Culture of Poverty: From Analysis to Policy

The Culture of Poverty. Let’s continue the debate. I’ve got some things to say myself, and I also want to round up posts on the culture of poverty concept and on the role of policy.

First off, let’s talk about the concept of “culture.” In the popular arena, and in many anthropological analyses, culture is seen as something people own, something that belongs to them. That makes it easier to blame the poor for their “culture,” especially when that is seen to contribute to the “pathology” of their lives. It becomes a way to stigmatize them. To fence them off.

The other reason I don’t like the phrase “culture of poverty” is because it harkens back to a view of culture that is bounded, timeless, and closed – they have a culture of poverty, we don’t. It’s as if we’ll go visit these poor people and observe their “culture” and show all the ways they cannot be modern. It’s an old-style anthropology that still has popular appeal but little scholarly weight.

In the culture of poverty debate, I also find the lack of focus on policy disturbing. A closer look at policy overturns a simplistic equation of culture and poverty, as we will see below. What is left in its place?

I’ll go back to the classic metaphor. Two men are standing alongside a river. A person who is drowning comes drifting by. The first man jumps in, swims out, and saves the drowning person. “Lucky we were here,” he says to the second man. Then another drowning person comes by, and the first man dives in again. And then a third drowning person…

After the first man saves yet someone else, the second man starts heading up the river. “Where you going?” asks the first man. “We have people to save!”

The second replies, “I’m going to look for the bastard who is throwing these people in the river in the first place!”

Inequality is often taken to be that bastard, the human forces that push people into a river they cannot navigate and where they drown. And I agree, taking on inequality is central to how we can produce a more just society. But so is making efforts to save people as they are drowning. We need both – it is not either/or.

The culture of poverty analysis, despite its flaws, points to a third way to provide help. The third way to help is to teach people to swim. Then they can save themselves. Rather than focusing on the pathologies that make them flail in the water of inequality, fighting off attempts to save them, slipping deeper underwater, we can think about how we can help people to swim better.


The whole Culture of Poverty debate kicked off with the front-page article in the New York Times, ‘Culture of Poverty’ Makes a Comeback.

My first piece, The Culture of Poverty Debate, reacted directly to the article. I discussed the problematic equation of culture and pathology, the use of negative examples like “graffiti and garbage” to characterize people’s lives, and the reduction of “culture” to individual beliefs.

In my follow-up The Culture of Poverty Debate Continued, I highlighted Duncan Greene’s analysis on how to help people to swim, and also proposed the concept of “cultural inequality” alongside structural inequality. Cultural inequality refers to the way interactions between people from different backgrounds play out, say rich and poor, in the favor of the rich and against the poor.

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.

I also provided links to additional coverage of the culture of poverty debate in last week’s Wednesday round up. One additional resource is the RadioTimes show with three academics who are Revisiting ‘The Culture of Poverty’.

Culture of Poverty – Analysis

I want to start by showing the reality of how scholars doing the research actually think about things. I believe their views have often been mischaracterized in the reactions to the “culture of poverty.” They are most explicitly NOT focused on equating culture with individual beliefs, and making those beliefs part of the blame game.

Michele Lamont and Mario Small, How Culture Matters: Enriching Our Understanding of Poverty
*Here is the chapter from two of the leading scholars pushing the renewal of interest in culture and poverty. This chapter aims to show where the field should go, so presents both summary and critique.

-They outline six ways to do cultural analysis: culture as frames or models, culture as repertoires of practices and beliefs, culture as narratives, culture as symbolic boundaries, culture as cultural capital, and culture as institution.

They write in their conclusion:

Meaning is multifaceted; it may intervene differently at various points in the causal chain that determines whether members of different racial or ethnic groups end up in poverty. Its role will not be the same in all settings… Breaking down culture into many components is essential if we are to better understand its role in channeling racial disparities.

For this reason we have not attempted to adjudicate between the six analytical tools we have presented except to suggest that they each can illuminate different processes through which meaning contributes to the unequal distribution of poverty across racial and ethnic groups. These processes cannot be captured by the culture of poverty thesis and its many implicit descendants.

Some of these processes concern microlevel processes of meaning making and decision making among the poor – for example, how low-income individuals’ framing their neighborhood shapes their actions, how the narratives of different racial or ethnic groups affects their perceptions of the path to a good life, how the working poor use the poor to help define who they themselves are.

Others relate to society-wide cultural representations about groups that impact the policies and institutions that regulate them – for example, the cultural assumptions of policy makers and politicians about the motivations of unwed mothers that cause poverty. The emerging picture is far more complex and multidimensional than that generated by the assumption that living in poverty creates self-perpetuating and pernicious cultural orientations (90-91).

Daniel Lende, Public Anthropology: The Example of the Culture of Poverty
*In this guest post for Anthropology and/in Publicity, I discuss why I reacted to the NY Times’ Culture of Poverty article, and what lessons that offers for doing public anthropology.

