The Culture of Poverty

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.


  1. Interesting. What do you mean by voice register?

  2. Melissa,

    I think most of us have contact from time to time with poorer LDS Members. Rarely are they living in homeless shelters. My Exp is usually they are living in section 8 housing and mom is working an entry level type job and food stamps are part of the equation.

    Can you speak to this reality some and the culture of poverty relating to these types of families? I think it would be beneficial to the readership in general.

  3. Melissa,

    Thanks for this post, which I think is interesting and worthwhile. I think it’s helpful, when thinking about this stuff, to distinguish between the causes of poverty and the survival strategies people use to deal with poverty. I think the “culture of poverty” approach doesn’t always make that distinction clearly enough.

    Causes of poverty, as we all know, are complex. Mental illness, drug use, single parenthood, regional economic collapse, etc. can be causes of poverty within a single generation. Longer-term causes are also important. Poverty in the U.S. has long-standing regional, racial, ethnic, and age-group structure.

    Are those structural aspects due to a “culture” of poverty? Maybe, but it depends how we want to define culture. For example, desperately poor people often lack the social network ties that the U.S. middle class uses to ensure economic survival. We mostly get our jobs from people we know who have connections. If the people we knew instead mostly had connections with desperately poor folks, then that route gets closed off. Are social networks an aspect of culture? Obviously — but they aren’t part of the set of ideas, beliefs, and rituals that the culture of poverty argument is usually about. Networks are a more structural thing.

    Long-term poverty is also a consequence of economic change. The long-term deterioration of the terms of trade for rural labor in the U.S. has created regions of poverty, as more recently has the collapse of U.S. manufacturing. People whose skill set, social network, capital, etc. are all highly specialized for labor in one of these declining or collapsed economic domains are at risk for a serious fall into poverty.

    We also shouldn’t disregard the role of outright discrimination in maintaining American poverty.

    On the other hand, the culture of poverty framework provides a particularly rich description of some of the social practices that people in poverty have developed to cope with their situation. Informal institutions that generate obligations of reciprocity are a long-standing component of subsistence lifestyles; see James Scott’s The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Subsistence and Rebellion in Southeast Asia or other works in the moral economy school for extensive descriptive evidence of similar practices in other times and places.

  4. Melissa De Leon Mason says:

    Susan – in settings of poverty, the voice register is LOUD and casual. This usually denotes a used vocabulary of 400-800 words and is similar to language between friends. The conversation relies on non-verbal cues. This ties into the value of personality where gestures and a sense of intimacy are valued as well as the significance of entertainment. I was always amazed at how loud the hallway outside my office got, people telling stories, background noise was always present (TV, radio), lots of screaming laughter. This register, as you can imagine, doesn’t go over well at job interviews or in work places, which is why schools and non-profits are trying to train students to use a more formal register common to middle class culture.

    Bbell – I’m actually writing a follow up post addressing this. The COP theory provides a guide to class rules that govern institutions such as the church and when contrasted with the culture many of our poorer members are coming from, I think it provides an interesting theory as to why we can’t retain these members. I’d like to go into it more for you, but I’m going to save the details for the next post. :)

  5. I saw this distinction in world view a few weeks ago. We have a friend who spent most of her young life on the streets. Among the changes she has made in her life was joining the Church a little over a year ago. She and her husband currently live on their disability assistance (he can’t work at all, she can work with some physical limitations) and other aid available to them. She has decided that she wants a better life and is going to school.

    My wife and I spent an uncomfortable evening listening to her husband arguing that life was better when they were on the streets. They were free, didn’t have to worry about paying rent, or the power bill or other obligations. They always had friends that they could stay with, or if not, they could stay at a shelter. They could come and go as they pleased, and weren’t tied down by a job or by any other responsibility.

    I’ll admit I was surprised to hear someone with a warm apartment, food on the table, and a growing income (as his wife takes jobs to help pay for school) complain that life was better when they were on the streets. I was even more surprised by the conviction he had when he said that; he really believed life on the streets was better than the life his wife was trying to make for them.

