The Culture of Poverty and Retention

Anecdotally, it seems to be the case in this country that missionaries have greater success among the poor. In our ward, all the adult baptisms that I can recall in recent years have involved people living in or near poverty. The charitable would say that this is because the poor are more humble and receptive to the gospel while the cynical would say the poor are more needy and receptive to the promise of welfare. The motivations the poor have for joining the church are not what I’m seeking to explore. What I want to know is why, in South Bend and in wards across the country, can we not seem to retain our poorer brothers and sisters?

Last month I posted on the Culture of Poverty, a theory that attempts to explain the culture that develops in situations of generational poverty. Please refer back to this post for the basics of Culture of Poverty theory. I’d like to go into the hidden rules of class I previously mentioned and look at how they correspond to the modern church.

In one of the wards my husband served in on his mission (in the U.S.), the missionaries were told by the exasperated bishop not to teach anyone who made less than $30,000 because they wouldn’t stick around. A commenter on the last post mentioned that his mission president issued a similar injunction. He quoted the mission president as explaining that “poor people have poor ways.”

Are poor people’s “poor ways” the reason why they don’t stick around? According to COP theory, the hidden rules of class are unspoken and sometimes unconscious cues, behaviors, and understandings within a socioeconomic class. Here is a comparison of different class-based approaches to a number of issues and values, as outlined in a standard guide used by many non-profits, Bridges Out of Poverty by Ruby K. Payne:

Poverty Middle-Class Wealth (*updated)
Money To be used To be managed To be invested
Personality For entertainment For aquisition, stability For connections
Social Emphasis Social inclusion Self-governance, self-sufficiency Emphasis on social exclusion
Time Focused on present, decisions are emotional and survival based Focused on future, investment, weighing of consequences Focused on traditions, history, decorum
Destiny Fate, can’t do much to change things Choice, can change things with good choices “Noblesse oblige”
Language Casual register, language of friends Formal register, language of business Formal register, language of networking
Family Structure Matriarchal Patriarchal Depends on who has money
Driving Force Survival Work, achievement Financial, political, social connections

For better or worse, the modern American LDS church is a middle-class institution, operating by middle class rules. Looking at the table above, one can easily imagine “church culture” in the place of “middle class culture.” The church operates by middle class rules. Our system is patriarchal and our leaders dress in middle-class clothing (business suits & ties) and use middle-class language. We’re driven by ideas of choice, self-sufficiency, planning. Our voice register is formal, soft, and steady. We store food, say “thee,” “thy,” and “thou,” and go to regular meetings which we arrive at (relatively) on time which is enough to throw off any new member, regardless of class. The culture of the church, in essence, clashes with the culture of generational poverty.

Does this culture clash explain the issue of retention of poorer members? And if so, where does the burden of change fall? It seems to fall on the investigators/converts while absolving the generally middle-class members of the church. And there are certainly moral questions that come with requiring that converts move from one class to another- who’s to say that the middle-class culture is a superior one?

While COP theory asserts that it is extremely difficult to move from one class to another because of the profound cultural differences, it is possible. The key elements to helping a person move from poverty to the middle class are: 1) long- term role models who are willing to provide guidance and support, and 2) the availability of emotional support resources.

While the culture of the church seems to clash with the culture of poverty, the institutional structure of the church may provide some of the systems necessary to bring people out of poverty. A bishop’s counsel, home and visiting teaching, the availability of enrichment activities, the feeling of belonging to a society or quorum–are these structures, at least in their ideal and often exhausting forms– ready to support members coming from poverty, and are the members?

From my experience, too many members become unkind and uncharitable when they hear that a new investigator is requesting groceries…again. If we can work to understand and appreciate where a person is coming from, perhaps we can focus more on working with them to get where they–and we–are ultimately going.

*Note: Again, let me remind readers that this theory is meant to apply to generational poverty in the United States and not to situational or global poverty.

*Update: Note #2: I just want to make it clear that COP theory is just one of many theories related to poverty. The reason I’m focusing on it is because it is one of the main frameworks used in social work in America and like anything else has many arguments for and against its use. It’s certainly problematic in many ways but I still believe its a good way to start thinking about how one class relates to another within the church.


