Saturday, June 9, 2012

Poverty of Culture

It is controversial today to speak of a "culture of poverty".  This stems out of a polarization around two notions, that the poor are victims of society and that the poor are victims of themselves.  But these two framings are incomplete.  I would argue that the poor are both victims of society and victims of themselves.

According to Wikipedia, the idea of a culture of poverty came out of the work of anthropologist Oscar Lewis in his 1959 ethnographic study Five Families: Mexican Case Studies in the Culture of Poverty.
The people in the culture of poverty have a strong feeling of marginality, of helplessness, of dependency, of not belonging. They are like aliens in their own country, convinced that the existing institutions do not serve their interests and needs. Along with this feeling of powerlessness is a widespread feeling of inferiority, of personal unworthiness. This is true of the slum dwellers of Mexico City, who do not constitute a distinct ethnic or racial group and do not suffer from racial discrimination. In the United States the culture of poverty that exists in the Negroes has the additional disadvantage of racial discrimination. People with a culture of poverty have very little sense of history. They are a marginal people who know only their own troubles, their own local conditions, their own neighborhood, their own way of life. Usually, they have neither the knowledge, the vision nor the ideology to see the similarities between their problems and those of others like themselves elsewhere in the world. In other words, they are not class conscious, although they are very sensitive indeed to status distinctions. When the poor become class conscious or members of trade union organizations, or when they adopt an internationalist outlook on the world they are, in my view, no longer part of the culture of poverty although they may still be desperately poor. 
In decades since, this view has been criticized mainly for relying on the simplistic notion of the poor as a monolithic cultural group, and seemingly perpetuating the notion that the poor are to blame for their own lack of success.  Much of Lewis' thesis seems to argue that it is the attitudes of the poor that keep them from finding success.  This sort of dispositional narrative leaves out other causal factors, letting larger social forces off the hook.

However, it appears to me that Lewis actually got it half right, and that he didn't go far enough.  One of my main complaints on this blog is that in discussing poverty and disadvantage, we too often leave out the fundamental components of human development, and that these arise not organically, freely from human agency, but rather from social forces outside one's control.  There are dispositional, attitudinal problems among many of the poor.  But these are the result of other causal factors which work dynamically to create a system of oppression.  For instance, take the example of Rent-a-Center, the predatory lender of home furnishings.  There is no reason anyone ought to ever engage their services.  There is nothing that they have that is necessary enough to warrant such outrageous and usury prices.  Yet they predominate in low-income communities.  The poor thus are more dispositionally inclined to engage in dysfunctional behavior, to the extent that going to Rent-A-Center is dysfunctional.  Any number of other indicators of dysfunctional behavior can be found in much higher rate sin poor communities, which ultimately stem not from lack of resources but from an unhealthy disposition.

Yet this is not the end of our inquiry.  Many on the left bristle at even engaging in this sort of dispositional critique, specifically because the inquiry has historically ended here.  Right-wing notions of ethnic superiority, social Darwinism, class hegemony, and white supremacist apologetics have historically ended here.  The claim is that because it is well within the power of one to change one's attitude and disposition, the poor's failure to do so makes them morally responsible for their own lack of success.  The corollary to this claim is that the affluent have chosen their attitude and disposition, thus are morally responsible for their own success, and thus have every right to be rewarded for it.

Current right wing economic and social policy claims are rooted in this narrative.  Talk of affluent "job creators" and claims that low tax rates create growth by promoting the attainment of success through the reward of low tax rates assumes that disposition is the main driver of prosperity; if one has the right attitude, one will be successful.  Likewise, "rewarding" the poor with safety net programs is thought to create in them a dispositional aversion to hard work and positive thinking.

While disposition is important, it is only one factor of success.  But more importantly, it is not a first cause.  Human development is vastly more complex.  Human beings are unique in the animal world in how long we take to reach maturity.  Our societies have spent millennium evolving extensive social and institutional frameworks designed implicitly to develop in humans advanced productive capacities.  Modern humans are educated, moral, enlightened, critical thinkers capable of amazing contributions to our fellow man.  We are dynamic, ever-learning and evolving culturally and raising our children to do the same.

When we speak of "disposition" or "attitude", we are reducing vast quantities of human development into an absurdly simplistic shorthand for human agency.  The 22 year old human adult will have lived for 192,720 hours, 128,480 of them awake - a staggering 7,708,800 minutes of conscious thought.  That is the sum total of his interaction with the world - his conversations with parents and peers, his observations of the world around him, his cognitive calculations, his emotional internalizations, his lessons learned, his daydreams, his creative endeavors, his fears, his loves, his dreams.

All of this we call human capital.  He has built this human capital out of what I call societal capital - all that has existed in his world during those nearly eight millions of conscious life that has made him who he is, and has made him who he perceives to make of himself.  The concept of a self-made man relies on a notion of human agency that denies the very truth that permeates everything we know about the physical universe, that everything is preceded by something else, that is caused by prior events.  The notion of time itself is predicated upon this fact.  And yet we need not refer to physics for what ought to be common sense to anyone who has ever learned something knew, or learned how to think about something in a new way.  Every parents understands this basic reality, as we have watched out children growing and transforming before our eyes into complex individuals capable of - hopefully - behaving, thinking and feeling in appropriately advanced ways.  Our children are anything but self-made!  And when they reach adulthood, capable of making sufficiently decisions in a sufficiently independent manner, we are known to have raised them well.

Yet have we done this ourselves?  Are we self-made parents?  Of course not.  We were made - by our parents first, and then in concert with life experience and larger society.  We have internalized the culture that we ourselves have been raised in, and then transmitted it to our children.  The cycle thus repeats.

So when we see poor communities displaying what can be called dysfunctional or sub-optimal dispositions, who is to blame?  We all are.  There is no separation between them and us.  We, all of us, are inextricably caught up in one long chain of causality extant since the beginning of time itself.  Individuals can no more be held responsible for poor dispositions than for successful ones.  All that matters is the way we structure society so that to limit as much as we can sub-standard dispositions and elevate positive dispositions.

The question thus becomes how best to do this.  It surely isn't an easy question.  But it begins with the acknowledgement that we are all doing the best we know how to do, and that the issue is one of development, not simple choice.  The poor are not more likely to frequent Rent-A-Center because they choose to when they could have just as easily, like us, chosen not to.  Their choice was determined, as was ours.  The problem is not that their culture must be changed, but that they have not been fortunate in having received sufficient societal capital to build in themselves to develop adequate human capital, or what we might generally refer to as "culture".  They have not had the education, the access to family resources, the access to more affluent peer groups, etc. to develop what ultimately appears on the surface as "disposition".  Through larger structural forces such as economic and social segregation, they have been disadvantaged.  By finding ways to intervene and remedy these things, we will finally begin to tackle the problem in a real way, without having to either "blame" any one or pretend that poor behaviors don't exist.

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