Seriously, A Culture of Poverty?

Is there such a thing as a “culture of poverty”?

This question was triggered after I chanced upon an article by Anandi Mani, a professor in behavioural economics at the Blavatnik School of Government. She co-wrote a paper titled “Poverty impedes Cognitive Function”, that suggests that being poor reduces a person’s cognitive ability. In other word, people who do not have money or time tend to make poorer decision.

The work is important. It has powerful ramification to public policy. But the findings are discomforting; that being poor leads to poor judgment call and that there is a “culture of poverty.” 

Mani’s work led me on a hunt for more information. It led me to Oscar Lewis’work, who first coined the term “culture of poverty.”  In 1959, Lewis wrote the book “Five Families: Mexican Case Studies in the Culture of Poverty” which gives explicit account of the term “culture of poverty.”  

Lewis explains that the culture of poverty is not a mere “tangle of pathology” but a set of positive adaptive mechanism that is “socially constructed.”  He says that the poor carry out coping strategies because they feel that their chances of success – measured in the values and goals of the larger society – can never be realised.

Lewis’ work is provocative and still has its critics. But to be fair to Lewis, he takes great pain to explain that being poor is different from having the “culture of poverty.” He maintains that you might be poor but you might not exhibit traits consistent with “culture of poverty”.

What are some of the traits that come with a “culture of poverty?”  

Lewis highlights that people with a “culture of poverty” do not participate in major institutions of society. They suffer from unemployment or underemployment. People with a “culture of poverty” are also more likely to be in institutions that perpetuate the behavioural and personality traits of the “culture of poverty”, such as prison or social welfare.

Lewis also mentions that people having “the culture of poverty” lacks organisation. Neighbourhood gangs are the closest to a stable organisation. This lack of ability in making stable organisation is one of the reasons that perpetuate such a culture.

Another major trait is that people having “culture of poverty” have “absence of childhood as an especially prolonged and protected stage in the life cycle, early initiation into sex, free unions or consensual marriages,  a relatively high incidence of the abandonment of wives and children, a trend toward female or mother-centred families.”  

What I found interesting about Lewis’ explanation is the role of institutions. Lewis explains that the “culture of poverty” is perpetuated, maintained and supported by family and community structures. These structures shape “attitudes, values and character” that only cultivate the “culture of poverty.”

Lewis describes a list of attitudes and characters of people having this “culture of poverty”. They include having a “strong feeling that they are being marginalised”, a “strong feeling of helplessness, of dependence and of inferiority” and “lack of impulse control.”  

Lewis also mentions that people having a “culture of poverty” tend to indulge in the present than they do for the future. He describes them as having a “strong present-time orientation with relatively little ability to defer gratification and to plan for the future.”

Lewis also points out that people with a “culture of poverty” have greater “sense of resignation and fatalism,” have “widespread belief in male superiority,” and exhibit “high tolerance for psychological pathology of all sorts.” He also believes that people with a culture of poverty “are provincial and locally oriented” and are not class conscious. People with a “culture of poverty”, he says,have very little sense of history and that they are only aware of their own troubles.

Lewis describes the “culture of poverty” as “a relatively thin culture.” He provides a rather grim description of people caught in “culture of poverty”, saying that those who live in the culture of poverty suffer from emptiness, suffering, and pathos and that they suffer a great sense of helplessness and isolation.  

While the description paints a disconcerting picture, I do not want to dismiss Lewis’ work. The work has huge relevance to public policy. What needs appreciating, is that the “culture of poverty” is a state of mind and that Lewis’s description of traits of “culture of poverty” can offer opportunity for public policy scholars and practitioners to organise better public policy ideas.

For a start, there can be a number of policy interventions to address the “culture of poverty.”

One thing that comes to mind, is improving the living conditions of the poor. Give the poor a place that they can be proud to call home. Remove the slums and squatters. Improve sanitation. Improve waste collection. Promote a safer and liveable environment that leads to positive externalities. Provide the poor with a liveable living environment by investing in landscape that makes for a quality neighbourhood. Regenerate old neighbourhood. Also, take steps for a safe neighbourhood.  

Second, give people hope by investing in quality education. The poor need a rigorous and challenging education system. Reiterate the policy view that education gives individuals a better life, a life that is better than their parents. Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Singapore, for instance, have shown how a good and rigorous education can provide for better generational mobility.

Third, establish community-based organisations to strengthen the sense of ownership. Encourage neighbourhoods to have localised organisation where leadership comes from their own. Provide this neighbourhood with the needed resources to get such organisations going. These organisations can be wide-ranging, suited to the needs of individual townships. Perhaps, state can indulge in private-public partnership where corporations can promote their corporate social responsibility by providing services to neighbourhood.

Fourth, and I believe is most crucial, is that addressing a “culture of poverty” needs firm leadership, a leadership that is willing to do the necessary not just the popular. A leadership that is clear about charting future growth and ever willing to make short term sacrifices and highly accountable.  

But these are just mere public policy rantings. The problems associated with the “culture of poverty” are far more complicated than what can possibly be conveyed here. The above are just a trickle of what public policy can do.

This book should not be seen as an attack on the poor; there are merits to Lewis’ argument. Poverty, the book suggests, is transitory. Eradicating “the culture of poverty” is not a herculean task.  Many countries are no longer entrapped by the “culture of poverty.” Lewis points out that “although there is still a great deal of poverty in the United States, there is relatively little of what I would call the culture of poverty.” Indeed such optimism should provoke public policy scholars and practitioners to think of innovative ways to address the “culture of poverty.” There are successful lessons to be drawn from South Korea, Scandinavian countries, Japan, Singapore, and many developed countries.

This book may be written in 1959 but the findings continue to resonate. Lewis’ book can offer useful pointers in an age where we are still grappling with social and material deprivation, populism and rising class discontent.

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