Barbara Ehrenreich does some of the latter in a recent article, How We Cured “the Culture of Poverty,” Not Poverty Itself. She notes correctly that in the last 50 years, America has, led by a convenient marriage of conservatism and neo-liberalism, pretended that poverty was solely the product of bankrupt culture; instead of attacking the institutions and social dynamics that perpetuate poverty, it has been sold - under the banner of a "classless society" - as a purely behavioral problem.
By the Reagan era, the “culture of poverty” had become a cornerstone of conservative ideology: poverty was caused, not by low wages or a lack of jobs, but by bad attitudes and faulty lifestyles. The poor were dissolute, promiscuous, prone to addiction and crime, unable to “defer gratification,” or possibly even set an alarm clock.Ehrenreich is right to dismiss this right-wing narrative as simplistic, misguided and uncompassionate. The right and neo-liberal left has mistaken symptom for underlying problem. But in attempting to critique their over-reliance on a sort of underclass demagoguery, she wrongly denies that the symptoms even exist. The reality is that the poor, as a class, certainly do suffer from behavioral issues that the more affluent do not. Yet by denying this truth, she ends up missing the opportunity to take a larger perspective, and account for the causal mechanisms involved in dysfunctions that plague poor communities such as violence, substance abuse, educational failure, etc.
I've worked in poor communities all my life, and nowhere is this more evident than in poor schools. While I applaud Ms. Ms. Ehrenreich's defense of the dignity of the poor, as well as her pointing out that they are not a homogeneous class, the picture she paints can actually end up limiting our ability to deal with poverty by underestimating its complexity.
What we need to understand when thinking about poverty is that human social development requires two forms of capital: human and social. They are both dynamic, and reinforce each other in that each leverages the other to promote self-efficacy and success. A persistent lack of either among classes of citizens represents a serious threat to our core values of democracy and egalitarianism.
Unfortunately, when we assume in general that the poor have more human and social capital than they do, that they are merely poor in financial capital, we do not take seriously their plight, not the larger social dynamics at work that conspire to further marginalize and disenfranchise them. A serious, modern critique of capitalism and subsequent policy implications simply cannot be entertained without first grappling with the mechanics of human and social capital leveraging.
To truly see the dignity of the poor, we must recognize the reality of the struggles they face, trying to raise families in neighborhoods in which poverty is concentrated and capital of all kinds is in short supply. She ends her piece with this summation:
And if we look closely enough, we’ll have to conclude that poverty is not, after all, a cultural aberration or a character flaw. Poverty is a shortage of money.It is actually much more serious than this. The sooner we recognize it, the better we will be able to truly help those in need. It does not help those who are treated without dignity to pretend that their problems are not as severe as they in fact are.