Culture of Poverty: Definition, Theory & Examples

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  • 0:04 Poverty
  • 0:34 Culture of Poverty
  • 2:28 Culture of Poverty: Examples
  • 3:37 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Emily Cummins
In this lesson, we'll talk about a theory known as the culture of poverty, which suggests that poverty is the result of cultural values passed down through generations. It was first popularized by an an anthropologist named Oscar Lewis.


Poverty is one of the most persistent social problems plaguing places across the globe. At its most basic definition, poverty refers to a lack of material resources, such as food and shelter. But what causes poverty? Why are some people poor while others are not? Social scientists have come up with a number of explanations for poverty. In this video we'll focus on one known as the culture of poverty, including the theory and some examples.

Culture of Poverty

The theory of the culture of poverty suggests that poverty is the result of people's values or cultural norms. In a way, it suggests that people who are poor have different cultural values than mainstream society. Basically, the theory suggests that we learn certain norms when we grow up in a family who is poor, and this shapes our life choices and opportunities. We internalize the values we grow up with, which explains why people who grow up poor often remain poor.

The anthropologist Oscar Lewis, who studied poor families in Mexico and Puerto Rico, produced one of the earliest writings on the culture of poverty. Lewis was interested in explaining what he saw as particular cultural values that characterized poor people. Lewis argued that children who grew up in very poor conditions, like a slum for example, will internalize feelings of hopelessness or desperation that characterize these living conditions. As these children grow up, they will be unable to take advantage of opportunities that might exist, a kind of psychological phenomenon that accompanies living in dire circumstances.

Another proponent of the culture of poverty theory was Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a United States senator from New York. He produced a famous study on black families known as the Moynihan Report in 1965. In it, he set out to explain why black families in the United States remained much poorer than their white counterparts. The main arguments of the report were that the problems of inner city black families were the result of households headed by single females and high levels of unemployment. Theorists who subscribe to this view believe that there is something culturally enduring about poverty. In other words, even if the structure of things, like the economy or access to schooling changes, people are likely to remain poor because of the values they hold.

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