Behind the 8 ball

This morning I went on a bit of a tear about the ludicrous idea of a ‘culture of poverty’. I suppose calling it ludicrous is not fair, since on the surface, if you’re ignorant of a lot of facts, the idea at least has some superficial credibility. What I didn’t get around to is the illustration of what might be a better explanation. It will probably come as an eye-rolling lack of surprise to most when I point to racism as a potential explanation. I am not referring simply to the active kind of racism whereby black and brown kids are discriminated against by teachers, or wherein employers don’t hire people with funny sounding names. No, the kind of racism I am referring to is far more structural and ephemeral than that.

Imagine you were born with a limp. In our modern society, that’s certainly not a major hurdle to overcome. We have, through conscious effort as a consequence of advocacy, built mechanisms into our infrastructure to allow people with mobility issues to live fulfilling and productive lives. We have actively reduced structural discrimination against people who, through no fault of their own, have a disadvantage. Now sure, you’re not going to be an Olympic sprinter or anything like that – your physical condition precludes that. But, there’s no reason you couldn’t be a physicist or a spot welder or any other occupation that doesn’t require extraordinary leg strength or mobility.

Contrast what your life would be like if you had been born with the same limp in, say, ancient Sparta. Because you would need full mobility to participate in even the basic parts of your society, you’d be in serious trouble. Not only would you be unable to access things you need to live, but you’d be excluded from involvement in social and political life – not because you couldn’t do them, but because you’d spend all your time struggling just to keep your head above water. Your inability to thrive would likely be seen as some kind of curse from the gods, or worse still as your own fault. If you want to succeed, you have to work harder than your more able-bodied peers to achieve anything.

These are the two different models of society we can contrast – one that puts the necessary effort to ensure that physical traits like a limp don’t preclude you from engaging in activities for which a limp is not a real handicap, and one in which no attempt is made to overcome a disability in such a way as to make it essentially impossible to participate even in those things that your disability doesn’t apply to.

Which society do you think we live in when it comes to race?

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I put it to you that being born black or hispanic puts you at a disadvantage. That being in one of these groups, even before we get into issues like a ‘culture of poverty’, places extra hurdles in your way. Not hurdles that are actually related to your success, but hurdles that prevent you from reaching it nonetheless. This kind of systemic racism operates in the background without any kind of conscious intent or active discrimination on behalf of a secret cabal of bigots. It has the same force as active racism though, since your racial identity is a strong predictor of your chances of success, even though this connection is highly erroneous.

The question we must ask ourselves is whether or not we’re interested in fixing this problem. If we’re content to allow this state of affairs to continue, then there’s no reason to make any changes. Of course, as I suggested before, this ends up hurting everyone. It would be much better for all members of society for there to be fewer poor people. If we’re interested in seeing that happen, then we have to work to reduce these inequalities. Otherwise we’ll have a segment of society still stuck behind the 8 ball, with no hope of getting ahead.

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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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Poverty: fallen and can’t get up

I’m stepping outside my area of expertise far more than usual for this one, so I hope you’ll forgive me for my even more amateurish look at this topic. The reason I’m even bothering is because it’s been cropping up more and more in my own explorations of race, racial disparity and social program development. For those coming here for atheism stuff, I promise that I’ll have a dynamite anti-theist screed ready for action next week. Cross my heart.

On Thursday I tipped my hand a bit on this topic when I spoke about the way that prison can (and often does) lead to an increase in the very same poverty that, in many cases, was the impetus for the same crime that lands someone in jail. If our goal as a society is to reduce and prevent crime, then we should be looking at ways to reduce and prevent poverty. It is not simply a bleeding heart “think of the children” kind of approach – reducing poverty can be an act of self preservation. If we don’t pay to reduce crime, we pay to clean it up far later. I was first turned on to this topic when I read an article on

I’m not blaming anybody but myself for getting into this situation (I was drunk for two straight decades) and I’m not asking for anybody’s sympathy. What I am saying is that people are quick to tell you to pick yourself up by your bootstraps and just stop being poor. What they don’t understand is the series of intricate financial traps that makes that incredibly difficult.