  6. It sounds like you’re mostly explaining the American culture of poverty where food is easy to come by and programs such as welfare and WIC are available. Poverty in third-world countries (such as Guatemala where I served my mission) is obviously more dire. Our system seems to at least provide the opportunity to get out of the cycle if one wishes to (and is given the direction) do so whereas in Guatemala the choice isn’t between Wendy’s and vegetables, it’s between old beans or nothing.

  7. Melissa De Leon Mason says:

    J – Indeed. One of the main criticisms of the theory is that it doesn’t seperate causes of poverty from lifestyles of poverty. I think it’s helpful in explaining the maintenance of poverty over generations. I think a large problem with it lies in that it calls for change in the behavior of those in poverty and not in the attitudes and behaviors of greater society which maintain poverty as well through such things as the networks and discrimination that you mention.

    But in American society as it is, one must know and follow middle class rules to succeed. Unless there is a huge change in society as a whole, the burden will be on the poor to change.

  8. Melissa De Leon Mason says:

    Rusty – You’re right, this theory is meant to apply to domestic poverty. International and third world poverty is a whole other topic.

  9. Melissa,

    I just read a book that covers a lot of the same ground you do here, but I can’t remember its name. Duh. But I was fascinated to see how so much of what I learned by growing up Mormon passively contributes to holding down a job and keeping the wolf away from the door. Simple things like shaking hands, looking someone in the eye and smiling, knowing when to wear a suit – those skills are crucial to getting and keeping a job, but there are lots of people who don’t know how to do them.

    The book I read broke behavior down into three classes – lower, middle, and upper. The difference that jumped out most to me was that only the middle class thinks education is the biggest factor in getting a good job. Both the lower and upper classes think it is more a factor of who you know. My guess is that people without jobs say it when the are discouraged, but at the upper end, it is real.

  10. Melissa,

    I think it’s especially difficult to make causal inference regarding the causes of intergenerational poverty. Cultural aspects of poverty are likely passed from generation to generation — although they may well change substantially over time. On the other hand, many other factors associated with poverty are inter-generationally transmitted, as well. Families, on the average, share a region, a racial/ethnic background, various genetic traits, etc. over time. Separating one of these interconnected factors out as causal is a nontrivial task.

    I agree when you say that, in our society, “one must know and follow middle class rules to succeed.” In fact, we can be more specific. One must know and follow white, Christian, middle-class, and to a substantial extent male rules to succeed. For those who don’t belong to that category, coping skills are obviously of real economic value, although possessing such skills is anything but a guarantee of a successful escape from poverty. But let’s do keep front and center the highly exclusionary nature of the rules being enforced, and the unrighteous play of power behind them.

  11. Mark IV, economic sociologists have presented a lot of evidence that who you know is also the biggest factor in getting a job in the middle classes. In fact, the primary economic value of education for most middle-class people involves the social networks it creates. But middle-class values tell us to disregard this.

  12. Wow. This is absolutely fascinating- I hadn’t considered what “culture of poverty” actually meant- though I had head the term used before. Very interesting. Thanks Melissa, for sharing your experience.

  13. Thanks for this post. I had a mission president who told me to avoid teaching the poor (I always wondered how he expected me to implement that—was I supposed to ask their income at the door? Where would the line be drawn?) because, as he said it “poor people have poor ways.” His idea was that they add nothing to the church and end up being a burden.

    I saw that attitude as institutionally selfish, but that’s perhaps beside the point. I have always bristled at the generalization that poor people are poor because they want to be.

    But what interests me is the idea that the poor add nothing to the church. Last year I had a classmate at BYU (econ major) who argued that conversions of the poor bring a different world view to the church and thereby fundamentally change Mormonism (he argued that the poor see God as a vending machine–put in prayers and blessings come out).

    I agree that poor Mormons do change Mormonism, but I think its a good change. Is that true? I wonder how the Culture of Poverty model interacts with the notion that poverty changes religion. The COP’s focus on intimacy and personal relations could build unity in the church, for example. The COP’s focus on the present rather than the future might disable Mormons from having an “eternal perspective”; on the other hand, it could also make God more immediate in the lives of individuals. But I’m not so familiar with the model, so I don’t know.