  1. Jeremy Jensen says:

    I can’t think of a less Christ-like attitude than to withhold knowledge of the gospel from someone based on their income. The bishop and mission president mentioned here should be ashamed.

  2. thanks for great post. very thought-provoking.

  3. anothernonymous says:


    The problem is systemic in nature. The bishop & mission president likely have no qualm about anybody accepting the gospel. It’s the administrative burden that compels them to direct missionaries to seek among another subset of socio-economic prospects. If bishops didn’t have any accountability regarding activity levels and home teaching results, they would welcome anyone to receive the ordinance regardless of whether they continued their activity after baptism. With a lay ministry, they also count on the fact that they can delegate responsibilities to a “flock” that is capable of shouldering the ministering vs. becoming the ones who need to be ministered to.

  4. I’d love to see the upper classs column of the COP analysis. I also wish there was a bit more breakdown on some of the items. For example, the column on social emphasis seems to be an apples and oranges comparisson. Also, I am not sure what is here meant by matriarchal and patriarchal, and this seems to be somewhat a red herring. Finally, the column on language seems somewhat subjective, and I am also not sure what it means.

    Otherwise, I’d say that the culture of middle class in all the other categories seems superior in a typical american setting. That said, for most of my life I have been taught that there is a hierarchy of needs. If the lower needs are not met, the upper needs will have problems being met. On my mission, (which was in a third world country, and thus you may discount it as being out of your sample set) we had a saying among the lay missionaries something to the affect that “It’s hard receive the Gospel when you are starving to death.” So we attempted to render first aid first, all the while balancing this with the fact that you don’t want someone to join the church for “the dole” or something like that, because the dole will always eventually dry up. But we did the best we knew how, for 19-25 year olds.

    Anyway that may seem to be a tangent, but my point is, that this is a difficult thing to balance (when to act withing the culture of poverty, and when to act within the culture of a higher order.) Christ was the master of this because he knew every individual and what their needs were. We aren’t accorded the same capacity, it seems, for whatever reason. So how do we balance?

    Sorry, this comment is turning out longer than I thought it would. You’ve really got me thinking about this and I value that.

  5. The Holy Spirit doesn’t touch the hearts of just the middle class. As such, any human or group of humans that attempts to organize the church into a particular culture will end up undermining the work and glory, to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man, not just the middle class man.

    We have to be flexible and patient. I’m from a poor immigrant family that at some points had to rely on the church for aid. Now I’m in that “middle class” but living in a poor part of Pennsylvania. There are multitudes of reasons the poor don’t show up at church often.

  6. As an aside, for school I am currently reading a book which sort of parallels what is hear called the culture of poverty to be acting like a hostage. It’s not the best book ever, but it has definitely given me some food for thought.

  7. This is the problem with poverty-striken new members: it takes a critical mass of functioning members to take care of their needs. By poverty-striken, I mean people who have a culture of poverty, not just people with low income. In other words, you need a certain number of high-functioning people to take care of the needs of every dysfunctional person. And a lot of time, people in extreme poverty in the US are dysfunctional.

    In the Boston area wards that I have lived in, there have always been “projects”: people who needed so much help that it took a team of us to take care of them. Too many projects, and the ward stops being able to take care of itself. Those who are eager to grow and change become a high priority, because you have to triage your investment–if there are too many unmet needs to fill, you have to pick out the best investment.

    It may not be ideal, but it is just the truth.

  8. Matt W. says:

    Natasha, that is a very good point, and reminds me of in Mosiah where he talks about not giving because we have not, but thinking “If I had, I would give.” The question is then whether or not our perception of scarcity and abundance is true or false.

  9. Sheldon Miller says:

    A related phenomenon I’ve seen in units I have been in across the MidWest is that poor parents hear the gospel and accept it at great cost to their extended family relationships. In some cases these parents remain active throughout their lives. Their children, growing up poor in the church almost universally drop out between 16 and 18. They have the gospel knowledge from primary, sunday school, even seminary, but the disparity between their socioeconomic peers and their church peers is too great. They don’t have the conversion experience that has sustained their parents and they end up following their socioeconomic peers because they feel more comfortable there. This has even been true of the few who went of missions. If they came back to their home town environments they would eventually drift away.

