Culture still doesn’t explain poverty
January 13, 2011
Jan 13, 2011
19 Min read time
“‘Culture of Poverty’ Makes a Comeback.” So read the headline of Patricia Cohen’s front-page article in the October 17, 2010 edition of The New York Times.
The article was prompted by a recent issue of the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science under the title, “Reconsidering Culture and Poverty.” In their introductory essay, the editors, Mario Luis Small, David J. Harding, and Michèle Lamont, strike a triumphant note:
Culture is back on the poverty research agenda. Over the past decade, sociologists, demographers, and even economists have begun asking questions about the role of culture in many aspects of poverty and even explicitly explaining the behavior of the low-income population in reference to cultural factors.
Cohen begins with a similar refrain:
For more than 40 years, social scientists investigating the causes of poverty have tended to treat cultural explanations like Lord Voldemort: That Which Must Not Be Named. The reticence was a legacy of the ugly battles that erupted after Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then an assistant labor secretary in the Johnson administration, introduced the idea of a ‘culture of poverty’ to the public in his 1965 report on ‘The Negro Family.’
Cohen uncritically accepts two myths woven by William Julius Wilson, the prominent Harvard sociologist, and repeated by his acolytes: first, Moynihan was clobbered for bringing to light compromising facts about black families, and second, that this torrent of criticism constrained a generation of social scientists from investigating the relation between culture and poverty, for fear that it would be pilloried for “blaming the victim.” Thus, a third, patently self-serving myth: thanks to some intrepid scholars who reject political correctness, it is now permissible to consider the role that culture plays in the production and reproduction of racial inequalities.
These myths add up to something—a perverse obfuscation of American racial history. They suggest that for four decades academia has abetted a censorial form of anti-racism that prevented serious research into the persistence of poverty among black Americans. If only, the mythmakers insist, we stopped worrying about offending people, we could acknowledge that there is something amiss in black culture—not, as the politically correct would have it, the politics of class—and that this explains racial inequality.
Notwithstanding the election of Barack Obama, the last 40 years have been a period of racial backlash. The three pillars of anti-racist public policy—affirmative action, school integration, and racial districting (to prevent the dilution of the black vote)—have all been eviscerated, thanks in large part to rulings of a Supreme Court packed with Republican appointees. Indeed, the comeback of the culture of poverty, albeit in new rhetorical guise, signifies a reversion to the status quo ante: to the discourses and concomitant policy agenda that existed before the black protest movement forced the nation to confront its collective guilt and responsibility for two centuries of slavery and a century of Jim Crow—racism that pervaded all major institutions of our society, North and South. Such momentous issues are brushed away as a new generation of sociologists delves into deliberately myopic examinations of a small sphere where culture makes some measurable difference—to prove that “culture matters.”
• • •
It is indisputable that the publication of Moynihan’s report on “The Negro Family” evoked a torrent of criticism and that Moynihan was thrown on the defensive. I remember seeing him on Meet the Press in late 1965, pleading for understanding:
I was trying to show that unemployment statistics, which are so dull, and you read so many of them, and you don’t know what they may mean, and they’re hard to believe—that unemployment ended up nonetheless with orphaned children, with abandoned mothers, with men living furtive lives without even an address, that unemployment had flesh and blood and it could bleed. That’s all I was trying to do.
Perhaps. However, it is grossly inaccurate to say, as Wilson does in the Annals, that Moynihan came under fire for bringing to light facts that “could be construed as unflattering or stigmatizing to people of color.” Or that Moynihan was prescient, in that the segment of black children born outside marriage has doubled from one-quarter in 1965 to one-half today.
The problem from the beginning was not Moynihan’s publication of what were actually well-established facts, but rather his distorted interpretation of these facts. Moynihan made the fatal error of inverting cause and effect. Although he acknowledged that past racism and unemployment undermined black families, he held that the pathology in “the Negro American family” had not only assumed a life of its own, but was also the primary determinant of the litany of problems that beset lower-class blacks. To quote Moynihan: “Once or twice removed, [the weakness of family structure] will be found to be the principal source of most of the aberrant, inadequate, or anti-social behavior that did not establish, but now serves to perpetuate the cycle of poverty and deprivation.” Moynihan followed with an even more inflated claim: “At this point the present tangle of pathology is capable of perpetuating itself without assistance from the white world.” And then the zinger: “The cycle can be broken only if these distortions are set right.”
