Is Culture Keeping the Poor Impoverished?

A politically incorrect concept comes back into style

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The idea that there is a "culture of poverty" has been anathema to social scientists--liberal ones, in particular--since Johnson's assistant labor secretary Daniel Patrick Moynihan introduced it in the sixties. Conservatives cottoned to the idea, but liberals thought it dangerously close to blaming urban blacks for their own bad luck. Patricia Cohen recounts this backlash in The New York Times, and reports that now, the pendulum is swinging back in the other direction: social scientists are beginning to look at "culture" again when studying poverty.

To Robert J. Sampson, a sociologist at Harvard, culture is best understood as "shared understandings."  ... 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"? ... The shared perception of a neighborhood--is it on the rise or stagnant? --does a better job of predicting a community's future than the actual level of poverty, he said.

The article is giving the blogosphere something to chew on. Is the return of culture to studies of poverty a good thing? And what does it say about attitudes toward political correctness in public discourse?

  • So Basically Conservatives Were Right  That's John Miller's summary of the article at National Review. "Enjoy this day," he says. "Tomorrow they'll go back to calling us racists."
  • 'The Culture Lens Makes Me Nervous,' writes Barbara Kiviat, guest-blogging at Reuters in Felix Salmon's absence. "The big risk," she says, is that "since Americans are loathe to judge one culture as superior to another, we will come to accept poverty as a valid alternative. You're not poor because you can't get a job that pays enough to cover your bills (a failure of education, the free market, etc)--you're poor because you are part of a different culture, which, in diversity-committed America, we all have to respect." She adds, too, that we shouldn't "forget something else that Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said: 'The reason people are poor is that they don't have money.'" In other words: "Sometimes an economic problem is just an economic problem."
  • The Problem with Culture  "Definitions of culture in anthropology can go on for pages and pages," acknowledges The American Prospect's Monica Potts, but "the important thing is, you can't isolate culture as one element of a society and change it without changing anything else." It's fine to talk about the culture of poverty, but "you can't ignore the roles racism, lack of fundamental necessities and social isolation play in shaping culture, and you can't use it as a convenient way to blame poverty on the individuals who suffer from it."
  • How About the 'Culture of Wealth'?  That one "might be worth examining as well," writes economist Mark Thoma. It "led to the financial crisis," which hit the poor "particularly hard." Then "the 'culture of wealth' ... led many to blame the poor for the crisis as a means of shedding responsibility for it, financial and otherwise." Wall Streeters in the grip of the "culture of wealth," he continues, also believe unemployment compensation is poor policy, while bank bailouts are somehow just fine.
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