-At the end, I also add in some additional analysis of the links between culture and poverty:

By injecting ourselves into public debate, we can help overturn broadly-held ideas, such as the equation of pathology with a culture of poverty. We can also show ways forward, for example, that human development plays a role in both how culture works and how individuals end up with difficult problems. That people react to structural inequality through culture and that people grow up and sometimes do terrible things when facing structural inequality is better seen as a correlation. Otherwise, each causes the other, culture and pathology in a downward spiral. That is the wrong lesson, both for policy and for the people facing such situations.

Third Tone Devil, ‘”Culture of Poverty” Makes a Comeback:’ New York Times
*Culture Matters on the whole culture of poverty debate:

Verrips contends that much of 20th-century anthropology has been complicit with the rest of social sciences in a grand exercise of rationalization, which exorcises evil from the “civilized world,” banishes the wild, and sweeps the sinister under the rug. It has focused too much, he says, on explaining and thus taming human behaviour, with the consequence that it is unable to accept irrationality…

How does this relate to the “culture of poverty?” On the whole, anthropology has rejected essentialist explanations of poverty, but while rightly pointing to structural reasons it has simultaneously naturalised the persistence of poverty through cultural argumentation. It has been strangely unable, or rather uninterested, in coming up with a convincing explanation of the very different experiences, meanings and dynamics of so-called “respectable poverty” of pre-consumer society West and many of today’s forms of poverty, both in Western cities and in the African countryside. I think it should.

Matthew Thompson, Around the Web
*In the comments over at Savage Minds, an excellent exploration of the history of the anthropologist Oscar Lewis and the culture of poverty idea

I always felt Lewis got a bum rap about his “culture of poverty” thesis. He was a Marxist whose ethnographic fieldwork was strongly materialist in orientation. His economic analysis of landholding and wealth differences in Tepoztlan is still among the best economic studies of a Mesoamerican peasant village.

In some articles for the public Lewis overstated the influence of ideas and behavior on the perpetuation of poverty. For this, he became the whipping boy for decades of castigation about “blaming poverty on the poor.”

Avon Snarksdale, A Culture of Poverty, Ctd.
*Getting at more than what makes sense to “us”:

A relatively straightforward decision, like opening a bank account, makes a lot of sense if you’re middle class and trying to save, but it may actually be counterproductive if you’re poor. It’s really hard to get people to make the leap from thinking their values and behavior will translate to other social locations, to hammer home the idea hat the things that are important to middle class foodies might not be the same things that inform the choices made by the food stamp recipient in Section 8 housing.

Dean Dad, Culture of Poverty
*An interesting reflection, especially in the later parts, on growing up, bullies, education, and ignorance. But this part caught my eye, even though it’s not really about “culture”:

Now, forty-plus years later, it’s apparently okay to suggest that some common behaviors — drug use, unstable home lives, etc. — are not just symptoms of poverty, but also causes of it.

There’s some truth to that. Anybody who has taught has seen students sabotage themselves. People engage in self-defeating behavior all the time; why the poor should be uniquely exempt from that isn’t immediately obvious.

Britton Lofton, America’s Culture of Poverty and the Income
*Poverty is at an record highs. Where does blame go?

Despite the mounting evidence of the rich getting richer, in African American communities many have become accustomed to the ills of poverty and look within for change and solutions. These individuals seem to eventually drink the “kool-aid” and blame themselves for all their circumstances. Further, they look within as if there is no consistent evidence to the great income divide among minorities and whites…

There are those who blame poverty on the refusal of poor people to embrace the capitalist free enterprise system, as well as their failure to pull themselves up by their boot straps. This argument further places blame for poverty in African American communities entirely on the shoulders of African Americans.

Byron Price, Revisiting the “Culture of Poverty”
*An academic who takes on the research itself, while placing it within political context:

Conservatives are strong proponents of this social theory, which distills various unflattering hypotheses regarding the cycle of poverty and the poor. The theory advances the proposition that the poor have embraced a particular system of mores (pathological) which perpetuate the cycle of poverty. Implicit in this theory is the belief that the poor are beyond helping and government programs and policies geared to ameliorate the ravages of poverty are useless.

Subsequently, studies like Professor Sampson’s fuel bureaucrats and conservatives who believe that minorities cannot learn; they are lazy and are criminally prone. As a result of these types of studies, bureaucrats justify their policies which refuse money from the federal government to direct toward educational programs such as Headstart. These same bureaucrats turn a deaf ear to the disproportionate incarceration of minorities, the high unemployment rate of minorities, and the achievement gap and other social indicators which describe the health of minority communities. Their mantra is that they have thrown billions of dollars to help these minority communities and they still lag too far behind to help.


Mike the Mad Biologist, The Culture of Poverty Depends on which Neighborhood’s School a Child Attends
*Examination of how housing regulations and the way in which parents select schools impacts the performance of students.

