Patricia Cohen’s recent article in the NY Times, “‘Culture of Poverty’ Makes a Comeback,” documents culture once again being used by social scientists as an explanation in discussing poverty.
Cohen begins by setting the historical context.
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.
The idea was soon central to many of the conservative critiques of government aid for the needy. Within the generally liberal fields of sociology and anthropology the argument was generally treated as being in poor taste and avoided. This time of silence seems to be drawing to a close.
“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 new wave of culture-oriented discussions is not a direct replica of the studies of the 1960s.
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.
Cohen continues by providing examples of how culture is now being examined. To do so she turns to Harvard sociologist, Robert J. Sampson. According to Sampson culture should be understood as “shared understandings.”
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.
William Julius Wilson, a fellow Harvard sociologist who achieved notoriety through studies of 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.”
For some young black men, Professor Wilson said, the world works like this: “If you don’t develop a tough demeanor, you won’t survive. If you have access to weapons, you get them, and if you get into a fight, you have to use them.”
As a result of this new direction in the study of poverty, a number of assumptions about people in poverty have been challenged. One of these is idea marriage is not valued by poor, urban single mothers.
In Philadelphia, for example, low-income mothers told the sociologists Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas that they thought marriage was profoundly important, even sacred, but doubted that their partners were “marriage material.” Their results have prompted some lawmakers and poverty experts to conclude that programs that promote marriage without changing economic and social conditions are unlikely to work.
The question remains, why are social scientists suddenly willing to deal with this once taboo approach?
Younger academics like Professor Small, 35, attributed the upswing in cultural explanations to a “new generation of scholars without the baggage of that debate.”
Scholars like Professor Wilson, 74, who have tilled the field much longer, mentioned the development of more sophisticated data and analytical tools. He 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.”
He added, “I realized we needed a comprehensive measure of the environment, that we must consider structural and cultural forces.”
This surge of interest is particularly timely as poverty in the United States has hit a fifteen-year high. And the debate is by no means confined to the ‘Ivory Tower’.
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.