Is culture to blame for poverty?

October 18, 2010

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.


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Poor Asian immigrants tend to work hard, live frugally, educate their children, and build up their wealth over a long time horizon, just like the poor Jewish immigrants living in the Manhattan Lower East Side a century ago. Is that because of their superior culture, or is it because America is racially and economically biased in favor of Chinese and Indians?

Posted by LZed | Report as abusive

“since Americans are loathe to judge one culture as superior to another, we will come to accept poverty as a valid alternative.”

I’m guessing Kiviat doesn’t stray far from academic blogs, otherwise she couldn’t help but see the judgment (disguised as hate and criticism) of every culture and subculture that litter most blog comments these days.

In any case, poverty is not a function of culture, as there will always be poverty in a market-based economy when there is a surplus of labor. Even if all the poor people in the nation worked and studied harder, somebody is still going to be getting paid less than it costs to live on, because those jobs will go to the lowest bidder. And those groups of poor people will form their own culture, as wealth (or the lack of) often does. People can debate cause and effect, but it won’t matter, because somebody has to be poor.

Posted by OnTheTimes | Report as abusive

Can I just register a bit off-topic note of unabashed fandom? Begorrah, but I’ve missed the old Curious Capitalist crowd! It’s not been the same since you guys left. See you here on Salmon’s territory is shades of a blogging fantasy team, too. I’m all for this type of talent consolidation – we’re one step closer to a superblog, which would make my workplace browsing habits marginally less suspicious.

On topic, I’ve unbounded irritation at social explanations for poverty, because turn into endless petty arguments about causation. Are single mothers predisposed to poverty because single-motherhood begets economic uncertainty (only one household wage earner, vunerable to job loss) or does poverty breed single-motherhood (financial stress leads to the collapse of relationships)? Poverty is less one cause, more a brutal feedback loop.

In my mind, when we refer to a “culture of poverty”, we’re often referring to, “a culture of people growing up around a broken local economy,” which are two very different things.

Posted by strawman | Report as abusive

I currently teach in an inner-city Catholic school. Our mission is to get all of our students through high school and into college — and we are remarkably successful, with 100% of our graduating seniors accepted and some 90% of our entering freshmen graduating.

As a private school (even if most of the budget comes from charitable donations) the parent(s) of our students are generally employed. Yet most qualify for reduced- or free lunches, and other “social welfare” programs.

And yes, there is a strong element of “culture change” in our mission. We need the students to complete work responsibly, act with respect for themselves and others, have faith in themselves and their future. Some of our students enter with these values, but ALL leave with them.

I realize this is only one piece of the larger puzzle, but don’t dismiss the cultural element too quickly when considering poverty. There are absolutely attitudes which will lead an individual towards success regardless of their upbringing.

Posted by TFF | Report as abusive

I chafe a bit at what seems like conscious or almost-conscious wishful thinking: “the culture lens makes me nervous” because you don’t want it to be true, or don’t want people to know that it’s true (in which case they might accept it instead of trying to ameliorate it). I don’t see anything in your post, in fact, that seems to argue that it could be wrong; the closest you get may be in questioning whether Akerlof’s offering is a comprehensive theory, which I imagine it isn’t. Still, identity is surely enormously important here, just as rational economic action surely plays a role as well. Ignoring the part we don’t want to see isn’t going to get us solutions.

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@strawman: Thanks for the hearty welcome! It’s great to be back. And I like the idea of Superblog. “A less suspicious way to browse at work” could be our tagline.

@OnTheTimes: Yeah, I was wondering if I needed to be clearer about my claim of lack of judgement. I was really just talking about the PC-way high-profile people like politicians and executives always present themselves. Try to say that one lifestyle or culture isn’t just as valid as another and you get torn apart.

@dWj: I’m willing to think about poverty, and even income level more broadly, as being related to culture. For example, a society that denigrates graduating from a top-notch university might not do so well in the long-term in the global knowledge-based economy. The thing I worry about is using culture as the starting point. That is, of letting the notion of culture decide the way we ask questions. The thing I like about the book Making Ends Meet is that the researchers spend a lot of time simply looking at the financial lives of poor people. It’s evidence that I crave, not just a different way of classifying the problem.

