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Culture of Poverty Makes a Comeback
January 19, 2011 7:46 AM   Subscribe

Indeed, the comeback of the culture of poverty, albeit in new rhetorical guise, signifies a reversion to the status quo ante: to the discourses and concomitant policy agenda that existed before the black protest movement forced the nation to confront its collective guilt and responsibility for two centuries of slavery and a century of Jim Crow—racism that pervaded all major institutions of our society, North and South. Such momentous issues are brushed away as a new generation of sociologists delves into deliberately myopic examinations of a small sphere where culture makes some measurable difference—to prove that “culture matters.”
Stephen Steinberg on culture and poverty
posted by AceRock (25 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
The new culturalists can bemoan the supposed erasure of culture from poverty research in the wake of the Moynihan Report, but far more troubling is that these four decades have witnessed the erasure of racism and poverty from political discourse, both inside and outside the academy.

Indeed. I am reminded of the breathless astonishment with which the Times recently reported that some countries are reducing poverty by — wait for it — giving poor people money.
posted by enn at 8:15 AM on January 19, 2011 [4 favorites]


Here is the core issue as framed by Steinberg in the linked article:
The question is not whether culture matters, but whether it is an independent and self-sustaining factor in the production and reproduction of poverty.
Note: "an independent and self-sustaining factor." We don't have to believe that culture is everything. We don't have to absolve white America of slavery and Jim Crow. We don't have to deny racial discrimination. Rather, we simply have to explore culture as a causal factor with a life of its own. How can this be denied?

We don't even have to agree with Moynihan in 1965. Thanks to developments in social science, we can talk about this a lot more clearly now than we could then. I'm thinking for example of Roland Fryer's empirical work on the social penalties suffered by black kids who try hard at school. Or recent research suggesting that income gains among the very poor are eaten up by conspicuous consumption. As the essay describes, there's a lot of this kind of research out there.

This will sound like blaming the victim to some people, which I think is why these theories are so controversial. But there's no logical rule that says the victim never plays a role in their own suffering -- they all too often do. We may deny this out of niceness, or out of a righteous desire to blame a real villain, but it's still so.
posted by grobstein at 8:17 AM on January 19, 2011 [8 favorites]


I'm thinking for example of Roland Fryer's empirical work on the social penalties suffered by black kids who try hard at school. Or recent research suggesting that income gains among the very poor are eaten up by conspicuous consumption.

Everyone who tries hard at school suffers social penalties in the US. Income gains among every income stratum are largely eaten up by increased discretionary, and arguably conspicuous, consumption — see all those recent articles in the business press on how tough it is to get by on only $250K a year. You're missing the mountain for the molehills.
posted by enn at 8:21 AM on January 19, 2011 [4 favorites]


Everyone who tries hard at school suffers social penalties in the US.

There's a huge gap here. You may want to look at the paper.
posted by grobstein at 8:24 AM on January 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


But there's no logical rule that says the victim never plays a role in their own suffering -- they all too often do.

There's nothing controversial about the idea that people under abusive conditions, eventually learn the practice of self destruction.

There's something deeply problematic when the source of abuse and it's role, is erased from the equation of cause and effect.
posted by yeloson at 8:35 AM on January 19, 2011 [10 favorites]


What about the culture of wealth that allows people to feel justified exploiting millions of people and maintains extreme equality? Seems like the culture of wealth is a much bigger problem than any culture of poverty.
posted by fuq at 8:39 AM on January 19, 2011 [7 favorites]


The point is a really important one, but I'm afraid the article misses the big point of Wilson's incredible paper last August: the bootstraps ethos of American life predisposes even academics to go searching for cultural sources of inequality when institutions are more likely to blame. Yes, Wilson also spends a lot of time with culture, as many sociologists are wont to do. But Wilson rather uniquely understands that culture is more often than not an outcome of institutional inequity, not the other way around. Read the quote that Steinberg pulls out of the article more closely:
One of the effects of living in a racially segregated, poor neighborhood is the exposure to cultural traits that may not be conducive to facilitating social mobility.
Wilson isn't blaming blackness for a culture which lacks social mobility - he's blaming racial segregation and poverty which (in the context of the article) are the fault of racialist institutions. By using Harlem Children's Zone as a strike against Wilson, the author demonstrates again his remarkable misunderstanding of the culture vs institutions debate in education (the short version: education reformers put the impetus on schools to close the achievement gap, traditionalists put the impetus on parents. HCZ is clearly in the former camp: an institution built from the ground up to counteract the racialist effects of other institutions in Harlem).
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 8:45 AM on January 19, 2011 [6 favorites]


What happened to the many comments that used to show up at the end of the article?
posted by John Cohen at 8:46 AM on January 19, 2011


l33tpolicywonk, if the worst thing about the article is that some of the people he criticizes actually agree with his position, that does speak well of his position even if it speaks poorly of his research.
posted by edheil at 9:06 AM on January 19, 2011


This guy should stick to making blockbuster movies; he's no Norman Einstein.
posted by hincandenza at 9:12 AM on January 19, 2011


l33tpolicywonk, if the worst thing about the article is that some of the people he criticizes actually agree with his position...