This last statement had dire implications for public policy, especially when placed in historical context. In The Moynihan Report and the Politics of Controversy (1967), Lee Rainwater and George Yancey wrote:
The year 1965 may be known in history as the time when the civil rights movement discovered, in the sense of becoming explicitly aware, that abolishing legal racism would not produce Negro equality.
By 1965 the words “compensation,” “reparations,” and “preference” had already crept into political discourse, testing the limits of liberal support for the black protest movement. In Why We Can’t Wait, published in 1964, Martin Luther King observed: “Whenever this issue of compensatory or preferential treatment for the Negro is raised, some of our friends recoil in horror.” Norman Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, went further, declaring that this “radical” turn by some movement leaders had precipitated “a crisis in liberalism.” As early as 1965 Moynihan was on record as opposed to anything that smacked of “preference,” asserting, much as Wilson did 22 years later in The Truly Disadvantaged, that policy had to be universal rather than targeted specifically for blacks.
The question is not whether culture matters, but whether it is an independent and self-sustaining factor in the production and reproduction of poverty.
With his report on “The Negro Family,” Moynihan shifted the conceptual framework that underlay policymaking. Instead of attacking racist barriers, he suggested that legislation focus on the putative defects of “the” black family. In his concluding section, “The Case for National Action,” Moynihan called for “a national effort” to strengthen the Negro family, though, as the sociologist Herbert Gans pointed out in a 1965 article in Commonweal, Moynihan offered no specific policy recommendations for accomplishing that end. Not only did he leave a vacuum that could be filled with a politics that blamed blacks for their own troubles, but he also tacked on an ominous addendum:
After [the repair of the black family], how this group of Americans chooses to run its affairs, take advantage of its opportunities, or fail to do so, is none of the nation’s business.
In short, the Moynihan report elicited fierce condemnation because it threatened to derail the black liberation movement in its pursuit of equality. In one palpable example of that derailment, a 1966 White House conference called “To Fulfill These Rights,” which might have been an opportunity to chart the next phase of the protest movement, instead was overshadowed by preoccupation with the Moynihan report and the ensuing controversy.
• • •
Far from having a chilling effect on researching and thinking about culture in relationship to poverty, the debate over the Moynihan report spawned a canon of critical scholarship. For the first time, scholars came to terms with the economic underpinnings of the nuclear family, which tends to unravel whenever male breadwinners are unemployed for long periods of time, as was true of white families during the Depression.
No longer was the nuclear family, with its patriarchal foundations, the unquestioned societal norm. The blatantly tendentious language that pervaded the Moynihan report—“broken homes” and “illegitimate births”—was purged from the professional lexicon. More important, feminist scholars forced us to reassess single parenting. In her 1973 study All Our Kin, Carol Stack showed how poor single mothers develop a domestic network consisting of that indispensable grandmother, grandfathers, uncles, aunts, cousins, and a patchwork of neighbors and friends who provide mutual assistance with childrearing and the other exigencies of life. By comparison, the prototypical nuclear family, sequestered in a suburban house, surrounded by hedges and cut off from neighbors, removed from the pulsating vitality of poor urban neighborhoods, looks rather bleak. As a black friend once commented, “I didn’t know that blacks had weak families until I got to college.”
Yet even Moynihan’s harshest critics did not deny the manifest troubles in black families. Nor did they deny that the culture of poor people is often markedly at variance with the cultural norms and practices in more privileged sectors of society. How could it be otherwise? The key point of contention was whether, under conditions of prolonged poverty, those cultural adaptations “assume a life of their own” and are passed down from parents to children through normal processes of cultural transmission. In other words, the imbroglio over the Moynihan report was never about whether culture matters, but about whether culture is or ever could be an independent and self-sustaining factor in the production and reproduction of poverty.
