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Monday, October 18, 2010

A Culture of Poverty?

The "culture of poverty" is back. I hope we will remember that "social scientists ... attribute destructive attitudes and behavior not to inherent moral character but to sustained racism and isolation," but my fear is that we won't:

‘Culture of Poverty’ Makes a Comeback, by Patricia Cohen, NY Times: 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..., 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... 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. ... 
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. ...
William Julius Wilson, whose pioneering work boldly confronted ghetto life while focusing on economic explanations for persistent poverty, defines culture as the way “individuals in a community develop an understanding of how the world works and make decisions based on that understanding.” ...
Professor Wilson, 74,... said he felt compelled to look more closely at culture after the publication of Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein’s controversial 1994 book, “The Bell Curve,” which attributed African-Americans’ lower I.Q. scores to genetics.
The authors claimed to have taken family background into account, Professor Wilson said, but “they had not captured the cumulative effects of living in poor, racially segregated neighborhoods.” ...
Still, worries about blaming the victim persist. ...

The "culture of wealth" that led to the financial crisis, whining about taxes, foreclosure mills, and the like might be worth examining as well. The "common perception" and "understanding of how the world works" that produced the financial crisis turned out to be quite damaging to the economy, and the poor were hit particularly hard. The "culture of wealth" that then led many to blame the poor for the crisis as a means of shedding responsibility for it, financial and otherwise -- the same culture that led them to believe that unlike somone on unemployment compensation, they earned every cent of the government bailout they got -- might also be worth a look.

    Posted by on Monday, October 18, 2010 at 12:42 AM in Economics | Permalink  Comments (31)


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