Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Poverty of Culture of Poverty Arguments

Note: See Mario Small's Response here.

Poor Reason: Culture Still Doesn’t Explain Poverty, by Stephen Steinberg

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.” . . .

While he routinely violates his own axiom about the integral relationship between culture and social structure, Wilson injects what might be called the “culturalist caveat.” In a section on “the relative importance of structure and culture,” he concedes, “Structural factors are likely to play a far greater role than cultural factors in bringing about rapid neighborhood change.” But what structural changes does he have in mind? Despite the fact that Wilson’s signature issue for many years was jobs, jobs, jobs, since his cultural turn there has been nigh any mention of jobs. Affirmative action is apparently off the table, and there is no policy redress for the nation’s four million “disconnected youth” who are out of school and out of work.

A few years ago I was preparing a section of a course to examine the current research on the causes of urban poverty. What I found was disheartening. William Julius Wilson has always been on the edge of "blaming the victim" arguments (if not over it). The description in the article linked above of the resiliency of "culture of poverty" arguments, despite their lack of much explanatory power, even among "progressive" scholars is extremely destructive. I have enormous respect for the authors in the book that this article focuses on. Mario Small and Michele Lamont are two of the best scholars we have. But I worry that because their focus is culture that they may end up inadvertently strengthening the culture of poverty issue. Their academic interest is culture, and so they seem to stress the importance of culture even when culture is not really that important. (I've made a similar argument before about the obsession of educators with pedagogy even when pedagogy is not the core issue.)

Let's be clear. There is NO robust evidence that there is a durable "culture of poverty" in the central city or elsewhere that independently prevents people from succeeding. There IS extensive evidence that people develop a range of strategies designed to respond to the specific realities of their context. (I make this argument in more detail here.)

A fascinating study of an Indian reservation before and after the coming of a casino found that children of parents who had been poor prior to the casino acted in ways indistinguishable from children who had always been middle-class after the casino brought new income to their families.

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