If only we could persuade poor people to adopt the values and behaviours of their rich neighbours we could end poverty in a generation. Or at least that’s the impression you’d get from reading the never ending stream of books and articles about the culture of poverty, the underclass and the socially excluded. In an essay for the Boston Review Stephen Steinberg challenges the idea that poor Americans are trapped in a cycle of disadvantage that only they can end.
In 1965, Daniel Patrick Moynihan argued that black families and communities had become dysfunctional. Conservatives seized on Moynihan’s work to argue that American society offered all Americans ample opportunity to get ahead and that the only thing holding poor Afro-Americans back was their own dysfunctional way of life.
According to Steinberg, Moynihan’s fatal error was to invert cause and effect. Steinberg writes:
… even Moynihan’s harshest critics did not deny the manifest troubles in black families. Nor did they deny that the culture of poor people is often markedly at variance with the cultural norms and practices in more privileged sectors of society. How could it be otherwise? The key point of contention was whether, under conditions of prolonged poverty, those cultural adaptations “assume a life of their own” and are passed down from parents to children through normal processes of cultural transmission. In other words, the imbroglio over the Moynihan report was never about whether culture matters, but about whether culture is or ever could be an independent and self-sustaining factor in the production and reproduction of poverty.
The argument about cause and effect has a long history. For example, in 1970 Lee Rainwater argued:
The special ways of adapting by the poor suggest only that effective poverty strategies have to change their income situation before requiring changes in their behavior and attitudes. The major reason for the failure of most anti-poverty programs so far is that they require the poor the change their behavior before they have gained the resources that would change their situation (quoted in The Social Inclusion Agenda).
Over time, poverty and programs designed to alleviate it became increasingly identified with black Americans. The problems of a small subset of the most disadvantaged welfare recipients generated stereotypes which then applied to all welfare recipients. Those who were non-poor and non-black came to see poor Americans — particularly those who relied on welfare — as a distinct and alien population that had somehow developed an immunity to opportunity.
Recently the culture of poverty thesis has made it into the New York Times where Patricia Cohen argues that it’s back on the research agenda. According to Steinberg: "the ballyhooed ‘restoration’ of culture to poverty discourse can only be one thing: an evasion of the persistent racial and economic inequalities that are a blot on American democracy.”