Many scholars have challenged the notion of culture as an independent, causal factor in generating poverty, and none more effectively than Elliot Liebow in his 1967 study, Tally’s Corner. Liebow’s subjects were men who had neither regular jobs nor stable families and took refuge on the streetcorner where they devised “a shadow system of values” to shield themselves from a profound sense of personal failure.
Liebow did not deny culture—indeed, he documented it in scrupulous detail. However, he insisted that the streetcorner man was not a carrier of an independent cultural tradition. To be sure, there were obvious similarities between parents and children, but Liebow held that these were not the product of cultural transmission, but rather reflected the fact that “the son goes out and independently experiences the same failures, in the same areas, and for much the same reasons as his father.” Thus, it is not their culture that needs to be changed, but rather a political economy that fails to provide jobs that pay a living wage to millions of the nation’s poor, along with a system of occupational apartheid that has excluded a whole people from entire job sectors throughout American history.
Liebow is not alone. Although left scholars insist that poverty is rooted in political economy, it is preposterous to accuse them generally of eliding culture. Indeed, the anthropologist Oscar Lewis, who first used the term, was an avowed socialist, and the culture of poverty entered popular discourse through the ideas of another socialist—Michael Harrington, in his 1962 book, The Other America. Both men preferred structural explanations of poverty. They argued that the despair and coping mechanisms associated with the culture of poverty were anchored in conditions of poverty, and that the only remedy for the culture of poverty was the elimination of poverty itself.
If Moynihan’s critics were unusually vociferous, this was because they understood what was at stake. Moynihan and his supporters contended that the poor were victims of their own vices, thus shifting attention away from powerful political and economic institutions that could make a difference in their lives. If those institutions were absolved of responsibility, the poor would be left on their own.
• • •
The claim that the furor over the Moynihan report stymied research on lower-class culture for four decades is patently false. What was the massive underclass discourse of the 1980s if not old wine in new bottles—Moynihan’s culture arguments repackaged for a new generation of scholars and pundits?
As with the culture of poverty, the conception of the underclass had liberal origins. In his 1962 book Challenge to Affluence, Gunnar Myrdal borrowed a Swedish term for the lower class, underklassen, to refer to people who languished in poverty even during periods of economic growth and prosperity. This term entered popular discourse with the 1982 publication of Ken Auletta’s The Underclass, based on a series in The New Yorker.
Then, between 1986 and 1988, there was an outpouring of articles in U.S. News and World Report, The Atlantic Monthly, Fortune, Newsweek, Reader’s Digest, and Time, all providing graphic and frightening portrayals of pathology and disorder in the nation’s ghettos. The image was of poverty feeding on itself, with the implication that cultural pathology was not just a byproduct of poverty but was itself a cause of pathological behavior. This was the explicit claim of a 1987 Fortune article by Myron Magnet:
What primarily defines [the underclass] is not so much their poverty or race as their behavior—their chronic lawlessness, drug use, out-of-wedlock births, nonwork, welfare dependency and school failure. ‘Underclass’ describes a state of mind and a way of life. It is at least as much cultural as an economic condition.
Social science lagged behind journalism, but by the late ’80s, with the backing of charitable foundations, a cottage industry of technocratic studies appeared charting the size and social constitution of the underclass. In his 1991 article “The Underclass Myth,” Adolph Reed noted the reinstatement of the culture-of-poverty theory during the Reagan-Bush era. The pendulum had swung so far to culture that Reed was pleading for a restoration of structure:
We should insist on returning the focus of the discussion of the production and reproduction of poverty to examination of its sources in the operations of the American political and economic system. Specifically, the discussion should focus on such phenomena as the logic of deindustrialization, models of urban redevelopment driven by real-estate speculation, the general intensification of polarization of wealth, income, and opportunity in American society, the ways in which race and gender figure into those dynamics, and, not least, the role of public policy in reproducing and legitimating them.