  10. Melissa De Leon Mason says:

    Matt, when I get home I’ll pull out my notes on upper class rules and post them. The culture of wealth itself is fascinating to examine.

    As for some of the distinctions. Families and social groups in the culture of poverty are most often headed by women. Mothers are the stabilizing force and often the source of discipline and love/acceptance. Men are (and this is a generalization based on the theory) unreliable and not expected to be a stable force in a person’s life. Family decisions are made by the mother/grandmother or other female leading the group. Contrast this to a church culture where leadership is male-dominated, and you can see where a shift in mindset would be necessary.

    I’ll comment more on the language rules in a bit, I have to run at the moment.

  11. It’s so true Natasha, it does take a lot of people to help get one or two people functioning financially or emotionally. And we don’t have the human resources yet to take care of very many people.

    I also think that as humans we value/adhere to community over truth, even though we don’t like to admit it. So all kinds of people are drawn to what they feel as truth but if the community doesn’t come then it’s easy to drift away from the community despite whatever truth you once felt there.

    I’ve met people over the years that felt truth in the Church but couldn’t/didn’t want to assimilate entirely to the Western middle class white ethic that is prevalent in Mormon culture and they left. Also, sometimes we whities can’t figure out how to relate either so we don’t put them in the middle of our socialization.

  12. Great post.

  13. Matt W. says:

    Melissa, In the whole matriarchy/patriarchy example, are they saying that in these situations the mother is looked to by the children because the father is (generally) either not there, “a failure”, or a bad person?

    Can you recommend some books on this? I am totally fascinated.

  14. It occurs to me that I have actually seen churches where this works. There are evangelical churches that cater to people who are struggling, and I am often impressed at culturally how well Christianity has been translated into an acceptable and understandable idiom. I wonder whether some time considering how those churches work might help us in our quest to help those of different class from us.

  15. Natasha says:

    # 13: in re matriarchies.

    I work in the criminal justice system [which is filled with poverty-striken, dysfunctional families]. They are often matriarchies because the men just aren’t there and aren’t expected to be there. A lot of men think it’s a real sign of manhood to have a bunch of children with a bunch of women, and only show up every once in a while. And the women don’t expect anything more.

    This work has made me pretty adamant that people shouldn’t have kids without being married, because there needs to be a legal tie between the parents, so that the children can have some stability. [So Bush’s idea of promoting marriage is not that far off]. Even if there is a marriage and then divorce, that legal tie was once there and it creates rights and obligations. I know that this is a bit of a threadjack. But the church’s emphasis on family cohesion is one great way to work against poverty.

  16. MikeInWeho says:

    re: 14 Great idea, but good luck.

    In Mormon culture, even a simple proposal to not wear business attire to church elicits fierce resistance. The LDS believe all kinds of things theologically, but social conformity is rigorous. The mono-, heno-, poly-, and whatever-theist worship side by side, but the brother with an earring and no tie is suspect. Peculiar indeed!

    The thriving Evangelical churches are just the opposite. There isn’t much theological wiggle-room, but everything else (attire, worship style, etc) is up for grabs. Rick Warren preaches in flip-flops and Hawaiian shirt, and he’s arguably one of the most influential religious leaders in the country right now.

    Why couldn’t some of the new international General Authorities give their conference talk in native attire??

  17. Melissa, Thanks for this fascinating post. I’ve experienced some impatience and uncharitable thoughts myself with Church welfare families who seem simply too lazy or reluctant to make the necessary, rather simple changes to become self-sufficient. Your post(s) really help me see the situation differently, and with more charity….

  18. Melinda says:

    This is a very interesting post.

    Your post asked where the burden of change should fall – whether the poverty class should move towards the middle class, and whether the middle class should move some too. I would be interested in seeing one more attitude listed on your table to help discuss the question of which class should do the moving. How do the classes relate to people who need help? Much of the Church is geared toward helping people. Which class is more likely to help?

