Last week, my book group met to discuss our latest pick. The memoir we had just read dealt with poverty, specifically, children growing up in poverty. In our discussion, we found that we were all frustrated with the decisions made by the parents in the book, decisions that any one of us (middle-class, college-educated women) would immediately classify as irrational.
One of the first questions–spoken or unspoken–that people ask when they see poverty is, “Why don’t you just get a job?” As it says in the book our group read, “it’s really not that hard to put food on the table if that’s what you decide to do.”
I certainly don’t know why people do the things they do. But it was helpful for me, when working with the local homeless population, to learn about what social workers commonly call “the culture of poverty.” The phrase is both popular and controversial for various reasons, but it is used by many non-profits as a model for understanding and confronting generational poverty in America.
The culture of poverty theory holds that people are all equipped with different levels of resources needed to climb out of poverty. This goes beyond simply a certain amount of money needed to get above a certain income threshold. Emotional and spiritual resources, support systems, and coping mechanisms all determine whether a person will have the ability to escape the cycle of poverty. The culture in which a person is raised largely determines the type and level of available resources they can draw upon. (It should be noted that here I’m talking about generational poverty, rather than situational poverty which is caused by death, illness, drugs, divorce, etc. I had a Notre Dame Ph.D. on my caseload in the shelter — it can happen to anyone.)
The culture of poverty, according to this theory, is a culture of survival. In it, one’s personality is valued above intelligence and achievement, and perspectives on everything from time to money to clothing are based on hidden rules that different socioeconomic groups and cultures follow. For example, in the culture of poverty the mindset is typically focused on the present. Decisions are based on emotion and survival in the moment. In contrast, the middle-class view of time is future-oriented, with planning and time management valued. Money, as a scarce resource, is to be used. In poverty, one has learned that they will never get ahead, so money should be shared and enjoyed. Middle-class culture views money as a thing to be managed and as a means to guarantee security and stability. (In a future post I’ll expand on how the differences between the poverty and middle-class culture apply to the institutions that shape our lives.)
This impacts how people “put food on the table.” In America, food is not hard to come by — and even poor people can generally spend a few bucks on dinner from the dollar menu at McDonald’s. But consistently stocking the pantry with food, even the basics covered by food stamps, is much more difficult. This is hard for many middle-class people to understand. As a greenie social worker at the homeless shelter, I was amazed and angry at the bags of chips, popcorn, and candy that the residents would return with after grocery trips. Their children were lacking basic nutrition, and WIC vouchers were going unused — but the rooms were filled with sugary treats. This seemed totally irrational and even selfish and self-destructive to me.
But like most things, the decisions we make (or view as irrational in others) are informed by the culture within which we operate. When viewed through the lens of the culture of poverty, it’s easier to understand the decision-making process behind bringing home soda and buffalo wings rather than canned (let alone fresh) vegetables and formula. To survive, one must have personality and be well-liked by others in the culture. At the grocery store, a mother sees treats that look good and can be shared with others–and nobody wants to share a can of beets. She purchases the groceries (“junk food”), brings them back to the center, and eats them in a common area where others will be drawn in. Others will then reciprocate when they buy groceries. A bond will form, and when one mother needs formula or diapers she will simply borrow from another member of the group. The group survives. Their children will absorb these lessons about survival–which is a given for middle-class people but a struggle for the chronically poor–and the culture of poverty is transmitted to the next generation.
Is it this easy to explain why some people remain in poverty while others (statistically a precious few) are able to climb out? Or is this too easily placing the burden on those living in poverty while absolving American society–its institutions, as well as the individuals occupying the middle and upper classes–of any responsibility to change?
How do you try to change a culture–and should you? More and more schools are implementing programs that address the culture of poverty through education, addressing such culturally informed behaviors as eating habits, time management, and voice register. Non-profits are implementing comprehensive continuums that present the hidden rules of each socioeconomic class. Is this valuable? Is it right? If nothing else, the culture of poverty theory emphasizes our need to communicate, to listen, and to understand one another. It remains to be seen whether it provides the framework to end the cycle of poverty.