  14. Melissa De Leon Mason says:

    Here’s a link that someone just forwarded me that ties in somewhat: “Food deserts

  15. Melissa, my husband and I talk about the ‘COP’ all the time, as we’ve lived and served in an urban ward for the last 7 years. Missionaries are more successful with the poor than with the well-off; I’d love to hear more of your thoughts about the COP and how it interacts with the Church.

  16. But what interests me is the idea that the poor add nothing to the church. Last year I had a classmate at BYU (econ major) who argued that conversions of the poor bring a different world view to the church and thereby fundamentally change Mormonism (he argued that the poor see God as a vending machine–put in prayers and blessings come out).

    This sounds like testimonies I’ve heard on tithing in many middle/upper-class wards in my area.

    I’d agree about him on the different word view they bring (probably not in the same way he meant it though). It can be a humbling experience to sit in Sunday School and listen to someone who has lived in total poverty describe how being given the gospel had changed their life in spiritual and physical ways, allowing them to almost certainly save their family.

  17. jjohnsen, I think you’re right, but I think your describing poverty itself more than the COP. Personally, I see the vending machine thing perhaps even more prevalent with the well-off. When you have all your needs met, its easy to be self-congratulatory about it. When you’re poor, you understand that “the lord taketh away” and that it doesn’t always have anything to do with righteousness.

  18. I like JJohnson comments above. I do think its to our benefit to witness the Gospel help poorer people who honestly accept it. I can think of numerous examples from my mission in Africa where accepting the gospel led to over time lots of positive changes.

    There is bad as well. Low retention, welfare issues etc. But when honestly balanced against the good I think the good outweighs the bad.

    The church and its members need from time to time a reality check. Everybody is not upper middle class in the US.

  19. The Culture of Poverty as a hindrance to retention? I look forward to reading more. Will the next post treat whether and how other religious organizations respond to the Culture of Povery and the effect their efforts to do so have on their retention?

  20. Cstanford says:

    I hope it isn’t presumptuous for me to comment on this, having just found this blog today. And I haven’t time to type much. But,

    I recently read a book by Earl Shorris called Riches for the Poor about a free humanities course the author started a while ago for poor people in inner cities and later rural areas, starting in New York and now found in places like Central America and I believe Alaska (among Inuits). He talks about the idea of a culture of poverty but doesn’t seem to like putting it that way: basically he argues that poor people – particularly multi-generational – live within a surround of force and aren’t able to engage their world politically because they don’t know how. He sees humanities education as a key to learning how. I can see how a lot of his hypotheses could fit with the idea of a culture of poverty, but I think he’s uncomfortable (or maybe I am) with how that notion might be abused . . . anyway I highly recommend the book.

    Also, it’s good to find this blog. I followed a link from LDS Liberation front. (I’ve been working on a modest blog of my own, but it’s still very raw and I don’t feel like I have the time to make it very good yet.)

  21. Melissa De Leon Mason says:

    #15 – From what I’ve heard, missionaries are generally more successful with poorer populations…but only in getting them in the door and sometimes getting them baptized. I’m curious if a year later those new members are still attending. At least here in our ward, retaining poorer members is a something we haven’t quite figured out how to do.

    #19 – I know very little about how other churches respond to COP but would welcome information from anyone who does.

    CStanford- welcome! That book sounds interesting.

  22. #21, yes, ‘successful’ is such a loaded term. I recently had a very frank talk with ZL in our ward in reponse to “what I think the missionaries can do to help the ward” that centered around preparing people for baptism. I have a lot of questions about how baptizing people after a few weeks of missionary discussions is helpful… I have a feeling that ‘retention’ means that people need to become more a part of the ward/’Body of Christ’ BEFORE they are baptized, rather than ‘integrating’ them afterwards. Making the transition from a taker to a giver before they make the covenant to bear someone else’s burdens. It sometimes seems fundamentally unfair to ask someone in the position, for example, your clients at the homeless shelter were in, to make the baptismal covenant.