That is not the worst thing about the article.
posted by John Cohen at 9:13 AM on January 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


Everyone who tries hard at school suffers social penalties in the US.

Do you remember this FPP?
posted by John Cohen at 9:50 AM on January 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


This will sound like blaming the victim to some people, which I think is why these theories are so controversial. But there's no logical rule that says the victim never plays a role in their own suffering -- they all too often do. We may deny this out of niceness, or out of a righteous desire to blame a real villain, but it's still so.

This. (...is what's often left out of Metafilter threads.)
posted by John Cohen at 9:57 AM on January 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


edheil: "if the worst thing about the article is that some of the people he criticizes actually agree with his position"

Mis-reading a well-written, erudite academic work about race and poverty is bad. Accusing a renowned academic on these issues of supporting the demolition of public housing absent all evidence (especially when he's black and you're not) is worse.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 11:27 AM on January 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


the short version: education reformers put the impetus on schools to close the achievement gap, traditionalists put the impetus on parents. HCZ is clearly in the former camp: an institution built from the ground up to counteract the racialist effects of other institutions in Harlem

Nah, I went to the HCZ website and Sternberg seems right in his estimation: the focus of the project is on changing the community by shielding students from the bad influences of the ghetto. Nothing about counteracting institutionalized racism at all.

The goal is to create a "tipping point" in the neighborhood so that children are surrounded by an enriching environment of college-oriented peers and supportive adults, a counterweight to "the street" and a toxic popular culture that glorifies misogyny and anti-social behavior.

This is the Booker T. Washington approach. Blacks are held back by the pathologies of their culture (i.e. the culture of poverty) and if you can counteract those pathologies starting at an early age, then these poor kids will be on an equal footing with everyone else. Except no they won't but we'll pretend otherwise.

The two fundamental principles of The Zone Project are to help kids in a sustained way, starting as early in their lives as possible, and to create a critical mass of adults around them who understand what it takes to help children succeed.

On understanding what it takes to help people succeed: being white is just what it takes for many people to "succeed" where others don't. What good does it do to shield children from a "culture" that "glorifies...anti-social behavior" if a white felon has a better chance of getting a job than a black man who has committed no crime? All that effort at "shielding" children from the bad influence of the ghetto...wasted as soon as he walks into business after business and is told the position is filled.
posted by Danila at 1:10 PM on January 19, 2011 [4 favorites]


What good does it do to shield children from a "culture" that "glorifies...anti-social behavior" if a white felon has a better chance of getting a job than a black man who has committed no crime? All that effort at "shielding" children from the bad influence of the ghetto...wasted as soon as he walks into business after business and is told the position is filled.

Danila, you seem to be saying "Culture of poverty is an excuse, racism must be eliminated or Blacks are doomed to poverty, no matter what they do." What's the answer, then? Suicide? Acceptance? Anti-racist revolution? It's easy to say "We should eliminate racism" but how? What does such a vague suggestion even mean?
posted by msalt at 2:38 PM on January 19, 2011


Danila, you seem to be saying "Culture of poverty is an excuse, racism must be eliminated or Blacks are doomed to poverty, no matter what they do."

No, that's wrong on a number of levels. Blacks are not doomed to poverty. One of the problems with all of this is the strange focus on black people. Most black people in America are not poor. Most poor people are not black. Poverty is not a black thing.

Black people have higher rates of poverty than whites, but so do most other brown people in this country. If it is something about black culture that causes the poverty, than what is the cause for Hispanics, Native-Americans, Southeast Asians? Why do second generation African immigrants, whose parents were more educated than white Americans and had higher IQ scores, still make less and less money until eventually you can't distinguish their outcomes from the descendants of slaves? Something in the water, or the music maybe?

It's easy to say "We should eliminate racism" but how? What does such a vague suggestion even mean?

"Why are poor people poor? Because they act like poor people" somehow makes more sense?

How is eliminating racism a more vague suggestion than eliminating a culture? Let's call it a "culture of racism" rather than a "culture of poverty", does that make it easier to understand? Except of course we have to shift the focus from the victims' society to the abusive society.

I don't feel like explaining again what racism is and whether or not it exists, and if that's where this conversation is going I have to warn you that I won't go there. Assume there is such a thing as racism, and that it infects the institutions that make up American society, thus serving as a barrier to "equal opportunity" thus leading to unequal outcomes.

I don't think there is any way to eliminate racism in this current system of things. In order to actually eliminate racism we would need to be rid of the need to dominate others and hoard resources for those who are "like us" from those who aren't. But at least we can still be real about what's going on and fight it as best we can.

Strategies that have worked in combating racism and/or its effects:

- Integration. Spending more time around people of color reduces the power of racist ideology. People tend to like more those whom they spend time around. Marrying, socializing, working together as equals (not just brown people working FOR white people), and going to school together. But won't work very well without:

- Fighting stereotypes and stereotype threat. Stereotypes are a tool used to uphold racism because they justify racist belief. Intimate exposure is one way to fight stereotypes, but another strategy is to target the self-esteem and values of students of color. Not by telling them their music is wrong, their families are bad, and their dreams are worthless.