    I’ve heard stories of amazing generosity from the poor. Frequently, missionaries talk about feeling guilty while they eat because they know they’re eating the families’ only food. That willingness to give away everything they have is certainly Christlike.

    But while the poor are willing to give away their two mites, it’s the middle class who comes up with enough mites to do more than feed a missionary who, quite honestly, wouldn’t starve without that food. And yet the middle class (myself included) can be stingy or generous, depending on how the day is going.

    Is the tendency to give away everything something the middle class should cultivate? Or would that tendency simply drain all the steady resources and leave everyone poverty-stricken?

    Which class attitudes about helping those who need help are more Christlike, and which are more sustainable? Maybe those aren’t mutually exclusive, but I’m too middle class to see it.

  19. Sterling says:

    This post reminds of something I heard on my mission. The stake president told me the church once did a study of Navajos who were members of the church. The ones who lived off the reservation were ten times more active in the church than the ones who lived on the reservation. I also see certain similarities between the “culture of poverty” described above and traditional Navajo cultural values.

  20. Great post, Melissa. It’s not often that there’s something new under the Bloggernacle sun, but this qualifies. I’m looking forward to your “culture of wealth” notes.

  21. Melissa De Leon Mason says:

    Busy day, sorry I’ve been so long in responding to your great comments. First I’ve updated to include the hidden rules of wealth (and by wealth, I mean extreme generational wealth). I think the culture of wealth is fascinating mostly because I just don’t understand it, it seems like a caricature to me. But its also a world I can’t quite fathom.

    I also want to make clear that COP is one of many theories and like any theory has is own problems. It would be difficult to post on this so I encourage people to do more research on it and other theories that are used to address poverty. Situational theory is a main competing one and covers where I think COP falls short in that it discusses the impact of economic and social structures in perpetuating poverty.

    “Christ was the master of this because he knew every individual and what their needs were.”

    Absolutely, this is the ultimate model, isn’t it? I like that you posted that, Matt. As imperfect beings, we get so exhausted trying to address the individual’s needs that we give up and create these models in the hopes of helping as many people as possible. Perhaps a Christlike act would be to move away from frameworks of culture and towards frameworks of individuality. But again, so exhausting. Despite its broad brush, I still think theories like COP are helpful in understanding that our mindset is not everyone’s mindset.

    SMB- can you tell me more? I don’t know enough about how other churches are addressing this.

    Stirling- you mention the similarities between Navajo culture and the culture of poverty. One of the first things I thought when introduced to COP theory was “wait, that’s MY culture.” Poverty in the columns above could be replaced with “Latino culture” at least as I know it, and totally fits. BUT while the culture I grew up in fits in this framework, it wasn’t a culture of poverty. So that’s one of the problems, I think, with COP. The lines between class and race are inherently intertwined anyway, but this theory only perpuates implicit racism.

    Whew. Off to Tenebrae.

  22. Matt W. says:

    Now that you’ve added the COW, it’s interesting because while I can see that the church has culture of wealth and culture of poverty attributes in it, I can also see where some would feel there were problems.

    I’ve been thinking about this in relation to my ward, which is about 35% spanish speaking (since you mentioned latin culture) among the active and stretches from sold middle class subdivisions to some very poor apartment complexes.

    I think a major issue with the culture of poverty with the LDS religion is that going to church seems to be much more optional, and going to work much less optional on a sunday. Further, people in a culture of poverty while the want “social inclusion” don’t necassarily want callings in church or major responsibilities.

  23. Ardis Parshall says:

    Most of the comments have come from an us-the-middle-class point of view, looking condescendingly (usually kindly, but still condescendingly) at them-the-lower-class-who-eat-up-our-resources. Here’s something from the lower-class-we-don’t-need-your-charity point of view:

    My great-grandparents were southern sharecroppers who probably fit the COP criteria pretty closely: generations of economic poverty with an attitude of “this is the way it has always been and this is the way it will always be”; marginally literate; matriarchal, in the sense that mama ran the family because papa was busy in the fields; poor grammar; barely surviving from one season to the next.

