Culture of Poverty: Definition, Theory & Criticism

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Emily Cummins

Emily Cummins received a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and French Literature and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Sociology. She has instructor experience at Northeastern University and New Mexico State University, teaching courses on Sociology, Anthropology, Social Research Methods, Social Inequality, and Statistics for Social Research.

The culture of poverty is a theory that seeks to explain poverty as a byproduct of a culture's values. Examine this theory and meet the anthropologist who first proposed it as well as examples and criticisms of the theory. Updated: 02/22/2022


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.

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  • 0:04 Poverty
  • 0:34 Culture of Poverty
  • 2:28 Culture of Poverty: Examples
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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 or 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 single females 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 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 minorities 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.

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