Poverty is one of the most persistent social problems 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 do some people lack resources while others do not? Social scientists have come up with a number of explanations for poverty, and the culture of poverty is one theory that attempts to explain why people are and remain in poverty. In this lesson, we'll first look at the individuals who developed the theory and then some examples and criticisms of the theory.
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 in the late 1950s. 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 a result of these conditions and the conditioning of living in poverty that occurs, Lewis believed as these children grow into adults, their poverty will be inherent. In order words, Lewis decided that poverty is somewhat of a disease that renders those living in it incapable of taking advantage of opportunities he believed were available to all citizens.
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 only single women and high levels of unemployment. In other words, the effect of poverty was also the cause. Moynihan's beliefs support the idea that those born into poverty will remain in poverty, even if the structure of things, like the economy or access to schooling changes. Hence, people are likely to remain poor because of the values they've developed from being poor.
Culture of Poverty: Examples
How does the culture of poverty theory work in the real world, according to the theorists? Let's take some examples of social problems and examine how someone who subscribes to culture of poverty theories would explain them. Imagine a large city in the United States where there is a high degree of economic inequality among poor minority residents and white residents. An explanation that falls in line with a culture of poverty argument might suggest that high rates of unemployment result from the fact that the poor residents do not value hard work. They might be lazy and unwilling to seek out opportunities. This explanation might suggest that poor, unemployed people from minority groups lack a work ethic.
Let's take family life and family structure as another example. If a poor, minority mother has a child and does not marry the child's father, the culture of poverty view would suggest that family structure is partly to blame for her poverty. This view suggests that poor people do not adhere to so-called traditional family values and do not value things like marriage, which accounts for their continuing poverty.
Criticism of the Culture of Poverty Theory
In these examples, you can see that the theory discounts historical and societal conditions and attempts to blame a minority group. It doesn't take into account oppression, discrimination, segregation, and racism's effect on poor employment opportunities and therefore poor living conditions. According to the culture of poverty theory, these factors are irrelevant when determining why an economic chasm exists between middle-class and wealthy white citizens and poor Black citizens. Critics of Lewis and Moynihan identify this faulty logic as victim blaming.
Lewis's greatest critic, Charles Valentine, author of Culture and Poverty: Critique and Counter-Proposals identified multiple flaws in Lewis' work, including:
- Lack of data supporting generalizations
- Assuming poverty was a way of life but conducting no longitudinal studies to support it
- Hand-selecting people who he believed possessed the traits he wished to prove existed
Other critics have debated that the culture of poverty theory balances on the idea that culture is unchanging and stagnant, which, as we know, is untrue. The theory condemns individuals living in poverty to no hope or ability to live any other way, eliminating the possibility of intervention or aid changing the status quo.
Refusing to acquiesce to the 'way things are' attitude, Moynihan's critics, particularly feminists, continued to criticize his report well into the 1970s, accusing him of forcing a patriarchal society and blaming women for being single parents.
While the theory correctly acknowledges that conditions such as poor housing and unequal distribution of resources for health and education lead to poverty, it inconclusively assigns laziness and lack of values to those struggling in poverty.
The culture of poverty theory was first explained by the Anthropologist Oscar Lewis in his studies of families in Mexico and Puerto Rico. Lewis theorized that people living in poverty develop a distinct culture. This happens when, for example, children internalize feelings of hopelessness after living in poor conditions. According to Lewis, there are certain values that poverty perpetuates and that children internalize, making it difficult for people to escape from the cycle of poverty.
Daniel Patrick Moynihan was another proponent of the culture of poverty theory. He theorized that Black families in the U.S. were poor because of a number of interrelated factors. Things like high unemployment and high levels of households headed by single women resulted in difficulties escaping from the pattern of poverty. The document he wrote on this came to be known as the Moynihan Report.
Theories about the culture of poverty tend to blame the attitudes and beliefs of people for their own predicaments and discount historical and societal conditions. These essentially blame people living in poverty for being poor. Critics like Charles Valentine identified flaws in the theories noting insufficient and skewed data being used to support assumptions and generalizations.