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The notion of a “culture” of poverty refers to the idea that poverty is not merely a result of economic forces, but a structural, ongoing cycle. Like its opposite—the environmental view of poverty, which emphasizes the impact of place—the idea of a culture of poverty is an oversimplification, employed primarily by activists and politicians pushing for social change. The theory of cultural poverty has several major characteristics. First, it assumes that the majority of the poor are from poor families and that poverty transfers from generation to generation. Second, it assumes that the poor are complacent and either unwilling or unable to take the initiative to rise above poverty; thus their disorganized and miserable lifestyle displays the specific trends of “cultural” poverty. The theory also assumes the preponderance of maladjusted groups among America’s poor: rural whites in Appalachia; urban blacks; and, more recently, Hispanic immigrants. These assumptions are, however, oversimplified half-truths; none is entirely accurate.
Michael Harrington popularized the concept of a culture of poverty in his 1963 book The Other America. Harrington emphasized the defeated attitude of the poor, arguing that the poor can and will not raise themselves up but required the intervention of more affluent Americans. The poor are isolated from mainstream society. The “new” poor of the twentieth century are entirely different from the nineteenth-century poor because fewer opportunities exist for advancement.
The growing acceptance among liberals of the 1960s that a culture of poverty existed influenced the social policies of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. During the 1960s the government waged a war on poverty: before his death, Kennedy focused on the plight of rural Appalachian whites, and his advisors—many of whom Johnson retained, at least temporarily—set up the basic political structure needed to combat poverty in the United States. After 1964, when Johnson was elected in his own right, the government officially declared a “war on poverty,” in which Johnson focused primarily on minorities in the inner city. According to U.S. Census data, the poverty rates in the late 1950s and early 1960s were more than 18 percent, but by the end of the 1960s the rates had lowered dramatically. During the 1960s, the minimum wage could maintain a person above the poverty line, so people with a full-time or steady job were not considered to be in poverty by government standards. Because the poor of the 1960s—made visible by activists like Harrington and the War on Poverty—were mostly unemployed, uneducated, and unskilled, more than 30 percent of Americans viewed poverty as the fault of the poor, who could easily be lumped into stereotypical groups, such as urban blacks and Appalachian whites. Statistical data did not always uphold such assertions, however, according to the Council of Economic Advisors (CEA) report “What is Poverty”: no specific area of the country or social group has drastically higher poverty rates. In fact, the factor that contributes greatly to poverty in families is the number of children—not race or geographical area. The CEA notes that a family with four or five children has a higher chance of being in poverty than a family with one or two children. In short, the theory of a culture of poverty is an oversimplification that does not provide significant insight into America’s poor.
- Council of Economic Advisors, “What is Poverty” www.whitehouse.gov/cea;
- Harrington, Michael, The Other America: Poverty in the United States (Baltimore: Penguin, 1963);
- Patterson, James T., America’s Struggle Against Poverty in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000).
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