    Then the missionaries came.

    The church as an organization did nothing to aid my family by providing goods and services. In fact, my extended family WAS the church in their county, visited occasionally by the missionaries, whom the poverty-stricken family cared for and fed. But the gospel provided an impetus for changing their situation. The parents suddenly discovered literacy, wanting their children to be able to read the scriptures — their daughters became schoolteachers. Papa took his place as head of the family, directing the family Sunday School exercises. They began to save their pennies for the future, until they were able to emigrate to Utah, again with an eye to the future because the children needed Mormon mates. Among their new neighbors, they worked to improve their language. Their faithfulness lasted far longer than that of some of the missionaries who taught them, as it turned out.

    So it was the gospel — not the church with its financial resources — that naturally, without coaching, raised my family from poverty to middle class. Perhaps this is a key to retaining poorer members, and to improving the attitude of middle class members who sometimes seem reluctant to welcome poorer members for fear they will have to reach deeper into their pockets.

  24. Great story Ardis, though it describes the transition from culture of poverty to middle class poverty to middle class success. Our welfare experience was similar in that we were economically destitute but remained basically middle class in our outlook (both parents had been raised in the middle class but suffered economically for complex reasons). We felt different even when we were living in a trailer park. These are complex issues.

  25. I think Ardis P. has touched upon the key – the “Gospel” is what brings real conversion and retention. As was retold in the last GC, “It’s true isn’t it? Then what else matters?” Another insight comes from Pres. Benson (paraphrasing), the world tries to take man out of poverty, the gospel takes poverty out of man. Mission Presidents and Bishops and any leader (especially family leaders / parents) should have as their greatest concern whether an individual is converted to Christ, is willing to become a disciple of Christ, to accept the discipline of Christ. If so, then I don’t think it would much matter how much money a potential convert makes. That being said, I also agree there is value in gaining and broadening our understanding of things through theories like COP.

  26. It occurs to me that 19 year old Mormon missionaries tend to interface very readily with the “Culture of Poverty.” I’m looking back on my own experience, and the missionaries in my current and past wards and….

    Yeah. Missionaries really fit-in with impoverished communities. They seem to be on the same page.

  27. Here is an interesting link about the culture of poverty I found interesting.

    The Church does naturally do some things to combat the negative issues of the culture of poverty. It emphasizes that through the atonement we always have a choice. It emphasizes education. It supports family and decries abortion and violent crime. It also calls for social inclusion without selfish aims.

    My wife and I have spent much of the evening discussing this and reading articles online. Here is a good short one. And another.

  28. Melissa De Leon Mason says:

    Thanks Ardis. You’re right, the COP certainly promotes a condescending point of view and let’s face it, probably none of us on this blog are suferring through generational poverty so we’re coming at this from a middle-class point of view. I think though, despite where we’re coming from, it’s always helpful to starting talking.

    Ultimately I think it is the gospel that will help us all, poor or middle-class, forget ourselves and be part of Christ’s church- both institutionally and spiritually. At the moment though, at least in the wards I’ve known, we’re just not there yet. And in the meantime we’re losing our new converts because in the church’s middle-class culture poorer members are not comfortable and middle-class members are too comfortable.

    I think Amri had a great point about the relationship between community and truth. It’s hard to stay in the church, despite what one knows to be true, mostly because it’s so easy to drift away. And if you don’t feel a part of the church community it’s easy to overlook the truth you’ve found there.

    Matt W., I’m glad you’ve found the topic so interesting.

  29. I know it’s condescending but we’re a middle class(at least) church and if we want to keep the poorer folks in then we have to use our resources (like Natasha pointed out) to get them to stay and we have to assimilate them to our culture. Most of the time, we expect people to change to the middle class perspective in order to stay. Sometimes we offer that help to assimilate and sometimes we don’t, but if people don’t eventually shift into that we think we’ve failed.