Reed ended on a note of personal exasperation: “I want the record to show that I do not want to hear another word about drugs or crime without hearing in the same breath about decent jobs, adequate housing, and egalitarian education.”
Culturalists confuse cause and effect, arguing that lack of social mobility among black youth is a product of their culture rather than the other way around.
Yet here we are, two decades later, with a special issue of a prestigious journal, the Annals, launched with fanfare and a congressional briefing, bombastically claiming that “culture is back on the policy agenda,” as though it had not been there all along. Even as the editors take up this “long-abandoned topic,” however, they are careful to distance themselves from culture-of-poverty theorists who were accused of “blaming the victim,” and they scoff at the idea that the poor “might cease to be poor if they changed their culture.” Indeed, readers are assured that “none of the three editors of this volume happens to fall on the right of the political spectrum.” Alas, the culture of poverty has not made a comeback after all. The new culturalists have learned from the mistakes of the past, and only want to study culture in the context of poverty—that is, in the selective and limited ways that culture matters in the lives of the poor.
True to form, the rest of the Annals issue is a compendium of studies informed by this “more sophisticated” conception of culture. One study examines “How Black and Latino Service Workers Make Decisions about Making Referrals.” Another explores how poor men define a “good job.” Still another ventures into the perilous waters of the black family, examining the “repertoire of infidelity” among low-income men.
The problem is less with the questions asked than with the ones left unexamined. The editors and authors are careful to bracket their inquiries with appropriate obeisance to the ultimate grounding of culture in social structure. But their research objectives, methodology, data collection, and analysis are all riveted on the role of culture. Is obeisance enough? If the cultural practices under examination are merely links in a chain of causation, and are ultimately rooted in poverty and joblessness, why are these not the object of inquiry? Why aren’t we talking about the calamity of another generation of black youth who, excluded from job markets, are left to languish on the margins, until they cross the line of legality and are swept up by the criminal justice system and consigned to unconscionable years in prison where, at last, they find work, for less than a dollar an hour, if paid at all? Upon release they are “marked men,” frequently unable to find employment or to assume such quotidian roles as those of husband or father.
Enter the sociologist, to record the agony of the dispossessed. Does it really matter how they define a “good job” when they have virtually no prospect of finding one? Does it matter how they approach procreation, how they juggle “doubt, duty, and destiny” when they are denied the jobs that are the sine qua non of parenthood? Aren’t we asking the wrong questions? Do the answers bring us any closer to understanding why this nation has millions of racial outcasts who are consigned to a social death?
Obeisance is not enough. The Annals issue caps off with an article by William Julius Wilson on “Why Both Social Structure and Culture Matter in a Holistic Analysis of Inner-City Poverty.” Wilson wants to show “not only the independent contributions of social structure and culture, but also how they interact to shape different group outcomes that embody racial inequality.” At first blush this appears to be a sensible, even unassailable stance. But what is Wilson getting at with his prosaic language about the interaction of structure and culture? The answer is found several pages later: “One of the effects of living in a racially segregated, poor neighborhood is the exposure to cultural traits that may not be conducive to facilitating social mobility.” This is tantamount to blaming blacks for the racism of employers and other gatekeepers.
Like Moynihan before him, Wilson has committed the sin of inverting cause and effect. He thinks that black youth are not socially mobile because of their cultural proclivities—“sexual conquests, hanging out on the street after school, party drugs, and hip-hop music.” But a far more convincing explanation is that these youth are encircled by structural barriers and consequently resort to these cultural defenses, as Douglas Glasgow argued in his neglected 1981 book, The Black Underclass. Liebow had it right when he stripped away surface appearances and put culture in its proper social and existential context:
If, in the course of concealing his failure, or of concealing his fear of even trying, [the street-corner man] pretends—through the device of public fictions—that he does not want these things in the first place and claims he has all along been responding to a different set of rules and prizes, we do not do him or ourselves any good by accepting this claim at face value.