  23. Hellmut says:

    We have always baptized poor people. Retention has always been a challenge but it seems to be clear that we did a better job before the mid-seventies.

    Hugh Nibley’s perspective about the difference of management and leadership probably points in the right direction. There used to be a time when one could actually make a difference with one’s calling. Today that’s the exception. Until we recover an experience at the ward and stake level that is actually relevant to people’s needs, there will be no sustainable growth in Mormonism.

    Notice that Seven-day Adventists seem to be doing just fine even though they have to operate in the same environment as we do.

    With respect to poverty, in my opinion, there are more important factors than people’s mindset that sustain poverty. The Gates Foundation finds that one third of American children do not graduate from high school. Another third does not have the qualifications to hold a decent job.

    We are not investing enough into children. Denmark’s share of primary and secondary education expenditure of the nation’s GDP is almost fifty per cent higher than in the United States.

    If you have forty underprivileged kids in a class room, it’s no wonder that they do not learn. Look at how we treat teachers. Many cannot sustain a middle class life style on their salaries and they do not enjoy much status.

    Until we invest a lot more resources into primary and secondary education, only a few kids will enjoy opportunity. You get what you pay for.

    If people had opportunities then many would adapt and change their mindset. Culture matters but in the end we are creatures who adapt to their environment.

  24. I’ll admit that I’ve never run across the term Culture of Poverty, but I have helped a friend several times with a feeding the homeless project that he’s been running for over a decade now, and I’ve been struck that when you sit down with the homeless, and talk to them, they really aren’t that much different, other than there seems to be an acceptance of their situation, and little incentive to change.

    What my friend does that seems to have an impact, is that he tries to get these homeless people to reconnect to families. He offers them a free phone call to anyone in their family, and if they decide to go home, he gets them a bus ticket. His attitude is that divorced from their families, these poeple adopt an superficially intimate and comfortable relationship with other homeless, but unmoored from regular society. Reconnected with families, his hope is that they will begin to reattach themselves to regular society through them. Unfortunately, I don’t know what the long term success of the program is.

    As to the statement that the poor add nothing to the church, I am reminded of Alma and Amulek, teaching the Zoramites in Alma 32. Becuase of their humility, they were more open to listening to their teachings. The majority of the Zoramites were successful affluent middle class people, and were pretty satisfied. They seem to have bought into the “prayer is a vending machine” mentality. Perhaps this plays into the old statement by Orson Scott Card in his “Saintspeak” dictionary:

    Will of the Lord: The reason why I am rich, and you are poor (See “Bad Luck”).

    Bad Luck: The reason why I am poor and you are rich (See “Will of the Lord”).

  25. #5

    ’ll admit I was surprised to hear someone with a warm apartment, food on the table, and a growing income (as his wife takes jobs to help pay for school) complain that life was better when they were on the streets.

    I suppose that if you were to view freedom and security as two ends of a continuum, it would be easy enough to understand this point of view–more of one means less of the other; depending on what you value more, security might come at an undesirable cost to freedom.

  26. Emma's Son says:

    I like what Hellmut said:

    Culture matters but in the end we are creatures who adapt to their environment.

    While I lived in NY I saw a lot of people of poverty come into the church. However, after the honeymoon was over many went right back to what they knew and could do well at. Work the system and survive. Why? I believe because they are to far behind most of us and can’t compete in our world. They want what we have now. Most of us are where we are because of family, church and culture that has driven us from youth to work hard and get ahead. You know how hard it is even with all the titles and degrees to make a living and juggle a family. It may take our poverty friends a few generations for them to get to where your family is today. Yet your family is always moving forward so it may appear to them they can never catch up. Than you wonder why Blacks want reparation? Could you start where they have to start and do what you tell them to do having been raised in their environment?

