Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Culture of Poverty

The term "culture of poverty" was introduced by Oscar Lewis in his seminal 1959 book Five Families: Mexican Case Studies in the Culture of Poverty. (If you don’t know about Lewis, 1914-1970, as I didn’t until very recently, he was the son of a Jewish rabbi, the husband of Abraham Maslow’s sister, and a noted anthropologist and university professor.)
Michael Harrington used that same term in "Our Fifty Million Poor," a piece he wrote for the July 1959 issue of Commentary, the monthly magazine founded by the American Jewish Committee in 1945. (Some of you will recall that I mentioned Harrington in my previous, as well as my March 5, blog article.)
In his article, Harrington argued that American poverty constituted “a separate culture, another nation, with its own way of life.” Consequently, he argued, a “comprehensive assault on poverty” on the part of the federal government is needed if the problem of poverty is to be solved.

Harrington’s analysis of the problem of poverty in USAmerican society was further developed in his highly-influential book “The Other America” (1962), which is credited with being one of the main works that stimulated President Johnson to declare the war on poverty in 1964.
The Food Stamp Act and the Economic Opportunity Act, both enacted that year, were major parts of the “assault” on national poverty. But that attack weakened during the presidency of Richard Nixon and declined even further after the election of President Reagan in 1980.
Moreover, according to Maurice Isserman, “neo-conservatives took [Harrington’s] notion of the ‘culture of poverty’ and, turning it on its head, used it as an argument against pursuing a federal war on poverty” (“The Other American,” p. 305).
In the early 1970s Harvard University professors such as Edward Banfield (1916-99) and Nathan Glazer (b. 1923) wrote disparagingly of those who were a part of the culture of poverty and of government programs designed to help such people. These ideas affirmed by the neo-conservatives were endorsed by Nixon and have largely been the position of the Republican Party ever since.
Quoting Isserman again,
The trouble with the poor, as the neo-conservatives saw it, was that they had adjusted to a condition of permanent dependency. . . . Those who professed to be interested in aiding the poor by means of expanding the welfare state were, in effect, the poor’s worst enemies . . . (p. 306).
In her book “My Invented Country,” which I recently read, Chilean author Isabel Allende tells about visiting the squatters’ settlements around Santiago when as a young woman she had a job as a journalist.
Allende comments, “That’s when I discovered that social climbing was a middle-class phenomenon, the poor never gave it a thought, they were too busy trying to survive” (p. 127).
To the conservatives of the past and maybe even more in the present--and especially to the strident voices I hear on “talk radio”—the victims of poverty are to blame for their own plight. They could do better if they tried.
But maybe they are just trying to survive.
There has been much talk about the culture war(s) in American society, but little regard for the “war” against those who live in a culture of poverty—although in 1995 Herbert Gans wrote a significant book titled “The War Against the Poor.” (The first chapter is here.)

Surely we need to be understanding of and sympathetic with those living in a culture of poverty--seeing them as neighbors who need to be loved rather than slackers, or enemies, who should be condemned.


  1. CRUEL is the only appropriate word for American conservatives' approach to poverty. I remain aghast at the ignorance and mythical thinking of so many Americans when they talk about the poor not helping themselves or there being plenty of work for people to pull themselves out of poverty.

    Indeed, it would be much better if we guaranteed education and jobs to every able-bodied person. In fact, I don't think any welfare should be a free handout. Even cash-in-hand welfare should be a loan to be paid by a tax surcharge on future earnings or community service. Then there'd be something to be said against those who don't take advantage of the services. But, alas, our collective stinginess would never tolerate the taxes required for a truly redemptive anti-poverty program.

    The middle class's cruel hatred for the poor is probably rooted in the special social psychology of the American culture rooted deeply in the idolization of competition and in white racism--an argument made by Michael Lewis's book, The Culture of Inequality.

    Thanks, Leroy, for an excellent column.

    1. Thank you, Anton, for posting thoughtful comments (as usual).

      Thanks, too, for introducing Michael Lewis's book, which I did not know about. (I wondered if he was the son of Oscar Lewis, and by age he could have been, but that doesn't seem to be the case.) I have requested the library to get me a copy of the second edition of Lewis's book (published in 1993) to check out and take a look at.

    2. I have just spent a few minutes looking through Michael Lewis's book, and it looks quite good. But I was surprised that there is no reference to Michael Harrington (or Oscar Lewis) in it.

  2. Thanks for a thoughtful piece. Your last paragraph sums up the issue, problem, or dilemma.
    Thanks again.

    1. Thank you, Ed, for reading and for sharing your positive comments.

  3. Local Thinking Friend, and retired Baptist minister, Don Wideman gave me permission to post his substantial comments about this blog article:

    "Having lived through one version of poverty, and observing others living in that world, I can make this observation. For many, it is a way of life for generations. There was no one in my family line, on either side, who would be considered wealthy or educated. There were no dreams or visions of a better life or a rise in our status. There is a state of mind that is associated with poverty also.

