Comments on: Is culture to blame for poverty? Mon, 13 Oct 2014 11:49:24 +0000 hourly 1 By: BarbaraKiviat Wed, 20 Oct 2010 16:06:31 +0000 @TFF: I like that distinction between things we can control and those we can’t.

@Curmudgeon: Nice to see you, as always.

By: TFF Wed, 20 Oct 2010 14:19:32 +0000 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.

By: SableSage Wed, 20 Oct 2010 00:49:49 +0000 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.

By: mattmc Tue, 19 Oct 2010 19:00:05 +0000 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.

By: Curmudgeon Tue, 19 Oct 2010 18:42:19 +0000 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.

By: y2kurtus Tue, 19 Oct 2010 15:45:57 +0000 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.

By: BarbaraKiviat Tue, 19 Oct 2010 03:24:23 +0000 @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.

By: dWj Tue, 19 Oct 2010 01:12:04 +0000 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.

By: TFF Mon, 18 Oct 2010 22:37:52 +0000 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.

By: strawman Mon, 18 Oct 2010 20:36:57 +0000 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.