  27. LAGirrrl says:

    Peter, that is exactly the comment I was going to note. I work at a homeless shelter for youth, age 10-17. I also am producing a documentary about a man who has spent his you adult life in prison and now at age 43 is out and attending a university, etc. This man has taught me so much about security and prison. Prisoners often, purposely, return back to the system as that is what is comfortable and safe for them. That is what they know. The streets have become too much work and too scary. I was one step away from having to stay in a homeless shelter myself in 2003 after many personal hardships and it truly can happen to anyone. Homelessness and security are a state of mind and once you’ve brushed up against that kind of fragility and insecurity, it leaves you with a strength that is fierce. Embracing homelessness and poverty is freedom. What can threaten you now? Great conversation, everyone. If you have questions about homeless youth, hope I can add to this thread!

  28. As part of a class I’m in, I’m working right now with an organization in Trenton that caters to the inner-city poor to come up with policy recommendations on issues of housing, education, and health (my specific area of interest is education). So much of this “culture of poverty” is that these people just haven’t learned a lot of the life skills that we take for granted (health, money management, etc). Its not that they’re stupid, they just haven’t been taught. They don’t know the right way to budget, or allocate their money, or anything about health issues. They certainly don’t know the seriousness of these issues.
    A lot of the kids that this organization sees have managed to slip through the cracks of their gigantic public high school; they have no family support, no guidance, and no practical education or life skills. They’ve never been taught the importance of say, showing up on time, or tolerating a boss that you hate, because no one has ever made them do it and they don’t have examples to show them that it is important or worthwhile.
    I think we vastly underestimate the life skills that get passed onto us from our middle-class existence. It’s so easy for us to call poor people lazy and say things like “why don’t they just get a job” without realizing the reality of the way life actually is for the poor – especially when they are high school dropouts with few practical skills (or even high school grads – areas with high poverty generally don’t provide the kind of education that will set every child up with a solid educational foundation for the future).

  29. LAGirrrl says:

    OH yes, and about judging what people buy grocery wise or other…believe me they are purchasing what will get them through. I was on disability and had a $4 chilled coffee drink each day to get me out of bed and feel the sugar and caffeine and to normalize my day…it was my moment in the sun where I was like everyone else…even just for a 1/2 hour. Don’t judge until you’ve been there.

    I had a friend who grew up very poor and everyone chipped in their food items within their complex and everyone ate each night. That is compassionate service to me.

  30. Melissa,

    Thanks for this conversation. I’m the RS pres in my ward right now and I just wish I could give the sisters and families in my ward things that you just can’t give like higher literacy levels, good health, strong work ethic, non-abusive husbands and families, etc. It is such a struggle for them I called my mother just the other day to tell her how grateful I was that she taught me how to read price labels at the grocery store and to make good grocery choices–not everybody is taught this stuff and it is like learning a foreign language. If only it were easier…

  31. I know much of what you say about the “COP” is specific to the US — but you’ve given me something to think about in regards to the poverty I see among the working poor here in Nigeria where I’m living.

    “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”

    We “trailing spouses” here spend a lot of time chatting — and one subject that often comes up is about how we don’t understand our maids and drivers who ask for advances on their salary or loans for expenses that they had to know were coming. We fuss about how these Nigerians don’t plan ahead at all or budget. They’ll take a much reduced salary in the future to get that advance for something now and then also when something truly unexpected happens, of course they have nothing to fall back on. Your post made me wonder how much of this is the culture of Nigeria or if it’s the culture of poverty.

  32. Sorry, I did that block quote thing wrong on post #30. The quote is in the middle paragraph!

  33. Interesting. We have a couple of families in our branch living in poverty and it is clear that many members of my branch are extremely frustrated with them–the financially secure branch members feel they have given so much good advice and done a, b, and c for these members, but they just won’t change! Truely, we fail to recognize cultural differences when we deal with people of our same race and nationality but different class.

    One commonality I have observed with these families that goes along with your Culture of Poverty is importance of personal relationships. These are families with serious internal issues, yet they all act as helpers to even more ditressed people–each seems to have a revolving door, always hosting other troubled (drug addicts, homeless, abused) individuals. Middle class members just can’t understand why they don’t shut their doors until they themselves are back on their feet. A different culture, indeed.