In the D.C. area, it is virtually impossible for low-income families to find housing in the inner suburbs (the wealthy suburbs of Arlington, Fairfax, and Montgomery counties). The housing that is available is concentrated in small areas, and those schools that cater to those communities do poorly (who coulda thunk it?). This exists largely due to zoning regulations: to build small-lot houses or apartment buildings is often illegal. In essence, low-income students are ‘zoned out’ (erm, that didn’t come out right…). Until we make our communities more integrated economically–and that means having low-income people nearby–it will be very difficult for urban schools to have the same results suburban ones do.

Melinda Burns, Welfare Reform Failing Poor Single Mothers
*Excellent critique of how welfare reform has actually worsened the situation of single mothers and various ideologies in U.S. politics, which have shaped welfare policies.

The posters in welfare offices proclaim, “Work is always better than welfare.” But is it? Not if you’re a single mother in a low-wage, no-benefits, dead-end job, according to both Stretched Thin and Both Hands Tied: Welfare Reform and the Race to the Bottom of the Low-Wage Labor Market, another new book on America’s fraying safety net. In close-up studies of single mothers both on and off the dole in Oregon and Wisconsin, two states that pioneered welfare reform, these books report what it’s like to stock shelves at Walmart, empty bedpans in nursing homes, or flip burgers at McDonald’s, working nights and split shifts — and somehow also trying to raise a family.

“It’s all the stresses in the world,” says one mother in Both Hands Tied, describing her life as a cleaning woman and the sole caretaker of three children. “You know what I’m saying? You have to do all these things, and then you have to worry about child care, making it home in time to feed them, put them in the tub, clean up the house. … You’re trying to do all this on your own, with no help. What’s the word for it? I don’t even know the word for it.”

Laura Sullivan, Prison Economics Help Drive Arizona Immigration Law
*The Arizona immigration law was about keeping illegal immigrants out of the country, right? Guess again.

-Sullivan shows how privatized prison systems pushed the passing of this controversial law as a way for these corporations to increase their profits.

What he was selling was a prison for women and children who were illegal immigrants.

“They talk [about] how positive this was going to be for the community,” Nichols said, “the amount of money that we would realize from each prisoner on a daily rate.”

But Nichols wasn’t buying. He asked them how would they possibly keep a prison full for years — decades even — with illegal immigrants?

“They talked like they didn’t have any doubt they could fill it,” Nichols said.

That’s because prison companies like this one had a plan — a new business model to lock up illegal immigrants. And the plan became Arizona’s immigration law.

Bob Herbert, Fast Track to Inequality
*The best for last. Herbert paints the broader picture.

-Inequality is more than just poverty. And there are extraordinarily powerful people in government and business who are making sure they can get much, much more than their fair share.

We’ve all been impoverished – the rich are richer, and the middle class on down got stuck in the culture of poverty created by the rich using money to shape politics.

The book “Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer — and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class” describes an “organizational revolution” that took place over the past three decades in which big business mobilized on an enormous scale to become much more active in Washington, cultivating politicians in both parties and fighting fiercely to achieve shared political goals…

“We’re not arguing that globalization and technological change don’t matter,” said Professor Hacker. “But they aren’t by any means a sufficient explanation for this massive change in the distribution of wealth and income in the U.S. Much more important are the ways in which government has shaped the economy over this period through deregulation, through changes in industrial relations policies affecting labor unions, through corporate governance policies that have allowed C.E.O.’s to basically set their own pay, and so on.”

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8 Responses to Culture of Poverty: From Analysis to Policy

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  8. Siddhartha says:

    Most of the communities in the entire Indian sub-continent(such as Bengali) are succumbed in ‘Culture of Poverty'(Oscar Lewis), irrespective of class or economic strata, lives in pavement or apartment. Nobody is genuinely regret or get ashamed of the deep-rooted corruption, decaying general quality of life, worst Politico-admin system, bad work place, weak mother language, continuous consumption of (common social) space (mental as well as physical, both). We are becoming fathers & mothers only by self-procreation, mindlessly & blindfold, supported by some lame excuses. Simply depriving their(the children) fundamental rights of a decent, caring society, fearless & dignified living. Do not ever look for any other positive alternative behaviour (values) to perform human way of parenthood, i.e. deliberately stop giving birth to any child till the society improves up the mark but co-parenting children those are born out of extreme poverty, instead. It seems that all of us are being driven only by the very animal instinct. If the Bengali people ever be able to bring that genuine freedom (from vicious cycle of ‘poverty’) in their own attitude, involve themselves in ‘Production Space’ (Henri Lefebvre), create one different pathway to overcome inherent ‘hopeless’ mindset, decent & rich Politics will definitely come up. – Siddhartha Bandyopadhyay, 16/4, Girish Banerjee Lane, Howrah -711101, India.