Posted by BarbaraKiviat | Report as abusive

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For starters… fantastic guest blog! Felix picked a winner having you stand in for him.

To add to the commentary, I would not be too afraid to look at culture / lifestyle choices when looking at poverty. In the United States, it’s more approperate to use terms like income inequality than poverty because by any realistic global standard even our poorest citizens are well off when compared with the billion or so people who live on less than $2/day.

I married a young woman who had a child from a previous relationship… best decision of my life. She’s stronger than me, smarter than me, works harder than me… I’m lucky to have her and I’ll be lucky to keep her.

My state (Maine) is perhaps the most generous in the nation with it’s social safety net. When I started dating my wife she worked roughly 20 hours per week at roughly $10/hour and had pleanty of money.

Her rent subsidized appartment cost her $300/month. MaineCare (medicaid) provided free health care to her and her child. She had a cell phone, Cable, a drivable car with no car payment in fact she was totally debt free. She even had a few thousand dollars saved litterally under her matteress by the time we moved in togeather which she aquired every april 15th. She withheld virtually nothing from her paycheck for federal taxes yet got a large refund via the earned income tax credit.

The year before we married she made something like $14,000. I assume that is below the poverty line with 1 dependent… but I don’t know how you could look at the lifestyle she was living and call it poor.

I often wonder if she views our current lifestyle as better or worse than the one she had previously. We own a nice house in a nice area (that we are probably 20% underwater on.) She works full time instead of half time. We jointly make 5 times what she use to live on but I don’t really see any huge difference in her quality of life. If anything I sometimes think she was better off living in that small appartment with 20 extra hours a week to spend with her children!

Best hopes for people making better choices and planning for the longterm.

Posted by y2kurtus | Report as abusive

[…] Culture Lens Makes Me Nervous,’ writes Barbara Kiviat, guest-blogging at Reuters in Felix Salmon’s absence. “The big risk,” she says, […]

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Hi Barbara – it’s good to see you back in the blogosphere. I don’t think it’s culture so much as adaptability. If your image of yourself is that of an autoworker, for example, you may not be able to see how to get to another place once your manufacturing job goes away. If you see yourself as poor, it may be difficult to understand how to be not poor.

While modestly successful, I see a touch of this in myself. It seems like it’s possible for anyone to make a lot of money, but I simply can’t see the path from where I am to that place (or it may not be important enough for me to do so). I lack a vision in that regard. I suspect that most or all of us have such conceptual blind spots.

Posted by Curmudgeon | Report as abusive

If you are so hung up on the potentially racist connotations of the word culture, why not just revert to behavior? Our own behavior is something that we have a large degree of conscious control over. Making choices to not go to school or study or have too many children are all behaviors. Culture and subculture are ways that we describe shared values- but how many of us didn’t rebel against the values and culture in which we were raised in some way?

As Alain de Botton says, increasing the amount of meritocracy in a society also increases the feeling that you are less successful by the nature of your own choices.

Posted by mattmc | Report as abusive

I agree with Ms. Kiviat about the problems of looking at poverty as the product, or the parent, of a culture. For instance, has there ever been a culture, a group, a nationality, that didn’t have poor people? Does the grouping together of people with other in similar financial circumstances, whether rich or poor, realistically reflect our patterns of socialization? Are fluctuations in fortune proven to cause or be caused by changes in the values and norms in, say, a household or a small neighborhood?

“Poverty” is a denotative synonym of “impecunity” — that is, the lack of money. Period. Any attempt to invest the word “poverty” with any lasting cultural meaning is at best unstable.

Posted by SableSage | Report as abusive

I think I’m understanding where people are coming from…

There are definitely individual choices that can help one achieve success in life and a modicum of financial stability. Yet to term those choices a “culture” is perhaps elevating it to another level? One, as you say, that is tinged with racism?

I firmly believe we should avoid describing “poverty” as something society imposes on people. We don’t live in a pure meritocracy, but there is sufficient mobility that nobody is defined by their birth. Focusing on the element that we cannot control is deleterious to efforts to improve those aspects we CAN control.

Posted by TFF | Report as abusive

@TFF: I like that distinction between things we can control and those we can’t.

@Curmudgeon: Nice to see you, as always.

Posted by BarbaraKiviat | Report as abusive