    "Everyone in our family worked and hoped to hold on a job but there were no expectations of much advancement. Our family had roots and contacts in the country but had come to the city (St. Louis) to find work. All our neighbors had similar experience. My dad lived in fear of a lay-off, foreclosure on the one and only home on which we had a mortgage (we and our relatives rented), illness that would prevent working, fire that would wipe us out.

    "Although Dad was not educated, he was intelligent and he believed that education was the only way up and out for his kids. He meant high school. All seven of us made our way to high school and paid our own way. He lived to see all of us graduate from high school and some of us made it to college (which he didn't think was necessary).

    "There is another world that the 1% who own and run things do not know. They are comforted with their belief that anyone who is poor is lazy, shiftless and more than willing to sponge off of the elite.

    "I thank the Lord that my siblings and I are survivors and have been able to change the culture of our family."

  4. "Blame the victim" is how neoconservatives often operate. There are complex reasons all this happens, but at the end it is the oligarchs who rule much of the world who drive this view. Using divide and conquer they pit different groups against either other, while exploiting all. Violence, militarism and radical libertarian economics are all different parts of the same system. The recent awareness of multiple violent police attacks on unarmed blacks gives a hint of how this system works. Ghetto nihilism is not the result of lazy thinking. It the goal of violent repression mixed with economic exploitation.

    Jesus says, "Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God." Luke 18:25 NRSV Paul(?) explains, "For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil, for in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains." 1 Timothy 6:10 NRSV Somehow, the Bible forgot to say, "Greed is good." This may not add up to a modern theory of how to handle poor populations, but it sure gives some hint of what NOT to do. Maybe a place to start would be to advise everyone with eyes to see, and with ears to hear. Many are too busy shouting to do either.

  5. Your post is one with which I can heartily agree. As I have read this several times over the last couple of days, too many thoughts came to mind to be included here. This morning I came across a quote from MLK, Jr. that speaks directly to part of this problem. Unlike Bro. Anton I do not think "hate" plays that big of a role. When he uses the word "ignorance", I think he is much closer to the truth.

    This quote comes from "Daily Jolt of Broken Halo"
    Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary. — Martin Luther King, Jr.

    The old adage "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime" is true only if you provide a chance to get the fishing tackle and allow him access to the lake where there is sufficient fish. Like Anton I see education as critical, but if there is no humanly dignified opportunity to put that education to work, all we have done is given ourselves a reason to pat ourselves on the back and continue to ignore the heart of the problem.

    1. Tom, thanks for your excellent comments! I don't remember hearing that quote from MLK, but I like it and appreciate you sharing it.

  6. Having lived in the top tenth of the 1% for several years, and paid attention to the "average" "poor", who generally lived productive lives with their share of joys and struggles, it seemed that good outcomes were based on a strong family structure, a strong work ethic, divine providence, and the government generally staying out of the way. If the government bureaucrats and politicians had been forced to live near the median income of the populace, their focus would probably have been more beneficial to the populace. The more the government inserted themselves into the everyday lives of the citizens, the worse were the outcomes for the citizens, and the richer the governing became. And one must not forget the deadly outcomes of the fools in government in controlling the citizens. Government involvement in philanthropy seems to produce exceptionally bad results. (There is a necessary role for governance, but too often, it is a key part of the problem.)

  7. Near the beginning of Oscar Lewis's book (mentioned at the beginning of the article), he writes,

    "To understand the culture of the poor it is necessary to live with them, to learn their language and customs, and to identify with their problems and aspirations" (p. 2).

    That is no doubt quite true--but something those who are critical of the poor are not likely to do. And it is also probably true that most of such people are not willing to learn from those who have made such efforts to understand the culture of the poor.

  8. Originally, I planned to make reference to George Gilder (b. 1939) in this blog article. According to Wikipedia,

    "His 1981 international bestseller 'Wealth and Poverty' advanced a practical and moral case for supply-side economics and capitalism during the early months of the Reagan Administration and made him President Reagan's most quoted living author."

    The eleventh chapter of Gilder's book is "The Coming Welfare Boom," and the last paragraph of that chapter begins, "Welfare now erodes work and family and thus keeps poor people poor" (p. 127).

  9. Well my last attempt at posting just disappeared.
    The very abbreviated version: I just spent a week with a very diverse group in training for an insurance sales position. Despite their ambition and positive attitude, the one group which is least likely to succeed will probably be the African Americans. Their culture and "family" have failed them. They had very poor hygiene, poor work ethic, and cultural abrasiveness, etc. It was sad to see. The Church must address this mission. I will take my place with Rodney Knott and ReEngage more aggressively.