- Fighting the myths that help maintain racism. Myths such as "white people have it just as hard, no wait, white people have to work EVEN HARDER to fight reverse racism". These myths of white heroics in the face of brown oppressiveness are the fuel to racism's fire. Another myth: "Poor brown people are oppressing the real citizens who pay taxes and using our money to roll joints and stuff"

- Telling people of color "ur doin it wrong and that is why u fail, we are better than u"...wait no, that's the "culture of poverty" speaking. Or racism. Sometimes hard to tell the difference.
posted by Danila at 3:26 PM on January 19, 2011 [3 favorites]


Danila, I think you are talking about the Culture of Wealth, which teaches young children

What's the answer, then? Suicide? Acceptance? Anti-racist revolution? It's easy to say "We should eliminate racism" but how? What does such a vague suggestion even mean?

Yeah, there's got to be some solution to this culture of capital that values a human based on their skin color or gender. Maybe there's something about going to college or having a managerial position that causes this. Perhaps someone should start a charter program for young wealthy kids that takes away all their money, gives them some dope to smoke and makes them listen to music with a beat before the country clubs and private schools turn them into sociopaths.
posted by fuq at 3:29 PM on January 19, 2011


The point of the FPP and what Danila seems to be getting at is that institutions must seek to counteract the racism and cultural bias present in themselves and other institutions. HCZ does not appear to be taking this approach, rather it appears to be on board with a view that culture is the cause of poverty.

As far as solutions, a justice system that didn't make felons out of the majority of the poor might be a good start.
posted by herda05 at 3:43 PM on January 19, 2011


fuq you are so right about the culture of wealth. I talked a lot about racism because this whole discussion has been framed in terms of race, but it's not just race. For one thing, that erases the many of the poor people in America because they are non-Hispanic whites.

I love this comment about the "culture of wealth"

What would make for some interesting sociology is a study of the "culture of wealth." Why do rich people remain so willfully blind to the injustice that benefits them? Why do landlords who defer apartment maintenance pretend that it's the tenants who "don't care"? Why do cops haul poor black men out of their cars during a minor traffic stop, but give prosperous-looking whites a pass? Why are there a thousand studies about unwed teenage mothers who are poor and zero about the disposition of unwanted pregnancies among Ivy League co-eds? Why don't the sociologists at Harvard study the moral failings of their largest donors? Why doesn't Professor Sampson study his own amoral "culture of well-funded curiosity" as he drops fake letters on the sidewalk of destitute, devastated neighborhoods to see which poor people care enough to return his mail? Why not study residents of the wealthiest census tracts in Chicago to learn why they don't care enough to end the devastation? Instead of studying the disadvantaged, why not study the ones who put so many at a disadvantage?
posted by Danila at 4:11 PM on January 19, 2011 [3 favorites]


Oh, now I see the comments on the article; it wasn't showing up on my other browser for some reason.

I posted this comment (before the FPP was up):
This is a very wordy, bombastic article, but I can't find a single argument that would convince someone who isn't already convinced of its conclusions.

Steinberg just repeats the thesis over and over in different words and constantly insinuates that the people he disagrees with are wrong-headed.

Steinberg is evidently convinced that the causation only works in one direction: economic disparities cause all cultural problems. Culture never takes on a life of its own and causes more problems. I don't understand why the causation couldn't work in both directions. Would this be somehow too complex to be an appealing thesis, so Steinberg rejects it out of hand?

Anyone who's interested in seeing what the other side *actually* thinks (instead of the straw-man caricature presented in this article) should pick up a copy of John McWhorter's Losing the Race, or his follow-up Winning the Race.
posted by John Cohen at 5:01 PM on January 19, 2011


The quick answer to why study dysfunctional cultural messages: because individuals can do something practical and tangible about it. This would be great:
institutions must seek to counteract the racism and cultural bias present in themselves
But really, how do you get from here to there? Also, many institutions have done exactly that, with mixed results at best.

But if you examine the stories of people who have reached success out of poverty, whatever their race, a very high number were in families or social groups that strongly emphasized education, hard work, etc. People talk about it because it's something that can be done, and is done, today without societal or institutional change.
posted by msalt at 5:05 PM on January 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


This thing reads like the sort of purposely-convoluted, obfuscatory excerpts you find used in LSAT/GRE critical reading questions. You've really gotta squint hard to make out what exactly the main points are in each paragraph and what the larger argument as a whole is.
posted by decoherence at 5:24 PM on January 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


The quick answer to this:
Why are there a thousand studies about unwed teenage mothers who are poor and zero about the disposition of unwanted pregnancies among Ivy League co-eds?
is a) because the former have a lot more unwanted pregnancies and b) there are many more associated social problems because they don't have as many family resources to handle a birth.

(My first guess was that the coeds would have a much higher percentage of abortions per pregnancy, but according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute that's not true.)
posted by msalt at 5:30 PM on January 19, 2011


You've really gotta squint hard to make out what exactly the main points are in each paragraph and what the larger argument as a whole is.

There's an argument in this article?
posted by John Cohen at 8:40 AM on January 20, 2011


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