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In the mid-1960s, Oscar Lewis described the amalgamation of conditions perpetuating patterns of inequality and poverty in society as the ”culture of poverty.” Through his research on Puerto Ricans, Lewis showed how difficult it was for people to escape poverty which he attributed to the influence of cultural beliefs that supported behaviors that allowed people to stay in poverty.
The basic premise is that through the combination of one’s inability to transcend poverty and feelings of alienation, a culture develops which supports choices that provide short-term gratification. People begin to think that impoverished conditions such as inadequate health care, long-term unemployment, dilapidated housing and poor nutrition are ”normal.” The response is to then live as if there is no future since people develop the conviction that it is impossible to improve their lives. These beliefs and behaviors are then instilled from one generation to the next, which eventually develops into a ”culture of poverty.”
One of the interesting points about this concept is that it has been used and often misused, to justify stereotypes and punitive policies aimed at the poor. The culture of poverty has been used as a rationale to both increase and decrease government support for the poor, ranging from individuals within the USA to debates about developing nations and the amount of aid they ”deserve” from industrialized nations. Often it is used to place pressure on individuals for their impoverished conditions.
A conservative application of this concept would use the culture of poverty as an illustration of laziness; of lack of motivation of individual poor people. In mainstream US discourse this is often illustrated by stereotypes of ”welfare queens” living off of the US government; that poor people reliant on welfare possess questionable moral standards and expect society to take care of them. In the social policy realm, this translates into a reduction of assistance for the poor and an expectation for individuals to rise above their situation without help from others.
A liberal interpretation of the culture of poverty would be to examine the structural barriers that make it difficult for people to move out of poverty. This includes lack of transportation, poor educational opportunities, inadequate health care, and absence of jobs. Often the policy solution is to provide financial support for the poor. Both the conservative and liberal understandings are incomplete and inadequate. Conservatives ignore the impact of macro-issues, of societal structures that create conditions which lead to poverty and liberals often dismiss the role of personal responsibility by placing the crux of the issue squarely on the macro level.
Also missing is an exploration of the relationships of gender, race, ethnicity, and other markers of difference which impact poverty as well as various interpretations of Lewis’s concept. Often the culture of poverty is treated as a means to claim that a certain population has a ”defective” culture thus making it politically justifiable to treat them differently than the mainstream population. Historically this is seen in policies such as the establishment of family caps or forced birth control to limit the number of low-income children who would probably be dependent on the state. It also has been used to justify inadequate health care and education facilities as well as inappropriate policing within poor communities. By focusing on individuals or specific populations as responsible for their impoverished state, social structures and practices that create barriers to success escape accountability.
- Edin, K. & Lein, L. (1997) Making Ends Meet: How Single Mothers Survive Welfare and Low Wage Work. Russell Sage Foundation, New York.
- Gans, H. (1995). The War Against the Poor: The Underclass and Antipoverty Policy. Basic Books, New York.
- Lewis, O. (1965) La Vida: A Puerto Rican Family in the Culture of Poverty — San Juan and New York. Random House, New York.
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