hours, when your supervisor corrects your work. And it would not have shielded me from unemployment, after I cold-cocked a guy over a blog post.

I suspect that a large part of the problem, when we talk about culture, is an inability to code-switch, to understand that the language of Rohan is not the language of Mordor. I don’t say this to minimize culture, to the contrary, I say it to point how difficult it is to get people to discard practices which were essential to them in one world, but hinder their advancement into another. And then there’s the fear of that other world, that sense that if you discard those practices, you have discarded some of yourself, and done it in pursuit of a world, that you may not master.

These words made me think of Phillippe Bourgois’ book In Search of Respect. Bourgois describes exactly these sorts of cultural clashes – these cultural inequalities – in his chapter “Goin’ Legit”: Disrespect and Resistance at Work. He writes about Caesar, one of his main informants, and his experiences at work, where what he wore could prompt ridicule or anger.

Caesar: “When I worked at Sudler & Hennessey, the pharmaceutical advertising agency, they had a dress code and shit like that… For some reason, since I was new, like the new mail clerk there, and they was remodeling and shit, they wanted me to do like, all this wild work. I’d be taking down shelves, clearing dust, sweeping – dirty work.

“I mean I didn’t wanna really do construction work in my good clothes. But I couldn’t come in bummy, because my supervisor would tell me, ‘Why you coming in like that?’ Or ‘Why you dressed like that for?’ He meant, ‘Like a hoodlum.’ But I dressed good, like in nice baggies, and fancy shoes, and nice paisley shirts …”

In much the same way that Primo was humiliated by having to look up the word ‘illiterate’ in the dictionary, Caesar was hurt when is supervisor accused him of ‘looking like a hoodlum’ on the days he thought he was actually dressing well. His problem was not merely that he did not have enough money to buy clothes but, rather, that he had no idea of which clothes to choose when he went to buy them. Losing this particular struggle over cultural capital has to be profoundly disorienting to the kind of person whose fly clothes on the street always made him ‘king of the crew’ (159).

This work brings a depth to understanding of cultural inequality that is not captured in the “culture of poverty” approach. Still too often, this type of analysis can turn back into the either-or problem: either it is inequality or it is culture, which then gets reduced to individual beliefs and pathology.

To work against the “blame the victim” dynamic with previous culture of poverty research, scholars like Bourgois have at times turned cultural meanings into manifestations of inequality. This approach hampers our ability to better understand what actually happens on the ground, and what policy might do. That is my second point.

In the St. Petersburg Times, Sasha Abramsky writes on Prisons and the Permanent Underclass.

In devastating detail in Daedalus, the sociologists Bruce Western of Harvard and Becky Pettit of the University of Washington have shown how poverty creates prisoners and how prisons in turn fuel poverty, not just for individuals but for entire demographic groups. Crunching the numbers, they concluded that once a person has been incarcerated, the experience limits their earning power and their ability to climb out of poverty even decades after their release. It’s a vicious feedback loop that is affecting an ever-greater percentage of the adult population and shredding part of the fabric of 21st-century American society…

It gets uglier… They conclude that the ex-cons end up passing on their economic handicap, and by extension the propensity of ending up behind bars, to their children and their children’s children in turn. As evidence, they cite recent surveys indicating children of prisoners are more likely to live in poverty, to end up on welfare, and to suffer the sorts of serious emotional problems that tend to make holding down jobs more difficult.

The first two comments are by Pugh, and capture what happens with the “culture of poverty” debate in real life.

Wow, criminals with no education have a tough time getting ahead in America if they remain outside the Democrat Party establishment. I wonder how much tax money was spent to find that out. These low achievers outta consider running for congress or the presidency, the pay’s good and the benefits include jet airplanes and limitless graft.

I work in a business filled ex-cons with little or no book learning. My co-workers start drinking early every day and enjoy cocaine and other powerful treats after work and if they make it in to work at all they usually show up in the morning broke and unsteady on their feet. I can’t wait for Monday to tell them that there are college professors who got big money to study their plight and these really “smart” folk have found it’s not their behavior that’s keeping them down and that they’d be making the big, big money and living in nice houses if the Man wasn’t keeping them down.

As social analysis it is ridiculous. But as social commentary, it is not so different from what Philippe Bourgois says at the end of his book.

Drugs are not the root of the problems presented in these pages; they are the epiphenomenonal expression of deeper, structural dilemmas. Self-destructive addiction is merely the medium for desperate people to internalize their frustration, resistance, and powerlessness (319).

In other words, drug use is self-medication; it is a behavior determined by inequality. The Man is keeping them down by making them use drugs.

This type of analysis is not that different from what was originally there when Moynihan raised these ideas. Bourgois’ culture is still pathological – it serves as a medium for internalization and self-destruction. Addiction becomes part of Moynihan’s “tangle of pathology.”

Obviously addiction is much more than that. Drugs have biological effects as well as cultural meanings. Substance abuse cuts across race, class, and gender. As Bourgois’ own work demonstrates, not everyone caught in structural inequality ends up abusing drugs. So there are other dynamics at work besides inequality and poverty (though, it is safe to say, inequality can make the development of and the consequences from substance abuse worse). But my point is that we often do fall back on something like a “culture of poverty” as an explanation, treating it as an epiphenomenon of inequality or as determining poor people’s pathological behavior. Either way, a lot is left out.

What I would like to see is more focus on behavior itself, rather than treating it as a function of culture, inequality, or biology. Ta-Nehisi Coates does that effectively by describing his own confrontation with an angry individual, and then using that to think through ideas about culture and poverty. Bourgois does it effectively by describing the conflict and emotions that Caesar experienced over his clothes at work. I highlighted that in my original commentary by asking why weren’t rap and sports included as examples to balance out “graffiti and garbage.”

We need richer thinking and better description of behavior, rather than its reduction to our own pet explanatory paradigm. For the culture of poverty debate, this at least means thinking about positive behaviors alongside negative ones, looking at people who are resilient and can make their way out of difficult circumstances alongside those who do not, and understanding that both personal meaning and social circumstance play a fundamental role in shaping why we do what we do.

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9 Responses to The Culture of Poverty Debate Continued

  1. Constance Cummings says:

    Thanks Dan, as always, for your important, thoughtful contribution to this debate.

  2. Pingback: The Culture of Poverty Debate | Neuroanthropology

  3. Michael Toyama says:

    Excellent post Dr. Lende! Still playing video games? Hope all is well.

    Mike T.

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  8. Bob says:

    I would agree that we must work on behaviors and reasoning behind those behaviors to find what is really the cause of this debate

  9. made my way to your site from yahoo and and am glad i found it, hope you keep up the good work

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