Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Guest Post: The Culture of Poverty

We're always interested to hear your thoughts on the issues, so if you're interested in sharing them then send us a Guest Post. Today we bring you a Guest Post from a regular to The Urban Politico who needs no introduction, Mr. ShadyGrady. So please show our Guest some love in the comment section as we break down the Culture of Poverty in America:


What do you think of when you read the phrase “culture of poverty”? Who FIRST comes to mind?

Is it an obese Black woman bearing a first name which contains a tremendous number of vowels and who has three kids by three different men? Is it a Hispanic woman in a similar situation? Is it a white Woman that looks hard used and has substance abuse issues? Is it a Black man with kids all over town? Is it a Hispanic or White man that drinks too much?

What does “culture of poverty” mean? For most black Americans, you go back just 50 years, let alone 100 years, you would probably find that a great many of our forebears weren’t exactly captains of industry. Many were as poor as church mice. It wasn’t really a “culture of poverty” that was holding many of them back so much as it was systematic oppression in every facet of life.

This changed. Today we have opportunities that our ancestors could not have dreamed of.

And yet things didn’t get better for everyone. WEB DuBois discussed this over 100 years ago in his seminal work “The Philadelphia Negro.”

The phrase “culture of poverty” has become more accepted recently. The recent New York Times article discusses this. I will not post the complete article but I urge everyone to read it in its entirety.

For more than 40 years, social scientists investigating the causes of poverty have tended to treat cultural explanations like Lord Voldemort: That Which Must Not Be Named.
The reticence was a legacy of the ugly battles that erupted after Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then an assistant labor secretary in the Johnson administration, introduced the idea of a “culture of poverty” to the public in a startling 1965 report. Although Moynihan didn’t coin the phrase (that distinction belongs to the anthropologist Oscar Lewis), his description of the urban black family as caught in an inescapable “tangle of pathology” of unmarried mothers and welfare dependency was seen as attributing self-perpetuating moral deficiencies to black people, as if blaming them for their own misfortune.
Moynihan’s analysis never lost its appeal to conservative thinkers, whose arguments ultimately succeeded when President Bill Clinton signed a bill in 1996 “ending welfare as we know it.” But in the overwhelmingly liberal ranks of academic sociology and anthropology the word “culture” became a live grenade, and the idea that attitudes and behavior patterns kept people poor was shunned.
Now, after decades of silence, these scholars are speaking openly about you-know-what, conceding that culture and persistent poverty are enmeshed. ..
This surge of academic research also comes as the percentage of Americans living in poverty hit a 15-year high: one in seven, or 44 million…
Today, social scientists are rejecting the notion of a monolithic and unchanging culture of poverty. And they attribute destructive attitudes and behavior not to inherent moral character but to sustained racism and isolation. 

Ironically, given general liberal hostility to biological determinism , “culture of poverty” explanations became the preferred field of debate for conservatives who would, in some cases (Dinesh D’Souza for example) occasionally disingenuously claim they weren’t racist at all because they didn’t think that certain problems were biological but purely cultural.

My questions are

1) Is the term culture of poverty a valid description of what’s going on in some US areas?

2) Is the term just a dodge to avoid discussing the failings of capitalism? Is it possible to NOT discuss capitalism here? How useful is this frame of reference in an US in which wages have been flat for 40 years, private sector unions have virtually disappeared and large swaths of the economy have either been shipped overseas or opened to cutthroat foreign competition.

3) How much do we owe the poor and/or those that have lost their jobs? Isn’t 99 weeks of unemployment insurance enough?
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