The culture of poverty, originally termed the subculture of poverty, is a concept that first appeared in 1959 in the work of North American anthropologist Oscar Lewis. As the name implies, this theory focuses attention on the cultural aspects of poverty. The theory holds that adaptation to the economic and structural conditions of poverty promotes the development of deviant social and psychological traits which, in turn, act as barriers to overcoming poverty. Once a culture of poverty emerges, it is reproduced through the transmission of traits to future generations. This perspective leads to the conclusion that economic solutions are limited in their ability to end poverty. Lewis suggested that social work and psychological interventions accompany economic responses to poverty. Culture of poverty theory has had a powerful influence on U.S. poverty policies and programs. A great deal of criticism surfaced as this theory gained prominence as an explanation for poverty in the United States.
Conditions That Promote a Culture of Poverty
Culture of poverty theory is a class-based theory. That is, the structure of the economy is posited as the initial condition that gives rise to a culture of poverty. It is most likely to emerge during transitional periods such as the shift from an agrarian to an industrial society or when rapid economic and technological shifts occur within a given society. Although racial discrimination can be a factor, it is not a necessary condition for a culture of poverty to emerge. (Lewis claimed that cultures of poverty formed among ethnically homogeneous populations in Latin America and among poor rural whites and poor African Americans in the United States.) Low-wage, unskilled workers who experience high rates of unemployment or underemployment in capitalist societies that stress social mobility are thought to be at greatest risk for developing a culture of poverty.
Culture of Poverty Traits
By the time he had fully formulated his theory, Lewis had compiled a list of 70 characteristics thought to be common to groups who live in cultures of poverty. He characterized members of these cultures as people who do not form their own local organizations and are isolated from participation in mainstream social institutions. For instance, the theory posits that people who live in cultures of poverty have high rates of unemployment, do not use banks or hospitals, and rely on dubious businesses like pawn shops. Such social isolation initially results from structural conditions of poverty (e.g., unemployment). However, when opportunities do arise, cultural values that develop in response to isolation work against future integration into mainstream society.
Family illustrates another way that the values of the poor are said to deviate from mainstream society. The theory holds that cultures of poverty are characterized by community and family disorganization. Male unemployment is thought to discourage formal marriage and encourage female-headed households. In addition to recognizing economic disincentives to marry, women may view poor men as too punitive and immature for marriage. The theory also contends that no prolonged period of childhood occurs, and consequently, children experience early initiation into adult activities such as sexual relations. High rates of adult illiteracy and low levels of education contribute to the inferior academic performance of children raised in a culture of poverty. Impulsivity, a present-time orientation, and an inability to set goals further impede educational attainment.
Not all impoverished groups form a culture of poverty. A connection to local organizations or national movements hinders such development by providing the poor with a greater purpose. For example, Lewis claimed that a culture of poverty is less likely to form in socialist countries like Cuba, where neighborhood committees helped to integrate the poor into the national agenda.
Criticism of Culture of Poverty Theory
Criticism surfaced as a culture of poverty framework gained dominance among U.S. academics and policymakers. Critics focused their attention on methodological concerns and on poverty policies and programs influenced, in their development, by culture of poverty theory.
Critics suggest that the popularity of culture as an explanation for poverty is inappropriate, because Lewis based his theory on findings from a small number of interviews with Latin American families. Moreover, critics suggest that scholars who employ this theory filter their observations through a white, middle-class understanding of “appropriate” cultural values, a form of classism and ethnocentrism. In fact, findings from subsequent research studies that employed in-depth fieldwork called into question the claims put forth by Lewis and his contemporary adherents. Family and community disorganization is an example of one theme targeted by critics. Critics claim empirical evidence shows that poor groups who have been depicted as disorganized actually live in highly organized neighborhoods and rely on extended kin and friendship networks. Moreover, research finds that poor women value marriage as much as their middle-class counterparts do. Although critics agree that in recent years, inner-city family and neighborhood networks have eroded, they trace this pattern to structural causes such as the loss of living-wage jobs and cuts to the social safety net.
Critics are concerned that the focus on behavior gave rise to ineffective poverty policies and programs. For instance, recent growth in job programs that center on developing a work ethic and teaching the poor how to dress and behave in a work environment exemplifies the type of behavioral approaches that critics view as ineffective. These approaches contrast sharply with the decline in structural solutions like the creation of living-wage jobs and the expansion of the social safety net (e.g., unemployment benefits, subsidized health care).
The extent to which behavioral solutions are reflected in poverty policies and programs shifts over time. The influence of culture of poverty theory on U.S. poverty policy is rooted in 1960s War on Poverty programs. Culture of poverty theory shaped Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1965 report, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action (more commonly known as the Moynihan Report), and Michael Harrington’s 1962 book, The Other America: Poverty in the U.S. Both of these scholars influenced President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty campaign and the consequent passage of the 1964 Economic Opportunity Act, which established federal funding for, and oversight of, anti-poverty programs.
Critics contend that the Moynihan Report racialized culture of poverty theory. After the publication of the report, poverty became equated with race, and an image of the black matriarch as the cause of black poverty became firmly rooted in the popular imagination. Despite the uncritical acceptance of characterizations of the poor, critics point out that the 1960s anti-poverty programs still addressed the structural causes of poverty. For instance, both Head Start and the Job Corps were War on Poverty programs. Irrespective of his portrayal of black family “pathology,” Senator Moynihan argued for the extension of welfare benefits to black single mothers. Addressing the economic causes of poverty was viewed as necessary to achieve the desired behavioral changes.
Behavioral solutions to poverty gained prominence in the conservative climate of the 1980s. The anti-poverty programs of the 1960s came under attack as conservative politicians advanced the view that these programs encouraged economic dependence. Critics argue that it is no accident that the focus on behavior as the cause, not the consequence, of poverty coincides with the call to end the era of “big government” by cutting spending on poverty programs. Welfare reform, enacted with the 1996 passage of Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, illustrates this trend. Research shows that congressional debates on welfare reform excluded discussions of economic trends. Racialized images of poor single mothers who eschew work and marriage dominated both political and public discussions. Critics charge that the focus on behavior resulted in the passage of a law that failed to make sufficient provisions for the impact of low-wage jobs on women who now face restricted access to welfare benefits.
Scholars and policymakers continue to debate the relationship between poverty and culture. Social scientists face the difficult task of studying culture without losing sight of the complex relationship between culture and structure. In addition, they face the task of attending to the impact of poverty without reinforcing harmful socially constructed views of the poor.
- Battle, Juan J. and Michael D. Bennett. 1997. “African-American Families and Public Policy.” Pp. 150-67 in African Americans and the Public Agenda, edited by C. Herring. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Goode, Judith. 2002. “How Urban Ethnography Counters Myths about the Poor.” Pp. 279-95 in Urban Life: Readings in the Anthropology of the City, edited by G. Gmelch and W. P. Zenner. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland.
- Kaplan, Elaine Bell. 1997. Not Our Kind of Girl: Unraveling the Myths of Black Teenage Motherhood. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
- Lewis, Oscar. 1959. Five Families: Mexican Case Studies in the Culture of Poverty. New York: Basic Books.
- Lewis, Oscar.  2002. “The Culture of Poverty.” Pp. 269-78 in Urban Life: Readings in the Anthropology of the City, edited by G. Gmelch and W. P. Zenner. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland.
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