There is No “Culture of Poverty”
Posted by Josh Ishimatsu on February 5, 2014
“At the heart of the deterioration of the fabric of Negro society is the deterioration of the Negro family.”
- The 1965 U.S. Department of Labor Report “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action”
This is the second in a series of posts that I’m working on to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the War on Poverty.
Daniel Patrick Moynihan, one of the architects of the War on Poverty and assistant secretary of labor under President Johnson, is popularly identified with the concept of “the culture of poverty.” While he did not coin the term, Moynihan certainly did more than most to put the idea into national consciousness, particularly in the direct association between the culture of poverty and black urban life.
But this post is not about him. It’s about how the concept of the “culture of poverty” and how Moynihan’s vision of it shapes many of our deeply held, unstated perceptions/assumptions about poverty.
And about how many of these assumptions are wrong.
The Culture of Poverty
In 1962, in his influential book about poverty (said to have inspired Presidents Kennedy and Johnson and named one of Time magazine’s top 10 works of 20th century non-fiction), The Other America, Michael Harrington introduced mainstream America to the concept of “the culture of poverty.” In 1965, then U.S. Department of Labor Assistant Secretary and former Harrington drinking buddy, Moynihan modified/expanded upon Harrington’s version of culture of poverty concepts and applied them more explicitly and specifically to African Americans in a report entitled “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.”
Moynihan argued that “three centuries of mistreatment” had led to a “tangle of pathology”—crime, promiscuity, lack of education—that created a near inescapable cycle of poverty and disadvantage. At the heart of this tangle—the fundamental cause of it all—was the “deterioration of the Negro family.”
Moynihan wrote: “In essence, the Negro community has been forced into a matriarchal structure which, because it is to [sic] out of line with the rest of American society, seriously retards the progress of the group as a whole…”
Moynihan intended that his report would be a call to action for the nation to do more about addressing what he saw as the root causes of poverty.
The title of the report, after all, includes the words “The Case for National Action.” And Moynihan wrote that it was the responsibility of the federal government and its citizens to do more to eliminate poverty, “strengthen the Negro family” and set right “three centuries of injustice.”
However, from when the internal report leaked to the public, Moynihan immediately was the subject of intense criticism from his left flank—from civil rights advocates, feminists and anti-poverty activists who accused him of racism, sexism, victim blaming, etc. In the years following, as conservatives appropriated the report’s broken family/tangle of pathology vocabulary (while ignoring its national call to action), the term “culture of poverty” came to stand more and more for the idea that poor family values and government dependency had created poverty and that a return to “traditional family values” was what was needed to eliminate poverty, not more government programs.
Poverty Is About Jobs, Not Culture
The intersection of work, family and the economy has changed drastically in the past 50 years. More women work. Divorce and children born outside of marriage are far more common. Non-Hispanic white families of today have rates of single-female headed households and of children in unmarried households, etc. that are comparable to the rates of African Americans during the 1960s. But non-Hispanic whites still have the lowest poverty rates of any major racial/ethnic group.
White society and economic conditions did not collapse because of increased matriarchy. Of poverty populations, both Hispanics and Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) have higher rates of married family households than non-Hispanic whites but both populations have higher poverty rates than non-Hispanic whites. For families in poverty, roughly 60 percent of AAPI families are households headed by married couples. For the general poverty population, roughly 30 percent of families are headed by married couples. And despite this, since the recession, AAPIs have been the fastest growing racial/ethnic group in poverty. Marriage, “intact families,” or a hypothetical cultural value placed on marriage and family structure are no silver bullet against poverty. As we have a better understanding of the many forms that families can take and as the poverty population becomes more multicultural, the causal link (at a moral/cultural level, at least) between marriage/family structure and economic outcomes seems weaker and weaker.
If there is any correlation between marriage and poverty, it is about jobs. Families with two or more wage earners (who do not have to be married and do not have to be different genders) are more likely to be able to move out of poverty than a family with only one wage earner. This makes sense in that poverty as a cold, hard statistic is primarily measure of income. Two incomes means the likelihood of more money. Two potential wage-earners means a level of insurance/ability to weather hard times if one job is lost. But this is not something that is necessarily about marriage or is something inherently about “a culture of poverty.”
There are plenty of poor people with good values and who work hard who have been and will be poor their entire lives. There are plenty of people who have had crappy home lives and whose lives are desperate tangles of pathologies but who have been and will be rich all their lives. Poverty is about income. Poverty is about jobs and job quality. Take my personal story as an example. I was raised by a single mother. My mother and father were never married, I never knew my father and my family never knew any support from him. But we were never poor. This is because my mother had a union job as a nurse at a public hospital. Not to take anything away from my mother’s personal strength or the strength of her values or of the values that she instilled in me, but poverty is about jobs and who happens to be lucky enough to have a good one (or about who is lucky enough to be born with rich parents, but that’s another story). Poverty is about scarcity, not about marital status. And because there will never be enough good jobs for everybody to have one, we know that there will always be poor people. Ascribing after-the-fact cultural causes to this inevitability obscures the real issues.
The War on Poverty was initiated during heady times—urban unrest, the civil rights movement, the war in Vietnam, etc. The time period was also saw the birth of poverty as an official government unit of measurement and the concept of poverty entering more widely into mainstream parlance. Our deeply held, mostly unstated, beliefs about poverty (and especially about poverty and race) stem from this time period, from this crucible, whether we were alive then or not. Most of us, I would wager, still think of American poverty as largely urban (more specifically, urban Northeast and rustbelt Midwest) and black. But the demographics of poverty have changed and the geography of poverty is also changing.
But regardless of the changing composition and distribution of the poverty population, much of the current debate about the legacy of the War on Poverty is rehashing old conflicts about race, about the role of government, about culture and values—a big clash of visions and mythologies that was never fully resolved in the 1960s. In this context, Rand Paul can use the bankruptcy of the City of Detroit as a backdrop to comment upon the failure of “big government” to address poverty—to sound the dog whistle of race and the supposed intractability of the culture of poverty—all the while putting out a kinder, gentler GOP rhetoric around race, poverty and tax cuts.
In the mainstream, slightly-left-of-center-world of policy wonks, whether we fully acknowledge this to ourselves or not, also continue to work from outdated and racist paradigms of race and poverty, tending to think of poverty in terms of cultural deficits while making policy prescriptions for parenting classes, school accountability, financial education, etc. Not that these are bad programs, per se. Many of these programs are worthy and are worth the investments we make in them. But we shouldn’t be putting the burden of “solving” poverty on such programs nor should we be transmitting the message to people that there is something inherently wrong with them (or their culture) for happening to be poor.
Moving forward, I believe we need a deeper, more nuanced national conversation about race and poverty. I also believe we need a broader, large-scale recommitment to economic equity and economic justice. To do both of these well, we need to revisit and re-examine all of our unstated, unconscious (racialized) beliefs about poverty and culture.
(Photo from the National Institute's of Health Library CC BY-NC-SA)
About the author more »
Josh Ishimatsu is director of capacity building and research for National CAPACD.