This commentary is the latest in the series, entitled “Poverty
and Society: A New Inquiry into an Old Question.” Please be sure to
read Peter Edelman’s “Opening
Thoughts” to learn more.
simple proposition that human behavior is shaped by cultural factors is widely
acknowledged. Yet in contemporary debates on poverty, the proposition is deeply
controversial, because a potent mix of theoretical miscues and political
controversies has equated this idea with blaming the poor for their poverty. It
is time for a change.
theories about poverty that blame the victim are often scientifically flawed,
beset by conceptual muddiness, and inconsistent with available data. Yet
rejecting all cultural models because of the sins of the few will lead us to
ignore important research and to propose bad policies. We need not forget what
we know about social science to examine how cultural factors shape people’s
responses to poverty.
important first step is to declare dead, once and for all, the flawed theory of
the “culture of poverty.”
by anthropologist Oscar Lewis in 1966, the theory argued that when families and
communities experienced sustained poverty, they developed a “way of life”
consisting of “strong feelings of marginality, of helplessness, of dependence,
and of inferiority,” a “high incidence of maternal deprivation,” a “weak ego
structure,” a “confusion of sexual identification,” and a “provincial
orientation,” among many other traits.
to the theory, this culture of poverty was likely to perpetuate itself even if
the structural conditions that initially gave rise to it changed.
model was flawed in many ways. Some propositions defy reason, and even border
on the preposterous, while others have been easily debunked by evidence. Taken
as a whole, the theory cannot be tested, since the conditions defining this
“culture” include beliefs, values, practices, attitudes, and psychological
states—with no clear relationship among them.
as many have argued, some elements of the model clearly blame the victim.
the flaws of Lewis’ “culture of poverty” model are not typical of all research
on this topic. A new, diverse generation
of politically and academically conscientious scholars has produced a growing
body of work that avoids using “culture” as a catchall term. This new research builds
on important conceptual work on culture over the last thirty years, and rests
solidly on a foundation of either qualitative or quantitative data.
scholars pursue different kinds of questions. Instead of asking whether culture
engenders poverty, they inquire whether cultural factors shape how people
understand, experience, and respond to poverty.
They eschew overarching theories of culture, relying instead on more
narrowly targeted concepts to analyze belief, behavior, and decision making.
of the authors of this column examined the cultural environment to which
children are exposed based on U.S. survey data and in-depth interviews with adolescents.
He found that children in poor neighborhoods are exposed to a broader and more
discordant array of cultural frames than those in non-poor neighborhoods,
frustrating their attempts to make effective choices about schooling, work, and
research has examined cultural identity. Economists George Akerlof and Rachel
Kranton, drawing on a review of qualitative research, proposed that students’
effort in school depends in part on their identity, since the value of staying
in school varies among “jocks,” “nerds,” or “burnouts.”
are at least two reasons to pay attention to this recent scholarship on
this research helps separate fact from fiction in a national conversation
filled with persistent myths about the culture of the poor. For example, many
argued that poor black students, presumed to feel that society provides few
opportunities for them to succeed, have developed an oppositional culture that
devalues schoolwork as “acting white.” But in a series of recent studies,
scholars testing the theory against nationally representative data found little
support for it.
ignoring this research can lead to ineffective anti-poverty policy.
the example of child support. In a recent issue of Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences devoted
to current scholarship on culture and poverty, Sociologist Maureen Waller presented
her findings on low-income parents’ understanding of responsible fatherhood. One
of the purposes of strongly enforcing child support is to increase how involved
fathers are in their children’s lives, economically and emotionally. Yet many
believed that child enforcement policies undermined responsible fatherhood by
ignoring a father’s emotional, social, and in-kind material support for his
children and created an inherent conflict between unwed parents. Policymakers
armed with this knowledge would likely develop better child enforcement
Waller’s study is but one example, it suggests that our thinking about poverty
in the twenty-first century should not be held hostage by the flawed theories
and acrimonious politics of the twentieth. A new generation of scholars, reared
in a different political era and schooled in the need for research-based
policy, promises to offer a different kind of conversation.
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Mario L. Small is a professor and the chair of the
Department of Sociology at the University of Chicago.
Michèle Lamont is a
Robert I. Goldman Professor of European Studies and professor of Sociology and African and African American Studies at Harvard
David J. Harding is
an associate professor for the Department of Sociology and the Gerald R. Ford
School of Public Policy and a research associate professor for the Population
Studies Center and Survey Research Center at the University of Michigan.
For a related article by the authors, which
appeared in the May 2010 Issue of the Annals of the American Academy of
Political and Social Science, please visit Sage Journals Online.