It details the author’s struggle to regain solvency after going broke, and the number of hurdles he had to overcome. The piece goes far beyond the simple problems of making enough money to live on, pointing out the number of things that keep you poor once you’re already down in the hole. Little things that only affect those who live below the poverty line.  Things that prevented him from regaining financial independence, even when his household was pulling in a dual income.

As the author takes pains to point out, he is not asking for sympathy or trying to blame anyone else for his situation. It is immaterial both to his point and mine. It is not really necessary to understand why someone lives below the poverty line, except insofar as we need to understand what the best way to get that person out of poverty is. The point is that once you are there, it’s incredibly difficult to get out on your own, and the problems are often things that we who live above that line don’t see or think about.

The link between poverty and crime is a strong enough one that it should be sufficient motivation for us to want to eradicate poverty. After all, crime has the potential to harm any of us, even we innocents who haven’t done anything so stupid as to put us in that bad financial shape. All the jails in the world won’t be enough to save us. And of course jails don’t protect us from future crimes – they just temporarily lock up those who have already committed crimes. I’m not sure what the state of the evidence is supporting the old chestnut that people go into jail as minor criminals and come out as major criminals, but once again it’s immaterial to my argument.

But let’s say that take a particularly hard-line view of crime and decide that more jails will be sufficient. There are still reasons beyond crime prevention to want to reduce poverty. People who have low incomes and low economic security also consume far more health care resources than those in the middle (or upper) classes. Even outside the confines of our socialized health care system, poverty creates a greater burden on the health care system. Scarce resources go to treat conditions that would not exist save for the poverty of the afflicted. Even in a for-profit health care delivery system, these are the same resources that non-impoverished people use, and drains on them hurt us.

But let’s say that you exist in even more of a vacuum than most, and you have a private doctor that tends to your every ache and pain. Let’s also say that you don’t mind your tax dollars going to the health care system (because they do, even in the USA before the dreaded Health Care Reform Act). Even then, eliminating poverty is still in your selfish best interest. Impoverished people are a drain on the economy (it is important that this not be interpreted as a judgment on people living below the poverty line – it is simply a fact). Even those that work are often mired deeply in debt, which is only good news for the lending agencies that make money off of interest – until, that is, the poor default on their loans and declare bankruptcy. This is to say nothing of social assistance programs that get a disproportionately high level of criticism and a disproportionately low level of funding and autonomy.

Poverty also has a racial component, since people of colour (PoCs) are far more likely to be impoverished for reasons that I have hinted at before. While it is easy (and fun) to blame PoCs for their condition, the fact is that poverty isn’t a product of laziness. It is, as the Cracked article so aptly puts it, “like trying to climb out of a dick pit but the ladder is also made of dicks.” There are any number of forces that pull you down deeper into poverty and make it unbelievably difficult to leave. It is a trap into which people and families can sink forever.

Poverty should require work to get out of – to be sure. I am not advocating the opening of government coffers to give a slush fund to every street person with a hand out. What I am advocating is much more simple than that – create opportunities for people to learn to do for self. Put training, education, housing, and opportunity  within the grasp of every street person looking for a hand up. Give people the wherewithal to improve their own situations through hard work and innovation. Yes, this will require sacrifice on the part of those of us not living in poverty, and this may seem unfair. What I am hoping is that they (we) are smart enough to realize that, for the reasons I point to above, reducing poverty and inequality is in the best interest of everyone, not just the poor.

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Out of the frying pan…

I’ve been hinting for a while that I want to take on the topic of poverty, but have been chasing down more urgent/contemporary topics. It just so happens that at the end of this week I have a brief window to begin laying some of the ground work for what will eventually become my ultimate point. I’ve already tipped my hand a couple of times in topics I wrote back in July, but I haven’t made the point completely explicit yet. It’s not that it will be monumental or groundbreaking – I’m not trying to plant teasers as much as I am trying to apologize for not getting to it yet.

