A Culture of Poverty, Ctd.


via Leigh Graham at Change.org

The New York Times ran a story a few days back on the resurgence of academic consideration of culture in discussions of poverty. In short: arguments about cultural explanations of poverty became taboo over the last few decades because many of them were seen as victim-blaming and racist. But that wariness is dissipating.

Here’s Monica‘s take over at The Prospect.

But the idea that shared values, norms and expectations are affected by the material conditions in which people find themselves, and can also reinforce those conditions, is pretty much a no-brainer. The sociologists the Times quotes each define culture slightly differently, but it’s worth noting that almost all of them describe culture as a response to societal structures and inequality. None of them argues that poor people don’t value work, for example, but the type of jobs that are practically available for members of a community might change the type of work they see as worthwhile to pursue.

And here’s TNC making a similar point.

It defies logic to think that any group, in a generationaly entrenched position, would not develop codes and mores for how to survive in that position. African-Americans, themselves, from poor to bourgeois, are the most 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 the 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 my 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.

These touch upon a lingering frustration progressives feel when discussing poverty and policy aimed at reducing it. 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.

Culture, of course, isn’t just a bunch of people in one place making similar choices, it’s also about the stories we tell ourselves about the choices we make. New Yorkers don’t say to themselves, Hey, we live in a densely populated city with horrible, expensive parking, onerous car insurance premiums, and relatively cheap, efficient public transportation. They say, we like to walk! (Go to L.A. and see how long that deep, personal affinity for walking lasts, and how much it’s encouraged.) That choice may be made with a heavy structural thumb on the scale, but it’s rational in context. This is a benefit that usually isn’t extended to the poor in conversations about culture. They are a stripped of their ability to be rational, to have their stories seen as anything but excuses.

The macro-level consequences of this are kind of hard to overstate. From the War on Drugs to welfare reform to housing policy, so many of our country’s major policy failures have been worsened by our inability to grapple with the gruesome cost-benefit decisions poor folks have to make everyday; that having to choose from the least awful option from an array of shitty options will generally produce undesirable results.



Gene "G.D." Demby is the founder and editor of PostBourgie. In his day job, he blogs and reports on race and ethnicity for NPR's Code Switch team.
  • young_

    The problem with the cultural tendencies being discussed as “culture of poverty” though is that they are sticky and often outlive the immediate structural conditions in which they initially developed. They don’t automatically change because someone moves to a safer neighborhood or better school system.

    It’s very difficult to analogize but I think a more apt analogy to the way culture functions would be to imagine the people (who love walking) moving from New York to LA and continuing to try to carry out their daily lives by walking around and not getting a car. Whereas the walking and lack of car were fine– maybe even beneficial in NY– in LA it might result in considerable time wasted, unnecessary effort, missed opportunities, and lower social status.

  • As in the animal kingdom, people adapt to the structures in which they find themselves. Adaptations are not “good” or “bad” in and of themselves; they are merely more or less apposite to a given context. It *can* be difficult to alternate back and forth between divergent cultural modes, but that ability itself can be acquired through exposure to a broad range of cultural contexts. A lack of diversity in one’s cultural exposure is what creates that “stickiness,” or path dependence, that seems so endemic to poor communities. After all, why should I bother adapting to a foreign culture if my beliefs about what is possible suggest I won’t be rewarded?

    • young_

      Part of the problem is that without openly discussing culture as something that individuals have control over, and explaining that some cultural traits are less likely to lead to upward mobility than others, there’s no way to properly guide young people toward achieving the possible and fully taking advantage of all possible opportunities.

      • could you give an example of an aspect of culture that an individual has exercises control over?

        • young_

          Almost any, really… Our cultural backgrounds influence which behaviors, responses and strategies seem most appropriate or natural in given situations but it doesn’t predetermine our outcomes. Sticking with the example in the original post, people who grow up in areas where the predominant cultural mandates are to address perceived disrespect with escalating aggression and physical violence can be taught to appreciate that such behavior is extremely self-destructive in many contexts, and, with effort, they can adapt their behavior accordingly. Ditto for people who grow up in neighborhoods/peer groups where overly-studious behavior is ridiculed, people who grow up amongst racists, people who grow up with culturally-infused eating habits, etc.

  • Suitlandman

    I was actually working the launch of this Annals issue at the Capitol. Very interesting turn in the social sciences but I wouldnt necessarily go far as to forget the danger still posed by academics who are paid to study the poor. My opinion is that studies that take a ‘culture and poverty’ approach often end up being nothing more than an anthropological cataloging of how the fetishized communities under study go about living their lives, although i can say there are also many meaningful and engaging studies out there as well.

    Anyway, as a newcomer I must say: I have never come across a blog that speaks to my own personal and intellectual dispostion as much as this one. Congrats on a great site. Anybody in Chicago?

    • young_

      For the record, I’m not really sure that it actually is an “interesting turn in the social sciences.” As Adolph Reed said at a conference on black intellectual history last night, guys like William Julius Wilson have been “rediscovering” Moynihan since the 1980s. A wide array of social scientists including Wilson, Doug Massey, Katherine Newman, and many others have been lamenting the “mistreatment” of Moynihan for years now. None of them actually study culture directly though– they’re not cultural sociologists. A bunch of the sociologists commenting on culture & poverty now seem to treat culture as if it solely derives social structure and economic conditions(i.e. as if everyone living in the same conditions share the same cultural repertoires) , an oversimplistic approach that would likely outrage any social scientist who actually studies culture.

    • young_

      By the way, Suitlandman, when you say “most books that take a ‘culture and poverty’ approach” are you referring to any articles/books in particular? If so, which ones?

  • Freddie

    My opinion is that studies that take a ‘culture and poverty’ approach often end up being nothing more than an anthropological cataloging of how the fetishized communities under study go about living their lives, although i can say there are also many meaningful and engaging studies out there as well.

    My father used to say, “You know what’s worse than racial tokenism? Segregation.” What’s your alternative? Do nothing?

  • Joseph FM

    Freddie, uhm…how about a broader conscious acknowledgement of the odiousness and dubious ethics of that kind of methodology? I know you think you need to defend academia, but research that treats poverty as an alien culture and does nothing to improve the lives of its subjects is, indeed, worse than doing nothing.

  • Naima

    I sure wish those of us who write about poverty could do so in a way that was more accessible…wonderful points,I dig it but I have a problem showing this to the people who actually would benefit from reading it.