‘Culture of Poverty’ Makes a Comeback
William C. Eckenberg/The New York Times
By PATRICIA COHEN
Published: October 17, 2010
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 a startling 1965 report. Although Moynihan didn’t coin the phrase (that distinction belongs to the anthropologist Oscar Lewis), his description of the urban black family as caught in an inescapable “tangle of pathology” of unmarried mothers and welfare dependency was seen as attributing self-perpetuating moral deficiencies to black people, as if blaming them for their own misfortune.
Moynihan’s analysis never lost its appeal to conservative thinkers, whose arguments ultimately succeeded when President Bill Clinton signed a bill in 1996 “ending welfare as we know it.” But in the overwhelmingly liberal ranks of academic sociology and anthropology the word “culture” became a live grenade, and the idea that attitudes and behavior patterns kept people poor was shunned.
Now, after decades of silence, these scholars are speaking openly about you-know-what, conceding that culture and persistent poverty are enmeshed.
“We’ve finally reached the stage where people aren’t afraid of being politically incorrect,” said Douglas S. Massey, a sociologist at Princeton who has argued that Moynihan was unfairly maligned.
The old debate has shaped the new. Last month Princeton and the Brookings Institution released a collection of papers on unmarried parents, a subject, it noted, that became off-limits after the Moynihan report. At the recent annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, attendees discussed the resurgence of scholarship on culture. And in Washington last spring, social scientists participated in a Congressional briefing on culture and poverty linked to a special issue of The Annals, the journal of the American Academy of Political and Social Science.
“Culture is back on the poverty research agenda,” the introduction declares, acknowledging that it should never have been removed.
The topic has generated interest on Capitol Hill because so much of the research intersects with policy debates. Views of the cultural roots of poverty “play important roles in shaping how lawmakers choose to address poverty issues,” Representative Lynn Woolsey, Democrat of California, noted at the briefing.
This surge of academic research also comes as the percentage of Americans living in poverty hit a 15-year high: one in seven, or 44 million.
With these studies come many new and varied definitions of culture, but they all differ from the ’60s-era model in these crucial respects: Today, social scientists are rejecting the notion of a monolithic and unchanging culture of poverty. And they attribute destructive attitudes and behavior not to inherent moral character but to sustained racism and isolation.
To Robert J. Sampson, a sociologist at Harvard, culture is best understood as “shared understandings.”
“I study inequality, and the dominant focus is on structures of poverty,” he said. But he added that the reason a neighborhood turns into a “poverty trap” is also related to a common perception of the way people in a community act and think. When people see graffiti and garbage, do they find it acceptable or see serious disorder? Do they respect the legal system or have a high level of “moral cynicism,” believing that “laws were made to be broken”?