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The “culture of poverty” isn’t about moral failure but about reasonable adaptation to circumstances.
You’re working a casual job, maybe in construction or at the gas station, paid a bit over the minimum wage with no benefits—one of those jobs that comes and goes. A buddy wakes you up with a desperate call: he needs a ride right now; you’re the only one; at least your car runs. He lent you $200 last Christmas when you were scuffling; he’s one of the old school crowd who party together and look out for each other. If you say yes, you will probably be late to work and might get fired. On the other hand, the boss is probably going to lay you off when things slow down in another month or two. What do you do?
• • •
The culture of poverty debate is back! Only this time, the colored folks get a pass.
This time it’s about “white trash”—a racial slur, Wikipedia tells us, which “emphasizes . . . moral failings.” Charles Murray, of The Bell Curve fame, stirred up the argument anew when he dropped his latest look-how-outrageously-frank-I-can-be book, Coming Apart, into the media hot tub. This time around, however, we understand much better why, when, and how culture affects poverty.
Murray’s own cultural analysis is not serious. Working-class whites are trapped in the 1960s counter-culture of sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll, he says. While middle-class kids grew up, tossed away the love beads, and became solid citizens, the proles couldn’t get untangled and are now raising—as single parents—a third generation of wastrels. Let’s turn instead to the important issues.
That economic differences between less-educated and more-educated Americans have widened in the last four decades is no longer news. Neither is it news, at least to scholars, that gaps in lifestyle, such as marital status, child-rearing practices, and community involvement, have also widened. The classes have even grown more spatially apart. The controversy Murray unleashed concerns the role of culture in these differences; specifically, do the “white trash” bring misfortune on themselves by the bad values they hold and the bad choices they make?
To answer those questions, we might start with cultural analyses of poverty developed in the 1960s. Anthropologist Oscar Lewis reported that many Mexicans and Puerto Ricans were trapped in poverty in large part because they held and passed on to their children worldviews that hamstrung their efforts to advance. Daniel Patrick Moynihan adapted the notion in his unfairly castigated 1965 report describing the increase in black out-of-wedlock births. Analysts in the 1980s used the term “underclass” to mean roughly the same thing: the chronically poor are guided by a distinctive and debilitating culture of fatalism, suspicion, cynicism, thrill-seeking, and disregard for bourgeois morality.
Legions of social scientists bristled at these analyses because they seemed to “blame the victim.” Lewis, Moynihan, and others had argued that the culture of poverty arises in the first instance from poverty, but that point was lost in popular and policy translation. The loud objections drove culture of poverty discussions out of fashion.
But fashion, as it often does, turned. In 2010 the New York Times reported, “‘Culture of Poverty’ Makes a Comeback,” hooking the story on a just-published collection of professorial essays entitled Reconsidering Culture and Poverty. The 2010 argument is more nuanced than either the 1960s version or the media version, but still controversial.
Middle-class habits usually fail in conditions the poor face—insecure jobs, needy relatives, and chaotic neighborhoods.
Critically, understand that the long-term poor are a small minority of a minority. Most of those counted as poor in a given year are poor temporarily because of setbacks such as layoffs, family break-ups, car breakdowns, or medical emergencies. (Note, too, that we are not talking about the severely physically or mentally disabled; the controversy is about the able-bodied.) Social welfare scholar Mark Rank estimates that about half of all Americans will be poor sometime between the ages of 25 and 75, and perhaps a fifth will go through both poverty and affluence. Only about 2 percent, perhaps even less, will be poor most of their lives from 25 to 60 years of age.
These few able-bodied and chronically poor are explained, popularly, in either of two ways. One: they are just like us, but without money. They will drop whatever distinctive habits they may have, such as bearing children out of wedlock, once they are economically secure. Two: the long-term poor are different from us. Give them money or offer them a job and they will still breed out of wedlock—and get stoned, and fight, and oversleep. The poverty is in their heads and is therefore deserved.
Culture matters, today’s scholars say, in part because it provides us with the values to which we aspire. But the chronically poor share middle-class values. Researchers repeatedly find that poor unwed mothers wish for and usually expect to wed; they want a conventional family in a conventional house. Similarly, surveys show that students from poor families have high hopes and often high expectations for college. So the cultural issue is not values.
Culture really matters because it provides us with a cognitive “toolkit” (in sociologist Ann Swidler’s phrase) of understandings, guidelines, and interpersonal skills that we use to pursue our values. Middle-class Americans, for example, generally act with self-confidence, demand their rights, follow regular schedules, trust others, and schmooze with the right people. Poor Americans typically know about these “strategies of action” but often have not mastered them or, crucially, have not found them useful in their worlds.
In their worlds, staying humble is usually the best way to keep their jobs or their kids in school. Sharing what money they have rather than saving it, or risking a job to drive a friend, increases the odds that they will be helped when the inevitable crisis hits. And where there are many predators, it makes sense to be distrustful or even predatory in turn.
Sociologist Martín Sánchez-Jankowski describes two sorts of lifestyles to deal with scarcity. One is to hunker down, hoard what you have, and take no risks, because tomorrow is unpredictable. The other is to step out, spend what you have, and live for today, because tomorrow is unpredictable. Neither adaptation is a script for middle-class success, but a middle-class script would usually fail in conditions of insecure jobs, needy relatives, and chaotic neighborhoods. These adaptations allow the poor to make a life.
The culture debate now comes down to asking how much these adaptations become a force of their own. People find it hard to change habits, they teach their children to see the world as they do, and they are swayed by the views and practices of their neighbors. Thus, even if opportunities emerge, the chronically poor may fail to grasp them; they may be too fatalistic, too suspicious, too committed to local ties, too scared. People, in sum, learn life habits suited to conditions of scarcity, but those habits can keep them in those conditions. Where might we break that cycle?
The American impulse is to target the culture—teach abstinence, discipline kids, lecture parents, preach punctuality, provide moral training—so that the chronically poor will be ready when opportunity knocks. The alternative, more European, is to target the opportunity structure—provide jobs and practical training, guarantee health benefits and housing—so that tomorrow is more predictable and middle-class scripts are more practical.
Most social scientists, especially those who know “white trash” the best, would say that our chances of long-term success are much greater with the second approach. Habits are hard to change; absent an environment that rewards new habits, why take the risk? Since the mid-nineteenth century, most Americans adopted historically new industrial and bourgeois habits, not just because ministers, teachers, and settlement workers pushed those habits—although they did—but mainly because those habits worked in a new economy.
You are less likely to get that early-morning call for a ride if your buddies have secure incomes. But should one call and the job you could lose is itself secure and well paid, your calculations about how to respond will change—and so will the lessons you pass on to your children.
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