    I don’t know if that’s right or not. Assimilation seems so colonial but that person will probably have a more secure life. And then we have the problem of figuring out what to assimilate and what not to, because sometimes it does seem like we’re colonizing people rather than just teaching them ways to successfully stay out of poverty.

    It’s all so hard to figure out. And then what’s a regular member to do? Just try and be poor people’s friends? What kind of help and attention do we give? And is the leadership really prepared to teach people lifechanging money habits? I think we’re successful at helping people down on their luck come back around to the middle class perspective but as you said Melissa we can’t hold on to our poorer Saints.

    And do we have room for people that are going to be continually poor? There seems little evidence that the people Christ worked with became “middle class” but he also wasn’t working with people over decades in the Church.

  30. Briefly elaborating on Melissa’s helpful clarification in comment #23 that the “culture of poverty” argument is contested, it’s worth pointing out that there’s actually been very little systematic empirical research on the subject. Much of the discussion is based on anecdotal evidence and personal experience, which is a difficult basis for social generalization.

    One of the few systematic tests of the argument is in Jones and Luo, “The Culture of Poverty and African-American Culture: An Empirical Assessment,” Sociological Perspectives, Vol. 42, No. 3. (Autumn, 1999), pp. 439-458. Using survey data, Jones and Luo find that the beliefs described above about family structure, for example, apply with most consistency among nonpoor African Americans; poor African Americans and whites tend to have belief systems regarding family structure that are on average similar to the American public as a whole. Regarding attitudes toward work and money, for some attitudes there are no differences between any of these groups and middle-class American whites. For other attitudes, there are differences but the differences involve contrasts between African-Americans and whites — not particularly between poor and non-poor individuals.

    From this perspective of systematic empirical evidence, then, the “culture of poverty” argument may tell us as much about how non-poor Americans stereotype the poor as about how the poor actually think.

  31. Very very interesting. One of the issues with class in the United States is that class distinctions tend to be invisible because classlessness is part of the American middle class mythology. We need to be aware of how our class sensibility affects our perceptions. To simply say, ‘We’re a middle class institution’ — I don’t find acceptable. One of the Twelve said (sorry — can’t remember if it was Oaks or Holland) if your culture and the culture of the gospel clash, local culture needs to be left behind. The same is true with class culture. We need to take on these challenges because, as Christ said, The poor are always among us (I know, tkaen out of context, but still applicable).

  32. Matt W. says:

    One thing I am finding more and more is the culture of poverty is synonomous with the culture of economic failure. I guess that is obvious, but worth saying.

    I posted this short definitnion over at DMI:

    The theory that certain groups and individuals tend to persist in a state of poverty because they have distinct beliefs, values and ways of behaving that are incompatible with economic success. The thesis is controversial and is opposed by situational theory, which locates the genesis of poverty in economic and social structures of society rather than in the value orientations of individuals or groups.

    AS I said there(but in other words), how does one differintiate social structures from group value orientations? It seems like a false line.

    JNS- I actually read a study earlier today which I can remember nothing about except that it had empirical evidence of the culture of poverty and was fairly strongly hopeless (saying neither the republican nor democrat plan will ever work) THe author was a lady democrat who reported being surprised by her results from her multi-year study. I am losing my mind trying to find the aricle now though…

    I have found other empirical studies though.

  33. Are there churches that speak the language of the poor and churches that speak the language of the rich?

    I wonder if the church has a responsibility to be in-between the poor and rich classifications, so to speak – so that it won’t be completely out of reach of any group.

    I can’t help but wonder how the poor feel when they walk into a cathedral. I’m sometimes so awed by the level of detail that goes into stone carvings that people will never see close up – and I think to myself “geez, how much could this have all cost?!?!?” It’s beautiful but it feels extremely indulgent. I can’t help but think that the priests in some of these churches are living a bit of a high life. They basically live out their lives in stone castles, wearing finely embroidered lace-trimmed clothing. I assume they are eating pretty well too. It makes me wonder a little bit about their priorities.

