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Is the "culture of poverty" real, or a myth?

Mar 24, 2015

Do bad choices lead to poverty? Or, is poverty caused by the way the deck is stacked against some people? Some new work on how culture and poverty work together might find the answer to those questions somewhere in between these two extremes.
Credit Brian Paris / flickr

When I was in eighth grade my social studies teacher explained to my class the difference between Democrats and Republicans.

This lesson in American politics is my only specific memory of anything I "learned" in any class that year. For example, I'm sure I learned things in honors biology. But in my memory I see nothing except  for a kid doing push-ups in front of the class because he swore. 

However, I do remember this, "Republicans think some people are good, others are evil and there's nothing you can do," my social studies teacher says (in my memory). "Democrats think all people are basically good." 

In two more years I would wholly discard this worldview and replace it with something more nuanced, and hopefully more accurate.

But the memory still rises to the surface of my thoughts often. 

I guess we all look for explanations for what divides us that are as simple, and as dehumanizing,  as the way Democrats and Republicans were explained to me when I was a middle-schooler. 

This is especially true of how many of us see people in poverty. It's so confusing and so emotional that there is still a lot of buy in for the idea that there's a "culture of poverty" responsible for locking people in that cycle.  

This idea goes way back, but it started to get real traction in the 1960's.

What's problematic about the idea, for me, is that it implies poverty is caused by bad decisions and poor values. It's distancing, and it makes it easy to feel morally superior if you're not living in poverty.

The concept is also too squishy for me, as it's often used as code for less socially acceptable criticism of black or Latino culture. The debates about how important marriage is to social and economic mobility, for example, are about poverty but they are also about black families. 

That history makes it hard for me to pay too much attention to discussions about the "culture" of poverty. But there is a group of social scientists making me reconsider. They've made me feel like I'm acting like my eighth grade social studies teacher. 

These social scientists, people like Harvard's Mario Small and Michigan's own Alford Young, are taking the old ways of explaining the culture and poverty connection and flipping it around. Instead of looking for an explanation of poverty in people's behavior, they're looking at the way poverty shapes the way people think, feel and act. 

Does this not feel like a big deal to you? It does to me.

There are two ways in which this is important. First, it's more likely to lead to more effective policy if we're all looking at why women choose to be single mothers and start from there,  rather than explain poverty through a rise in single motherhood and then start building programs without understanding.

I also welcome a more nuanced look at the interplay between poverty and culture because these scholars know that whatever the role of culture is, it's only part of the puzzle. Things like redlining, segregation and educational inequality, for example, can cause people to be poor or stay poor. They all have nothing to do with choices, values, or the "good decisions" of people in poverty.

Culture and poverty are tied up together. It's just that it's hard to understand how, and why. It's refreshing to know there's a group of social scientists trying to push us all to look past easy answers and get a better handle on poverty, one of the biggest challenges of our time. 

We're going to talk to Mario Small, Alford Young and lots of other people for an upcoming special on culture and poverty. What are your questions about how culture and poverty feed each other? Do you think there is a culture of poverty, and if so how does it play out in the lives of kids in Michigan? Be provocative, ask tough questions, share your life experience with us. It just makes for better discussion.