I did my graduate degree in Kingston, Ontario which is a city about 300 km east of Toronto. Kingston was once the capital of Canada and home to its first Prime Minister. More recently, Kingston has become the home of 3 things: Queen’s University, the Royal Military College, and a metric fuck-ton of prisons. There are 7 prisons within the municipal borders of the city, with two more in the outlying area. When a family member is imprisoned, particularly if that family member is the main income-earner, the whole family suffers as a result. I am not interested in trying to determine who is to blame – many criminals go to jail because they made poor decisions and deserve their punishment. The point is that there is ‘collateral damage’ to the family.

It was common enough to see families move to Kingston to live close to where the bread-winner (usually the father) was in jail. These were more often than not single-parent families, meaning that the remaining adult at home worked a part-time job to ensure sufficient time for child care. These were not people who were rich before their spouse was locked up, so it’s not a stretch to picture the kind of economic shape most of these families were in. The TL/DR version of this situation is that imprisonment can be economically catastrophic to young families. There is an additional issue that I have to confess I was totally ignorant of:

The fees levied on prisoners are put there by state legislatures who have found  a group few people will stick up for. But this is short-term thinking at its finest.  For example, a report on the issue by the Brennan Center for Justice studied Mecklenburg County in North Carolina, which in 2009 arrested 564 people for failing to pay their debts and jailed just under half of them for several days before their hearings.   The cost of jailing them — even for a short time — far outweighed the money eventually collected.

“Look at the cost of year in jail for just one person,” said Rebekah Diller, an author of the report. ($30,000 per year is the low end.)  “If this only drives a few people back into the system you’re already undermining any revenue you might raise.”

These debts would seem to drive more than a few back into the system.  Probation officers are the front line people pushing probationers to pay, and one of their most effective weapons is the threat of arrest.  But this drives probationers into hiding if they don’t have the money.  “They end up going underground, not fulfilling their probation requirements because they can’t fulfill the court fees,” said Abrigal Forrester, a program coordinator for StreetSafe Boston, which does gang intervention and other work to help reduce crime in tough neighborhoods.   If you skip your meetings with probation, you are probably going back to prison.

So imagine this, if you will. Let us suppose that for any of a wide variety of reasons you were so deep in debt that you couldn’t pay your way out. Family connections cannot help you, and bankruptcy isn’t an option. You are then charged with failure to pay your debt and go to jail (apparently this is not possible in Canada, but please bear with me for the sake of argument). While in jail, your debt accumulates interest. Due to a well-intentioned but ultimately myopic “tough on crime” policy, you are charged a fee for your prison stay. When you are released from jail, you are deeper in debt than you were before you went in, but you cannot secure gainful employment because you have a criminal record.

Now of course you wouldn’t turn to a life of crime at this point, dear reader. No, you’d get extra-long bootstraps (on sale, because you’re thrifty) and tug yourself to economic freedom. But perhaps a neighbour of yours who is not quite so virtuous as you would succumb to the lure of breaking the law in order to make enough cash to feed your family and pay down her debt. Perhaps she’s not quite the criminal mastermind she thinks she is, and gets charged, this time with an actual crime. It’s back to prison for her, with the weight of a conviction on top of the still-mounting debt.

This is the experience of a number of people. Even without the initial charge of ‘being in debt’ sending you to jail, putting someone in prison can trap them in a spiral of criminality and recidivism that goes beyond simplistic explanations of the criminal mind and “gangsterism”. I am not trying to suggest that every convict is an innocent victim of circumstance; only that some are, and we can make changes to our social system to ensure that these folks have an easier chance of it. As it stands now, our prisons might be creating more new prisoners, rather than accomplishing their ostensible goal of reducing crime and protecting communities from criminals.

I bring this story up as an example of why I think we need broader, more forward-thinking approaches to crime and justice. I think it would be better to recognize that convicts do not disappear when they leave prison, and that many would, if given the opportunity, prefer to make an honest living than scramble the streets trying to avoid getting caught and sent back. Any program that increases poverty or fails to provide a clear pathway out is ultimately doing our entire society a disservice.

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