Culture of poverty: complete nonsense

Discuss race long enough, and you will eventually come across someone who says that black people are the authors of their own downfall. That laziness and a ‘culture of poverty’ that discourages people from making positive economic choices is the reason for the wide income disparities that fall along racial lines. No evidence is ever forthcoming to support this contention – it is merely asserted as a self-evident truth. After all, anyone can look into the ghettoes of the United States and Canada and see that poor people are lazy and have bad attitudes. Millions of dollars are spent on programs targeting these groups, and yet the disparities still persist. What other explanation could there be?

I’m not a sociologist, and I’m sure this little factoid is apparent to any readers of the blog that are sociologists. I try my best to reserve my comments to topics I understand, and based on fields of inquiry with which I have at least some familiarity. Insofar as I am not trained as a sociologist, I usually try and avoid interpreting the primary literature. However, insofar as I can appreciate the scientific method present in that type of inquiry, I do occasionally dip my toe into this realm. Such dabbling is made far easier when someone does all the heavy lifting for me:

[Oklahoma State Senator Sally] Kern was simply advancing one of the most enduring and pernicious untruths in America’s political economy. It holds that poverty – in general, but especially within communities of color – doesn’t result from purely economic factors. Rather, the poor are where they find themselves as a consequence of some deep-seated cultural flaws that keep them from achieving success. They’re held back, the story goes, by what is known alternatively as a “culture of poverty,” or a “culture of dependence.” It’s a popular fable for the right, as it absolves the political establishment for public policies that harm the working class and the poor.

It’s also thoroughly and demonstrably untrue, flying in the face of decades of serious research findings.

It’s a myth that should be put to rest by the economic experience of the African American community over the past 20 years. Because what Kern and other adherents of the “culture of poverty” thesis can’t explain is why blacks’ economic fortunes advanced so dramatically during the 1990s, retreated again during the Bush years and then were completely devastated in the financial crash of 2008.

In order to buy the cultural story, one would have to believe that African Americans adopted a “culture of success” during the Clinton years, mysteriously abandoned it for a “culture of failure” under Bush and finally settled on a “culture of poverty” shortly after Lehman Brothers crashed. That’s obviously nonsense. It was exogenous economic factors and changes in public policies, not manifestations of “black culture,” that resulted in those widely varied outcomes.

I will attempt to translate: the ‘culture of poverty’ hypothesis suggests that poverty cannot be affected by social programs – that the problem is one that must be addressed culturally (however one does that) rather than through the application of policy effort. The counter to that hypothesis states that cultural factors do not explain poverty, and that policy will decrease disparity. That appears to be precisely what happened:

But a little-known fact is that even before the recession hit in 2008, blacks had already taken a huge step back economically during the 2000s. By 2007, African Americans had already lost all of those gains from the 1990s. That year, sociologist Algernon Austin wrote, “On all major economic indicators—income, wages, employment, and poverty—African Americans were worse off in 2007 than they were in 2000.”

Although the Great Recession obviously hit everyone hard, it didn’t cause everyone equal pain. In 2007, the difference between white and black unemployment rates fell to the lowest point in years: just 3 percentage points. Yet as the economy fell into recession, that gap quickly grew again, and by April 2009 it had doubled, reaching a 13-year high.

“So what?” You might be saying. “All that proves is that when you give black people more money, they have more money. It could still be evidence that a culture of failure exists, which is why they lost it all again when the policy changed.” I’ll admit that was my first thought. But as I’ve pointed out before, poverty is not simply a lack of money – it’s a lack of opportunity and access. The way to measure whether or not a ‘culture of poverty’ exists is to look directly at attitudes and behaviours that are different between those at the top and those at the bottom:

Gorski did an exhaustive literature review on the culture of poverty meme. Are poor people lazier than their wealthier counterparts? Do they have a poor work ethic that keeps them from pulling themselves up by their bootstraps? Quite the opposite is true. A 2002 study by the Economic Policy Institute found that among working adults, poorer people actually put in more hours than wealthier ones did. As Gorski noted, “The severe shortage of living-wage jobs means that many poor adults must work two, three, or four jobs.”

So under direct measurement, there does not appear to be a difference in attitudes towards work, education, or even alcohol and drug use between the wealthy and the impoverished. Even attitudes toward marriage (the article goes into more detail, but I don’t really see why) are based more on economic security than a culture of poverty – suggesting quite the opposite of the central thesis that underpins the ‘culture of poverty’ mythos: that poor people are poor because they fail to make good decisions.

So maybe there’s something to be gleaned from this idea that the reason poverty falls along racial lines is because black people are just lazier than average, and don’t put in the work to pull themselves up out of the hole. After all, if they were serious about getting out of poverty, wouldn’t they take advantage of things like retraining and job fairs? Or at least start their own businesses? Yes, that’s exactly what they’d do:

So let’s look again at the evidence. AARP did a study of working people over 45 years of age (PDF), and found that “African Americans surveyed were more likely than the general population to be proactive about jobs and career training.”

They took steps such as training to keep skills up-to-date (30% versus 25%), attending a job fair (18% versus 7%), and looked for a new job (24% versus 17%) in the past year at rates higher than the general sample. A sizeable share also indicated that they plan to engage in these behaviors. More African Americans relative to the general population plan to take training (38% versus 33%), look for a new job (27% versus 24%), attend a job fair (26% versus 11%), use the internet for job-related activities (30% versus 23%), and start their own business (13% versus 7%).

The unemployment rate for African Americans between 45-64 years of age stands at 10.8 percent; the rate for whites of the same age is just 6.4 percent. Older black workers have the drive, and report putting in more effort to land jobs or start businesses than their white counterparts – they embrace a “culture of success” — yet their unemployment rate remains 40 percent higher.

Now this article does not completely rule out the ‘culture of poverty’ hypothesis. There may in fact be some differences in narratives that were not explicitly measured by these studies between black people and the general population. Certainly there is something to be said for the aspirations of success among many black groups, particularly those living in urban environments where opportunities are scarce and ‘success’ has a very different definition. What this article does do, however, is strongly suggest that we cannot ascribe much explanatory power to the idea either that poverty is explained by laziness and poor work ethic, nor can we exclude policy as a useful method of alleviating poverty.

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  1. says

    In anthropology (and probably sociology as well), the idea of the culture of poverty has been considered debunked for at least two decades now. Oscar Lewis originally was not even describing American society (he was talking about Mexico and the developing world), but that did not stop people in America from latching onto it and using it to influence policy.

    I know of at least one geography professor at my school that still teaches the culture of poverty as a valid theory and, in fact, has students apply it as a test essay question. But if you were to ask any of the cultural anthropologists in my department about the culture of poverty, they’d completely dismiss it as outdated and racist.

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