Is culture to blame for poverty?
Hello, Reuters readers. Thank you, Felix, for inviting me and Justin to guest blog while you’re away. I promise to make the most of my newfound form of procrastination.
Over the weekend, the NYT ran a piece about academics rediscovering the “culture of poverty.” The story goes that for decades it was taboo to offer social, as opposed to economic, explanations about why particular people and neighborhoods were poor—unless, of course, you belonged to a certain camp of conservative critic. According to the Times:
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.
Now, it seems, culture is again fair play. Over the past few years, culture-informed explorations of poverty have been seeping into the research literature. High-profile examples include these Princeton/Brookings papers about unmarried parents and this special issue of The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science (which led to a recent Congressional briefing). Nobel-winning economist George Akerlof goes down this path in his new book, Identity Economics: he and co-author Rachel Kranton argue that students decide how much to invest in their education (i.e., their earning potential) partly by whether they see themselves as fitting into the culture of the “nerd,” the “jock” or the “burnout.”
I’m all for understanding the nature of poverty, but the culture lens makes me nervous. Maybe that’s because right after I read Identity Economics, I read The Trouble With Diversity, by Walter Benn Michaels, an English professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. One of the main arguments of that book is that there is a lurking danger in turning a conversation about economics (poor people don’t have money) into a conversation about culture (poor people have different values and make different life decisions). The big risk: 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.
The other thing that worries me about the culture frame is that so much rests on the categories we use to try to capture “culture.” Akerlof’s nerd-jock-burnout rubric is clear-cut and colorful. But is that where the truly useful information lies?
One of the best things I’ve ever read about the nature of poverty is Kathryn Edin and Laura Lein’s 1997 book, Making Ends Meet. Edin and Lein, a sociologist and anthropologist, spent long periods of time interviewing poor single mothers—most of whom both received welfare checks and undertook some sort of paid work. When deciding the right balance between welfare and work, the mothers certainly took into account which paid better. But they also considered which would allow them to be better mothers by spending more time with their children, and which would provide a more predictable (even if lower) stream of income. Devotion to full-time motherhood definitely reads as a cultural value. But does the preference for income predictability?
If we look at poverty in terms of culture, we might be missing an important part of the puzzle. Let’s not forget something else that Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said: “The reason people are poor is that they don’t have money.” Sometimes an economic problem is just an economic problem.