  34. Matt,

    There are indeed some empirical studies, a few of which have been peer reviewed. There’s the one I cited earlier. Also:

    Naomi Carmon , “Poverty and Culture: Empirical Evidence and Implications for Public Policy,” Sociological Perspectives, Vol. 28, No. 4. (Oct., 1985), pp. 403-417.

    Mary Corcoran; Greg J. Duncan; Gerald Gurin; Patricia Gurin, “Myth and Reality: The Causes and Persistence of Poverty,” Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, Vol. 4, No. 4. (Summer, 1985), pp. 516-536.

    Lola M. Irelan; Oliver C. Moles; Robert M. O’Shea, “Ethnicity, Poverty, and Selected Attitudes: A Test of the ‘Culture of Poverty’ Hypothesis,” Social Forces, Vol. 47, No. 4. (Jun., 1969), pp. 405-413.

    Barbara E. Coward; Joe R. Feagin; J. Allen Williams, Jr., “The Culture of Poverty Debate: Some Additional Data,” Social Problems, Vol. 21, No. 5. (Jun., 1974), pp. 621-634.

    Troy Abell; Larry Lyon, “Do the Differences Make a Difference? An Empirical Evaluation of the Culture of Poverty in the United States,” American Ethnologist, Vol. 6, No. 3, Interdisciplinary Anthropology. (Aug., 1979), pp. 602-621.

    None of these studies is terribly supportive of the culture of poverty descriptions that have formed the basis for some public policy and that serve as the framework for this post. For the most part, there is limited evidence of systematic attitudinal differences between the poor and the non-poor — in one exception, the poor may be more likely to think that poverty has systemic causes, but they are also just as likely as the non-poor to believe that hard work could help them get ahead economically. In general, the evidence supports the hypothesis that people from different races and ethnicities in the US have different interpersonal attitudes and cultural perspectives — but there aren’t too many systematic differences on the attributes Melissa mentions between the poor and the non-poor within any given ethnicity.

    In fact, one of the two studies you cited also provides negative evidence for the culture of poverty hypothesis. The Davidson and Krackhardt piece supports a situational perspective, and argues that attitudinal differences have been overstated:

    It is concluded that trainee reactions to extreme changes in the program structure were closely tied to situational realities. These findings provide evidence that, in regard to the world of work, the impact of the minority individual’s personality has been over stated and misunderstood in the culture of poverty literature.

  35. Matt W. says:

    JNS, one thing I am noticing in the literature is that it casts a pretty broad net. ie- any attitude, behaviour, or belief that would be opposed to financial success would be a culture of poverty behavior, down to the point where it’s “If ye are not with me, ye are against me.”

    So violent crime and “true” altruism (no chance of reciprocity) both end up being characteristics of financial failure.

    If you take this up a level and rate ideas in terms of “utility” the border between cultures becomes much more blurred and subjective.

    It seems like it is pretty obvious that our perception of a situation is going to affect how we handle the situation, but it is also equally obvious that our situation is going to affect perception.

    Anyway, it is definitely an extremely complex issue and a complex theory. I do think it is a useful one on some levels.

  36. Matt W. says:

    Ok, just to kind of put down my thoughts on this whole COP thing in one spot.

    1. the attitudes, thoughts, behaviors mentioned in COP are based on “wordly” definitions of success and failure in any case, and not on divine absolute truth.
    2. The Church is run by God and thus has divine absolute truth as its central tenants, and thus attempts to teach absolute success.
    3. The Church needs to work on having stronger social advantages to people than worldly systems, in order to help it be as attractive to people as possible while they work towards adopting the culture of absolute success.
    4. There is a risk the church takes when adopting those from outside cultures into it’s culture of collateral damage from those outside cultures. It is however a risk the church must take as it is a central tenant of the culture of absolute success.

  37. Matt W., I think your concerns are valid. There’s actually more to worry about in COP, though. I’ve been working with some survey data on this question and will put up a post a bit later — probably not next week, because of a conference I have to attend, but soon. The ten-cent preview is that the claims the COP argument makes about how poor people think and the attitudes they hold aren’t even true. Some of the claims are true about African Americans, both rich and poor, and we should remember that about 3/4 of African Americans aren’t poor. Others simply aren’t true about anyone; for several of the traits in the table in the original post, the poor are indistinguishable from the non-poor. So even before we get to the kind of issues of reciprocal causation, murky definition, and a worldly conception of success that you’re worried about, we have an earlier problem — the evidence suggests that, for the traits central to the COP theory, the poor aren’t in fact systematically different from the non-poor.