    I lived a while in a third world country where “living in the moment” often led to bad choices. The fact of the matter was, life is precarious. When your life expectancy is less than 50, it is hard to dicipline yourself to save for the future (which likely will not come) rather than enjoy now. I also wonder if it doesn’t have something to do with our modern world in wich the poor are exposed to the commodities of wealth more than in the past. For example, in the past, Africans might not have been aware of western technology, so had no desire to obtain it. They know about it now, though, and will definitely invest in a TV before concerning themselves with wiring electricity or digging a better well. Westerners look at the hut with solar panel powering TV and no other luxeries as absolutely backwards. My Mom grew up on reservations in the US and remembers how important it was to have a truck, no matter how dilapidated your house. These sorts of discrepancies would not trouble a community unexposed to greater wealth.

    I am uncomfortable with outsiders “changing a culture.” Especially the examples you mentioned: eating habits, punctuality, and voice register. These seem clearly aimed at the African American community. Frankly, African Americans do not need to be changed; most are taught by parents to fluidly travle between diferent worlds: that of the majority culture in the US and their own community. Of course, we can present the values of the majority culture (being on time, speaking quietly), but we need to emphasize that it is a matter of values. People need not change who they are, but different actions better suit different situations.

  34. I help prepare and serve a free lunch to the homeless every few months when it’s our church’s turn. My first time, I expected patrons to extend their plates humbly, full of thanks, while apologizing for needing a handout. Instead, I encountered many assertive, cheerful people who complained if they had to drink skim milk because the 2% milk had run out. One woman said “It’s my birthday” every day in hopes of getting an extra dessert. At first this behaviour bothered me. But then I figured that this free lunch was the only time in their day when they got to be as particular as a middle class person gets to be while eating at a nice restaurant (e.g., send the steak back if it’s overdone, ask for no onions). The behaviour that initially surprised me seemed to be a way for them to retain some dignity. I think everyone needs to feel entitled to something from time to time. Now I try to serve these people as though they were millionaires. Much better experience.

  35. 34.”I think everyone needs to feel entitled to something from time to time. Now I try to serve these people as though they were millionaires. Much better experience.”

    What a great realization! The gift is not the food but the respect. That isn’t as easy for us to give. Thanks.

  36. Mark IV says:

    Joanne, same here. I began to have much better experiences when I figured that out. Now I’m actually uncomfortable when someone is unduly deferential. I just want them to enjoy their dinner and not feel like they owe me anything.

  37. I was very intrigued by this thread and thought I would add an interesting perspective. I come from a COP – food stamps, tenements, trailers, etc. My parents were also “poor” converts who added little in activity to the church and were regular agenda items in ward councils.

    My heart swells at the fruits of the Gospel in action. We benefit in the Church that we are taught of our divine potential, while getting temporal assistance in reaching it.

    I believe a modern philosopher said “it takes a village” – I know it takes at least a ward or branch. We are able to bless the lives of the poor and their children by exposing them to the Gospel, expanding their expectations for their lives and providing mentoring and guidance from other members of the church. It is an amazing thing that can happen.

    For a standard child growing up in a COP, how often do they associate outside of that culture? Within the church, a youth from that background develops meaningful relationships with other youths and leaders. They are welcomed as equals into homes and social events that reinforce their potential and standards.

    I believe the church also offers basic execution plans to lift people from their backgrounds (get educated, go on a mission, get married in the temple or daily prayer, scriptures study & FHE).

    Interestingly enough, we all have our cultural weaknesses. We are blessed to get out of our socio-economic circles to associate with others who can strengthen and teach us – while they benefit from us in return.

    I do not believe that there is any other program on the face of the earth that looks after people the way the church does – cradle to grave, soup to nuts – we are being constantly shepherded. It is an amazing testimony of the church and truly a manifestation of “by their fruits ye shall know them.”

    I believe that how we care for the poor among us will be one of the defining characteristics of our Christianity. Though not perfect, the restored church offers the greatest framework for caring for the poor on the earth today.


  1. […] the last little while, my fellow BCC blogger, Melissa de Leon Mason, has posted two valuable posts sharing her thoughts about how the “culture of poverty” hypothesis can help us […]