It makes little sense to compare—as Wilson does—the culture of a pariah class with that of mainstream youth, putting aside the fact that white suburban youth also strut around in saggy pants, listen to hip-hop music, and are far more prone to drug use than are their ghetto counterparts. Wilson’s theoretical postulates about “deconcentrating poverty” have also led him to support the demolition of public housing across the nation. Is this how cultural change takes place, with dynamite, the destruction of poor communities, and the dispersal of its residents? Or do we have to transform the ghetto itself, not by reconstructing the identities of its people, but through a wholesale commitment to eliminating poverty and joblessness?
While he routinely violates his own axiom about the integral relationship between culture and social structure, Wilson injects what might be called the “culturalist caveat.” In a section on “the relative importance of structure and culture,” he concedes, “Structural factors are likely to play a far greater role than cultural factors in bringing about rapid neighborhood change.” But what structural changes does he have in mind? Despite the fact that Wilson’s signature issue for many years was jobs, jobs, jobs, since his cultural turn there has been nigh any mention of jobs. Affirmative action is apparently off the table, and there is no policy redress for the nation’s four million “disconnected youth” who are out of school and out of work.
Instead, Wilson places all his bets on education—specifically, the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ), a schooling and social services organization predicated on the idea that the challenge is to “take the ghetto out of the child,” much as earlier missionaries and educators sought to “take the Indian out of the child.” Wilson trumpets HCZ’s “spectacular” results, citing a study by Harvard economists Will Dobbie and Roland Fryer that purports to show that HCZ students are closing the achievement gap with students in public schools. However, these findings are based on a single class on a single test in a single year. Also, the measure of progress was scoring at “grade level” in math and reading, and as critics have pointed out, grade-level work is a weak predictor of future academic success. Furthermore, thanks to score inflation—not only prepping students for the test but also lowering the score required for achieving grade level—marks were up throughout New York on the 2007 exam, the one that Dobbie and Fryer analyzed.
Never mind; the die is cast. With Wilson’s backing, the Obama administration has made HCZ the model for twenty “Promise Neighborhoods” across the nation. At best, however, HCZ is a showcase project that, even multiplied twenty times, is no remedy for the deep and widening income gap between blacks and others. At worst, the Obama administration is using it to camouflage its utter failure to address issues of racism and poverty.
• • •
The new culturalists can bemoan the supposed erasure of culture from poverty research in the wake of the Moynihan Report, but far more troubling is that these four decades have witnessed the erasure of racism and poverty from political discourse, both inside and outside the academy. The Annals issue makes virtually no mention of institutionalized racism. To be sure, there is much discussion of poverty, but not as a historical or structural phenomenon. Instead we are presented with reductionist manifestations of poverty that obscure its larger configuration.
Thus there is no thought of restoring the safety net. Or resurrecting affirmative action. Or once again constructing public housing as the housing of last resort. Or decriminalizing drugs and rescinding mandatory sentencing. Or enforcing anti-discrimination laws with the same vigor that police exercise in targeting black and Latino youth for marijuana possession. Or creating jobs programs for disconnected youth and for the chronically unemployed. Against this background, the ballyhooed “restoration” of culture to poverty discourse can only be one thing: an evasion of the persistent racial and economic inequalities that are a blot on American democracy.
The methodological reductionism that is the hallmark of the new culturalists is a betrayal of the sociological imagination: what C. Wright Mills described as exploring the intersection between history and biography. Instead, the new culturalists give us biography shorn of history, and culture ripped from its moorings in social structure. Against their intentions, they end up providing erudite justification for retrograde public policy, less through acts of commission than through their silences and opacities.
While we have you...
...we need your help. You might have noticed the absence of paywalls at Boston Review. We are committed to staying free for all our readers. Now we are going one step further to become completely ad-free. This means you will always be able to read us without roadblocks or barriers to entry. It also means that we count on you, our readers, for support. If you like what you read here, help us keep it free for everyone by making a donation. No amount is too small. You will be helping us cultivate a public sphere that honors pluralism of thought for a diverse and discerning public.
January 13, 2011
19 Min read time