  38. Matt W. says:

    JNS, I look forward to it. but re: the poor aren’t in fact systematically different from the non-poor.
    what do you mean by systematically? I mean the poor are obviously different from the non-poor in one sense: they are poor. Sorry fro being obtuse.

  39. Matt, right — and also in some behaviors. But in the attitudes that Melissa describes in her post above, the poor are on average the same as the non-poor.

  40. I guess the COP proponant response would be that not all poor are in the culture of poverty…

  41. Melissa De Leon Mason says:

    J. – I appreciate the counter-arguments you brought up. I think examining poverty and its relation to retention is important and that includes thinking about it from different angles. I’ll look forward to your future post.

    Essentially, I think it comes down to the fact that you and I are approaching the issue from very different points of view (which is fine). You’re a social scientist with data and statistical analysis at your disposal; my experience is experiential, gathered from personal observations as a practitioner. Obviously both approaches are valid, and will tell us different things. Similarly, the COP manuals used widely in non-profits and schools are written by practitioners who have spent considerable time among the poor who have observed first-hand what the culture is like. Their analysis could perhaps be buttressed or nuanced with statistical analysis, but in general it is written for people “in the field,” rather than people trained in advanced statistics.

    From my perspective, and from the perspective of others who have live among or worked extensively with people living in poverty in America, it is simply a fact that the generationally poor have different values and act differently than the generationally middle-class (just as the middle-class acts differently than the very rich). I’m very interested in what your analysis can bring to these discussions, and especially if you have another model that can either help explain these different cultures or explain why people almost univerally perceive the cultures as different. We should also remember that saying that cultures perform differently need not, in itself, be a value judgment, and there may be compelling reasons why we in the Church should re-evaluate our ties to middle-class culture and the pressure on converts to conform.

    Unfortunately this focus on whether statistics show the poor are different or not detracts us from thinking about how to retain the poor. I think this discussion is sorely needed in our church and looking at it through the COP lens is helpful. It has been helpful to me and from responses I’ve received, to others as well. The model resonates with those who have worked with the poor, whether through work or through church relationships. If nothing else, it helps us to move from assumption and stereotyping (“they’re so lazy, why don’t they save their money instead of spending it on junk every month then asking for groceries”) to empathy and understanding (“they aren’t used to having enough money to save because what little they get needs to be used to survive”) From here, hopefully the discussion will lead to an examination of the structures that keep people in poverty and anger that people are made victims because of it. Now this last thing isn’t covered in COP and that is one of its flaws. But I think COP is a good tool to move us towards there, much more helpful than not talking about it or denying that it even exists.

  42. Peter LLC says:

    The model resonates with those who have worked with the poor

    Do you think confirmation bias might play a role here?

    Still, I agree that COP, or just about anything more rigorous than gut-level assumptions and stereotypes about the poor, for that matter, can be a useful way of reexamining the status quo.

  43. Melissa, I think that there are definitely some good aspects to all of this, especially if it helps middle-class people think about the structural constraints that poor people face. So we definitely agree on that point.

    One general difficulty is that cultures are always slippery to define and to bound. For every culture anyone can identify, there is always immense internal diversity — often so much that it swamps the differences across the boundaries of what are specified as broader cultures. Anthropology and the other social sciences have struggled with this problem for more than a century. The broader conclusion is that it’s rarely possible to identify a large group of people as sharing a “culture.” They may share some cultural values or practices — but usually with a lot of internal diversity. Outsiders often fail to understand what the relevant and shared values are, as well. So, for example, a Samuel Huntington identifies a culture of “Islam” and fails to realize that some Islamic groups largely share his personal cultural values while others are radically different. And distinctions among cultures are equally difficult; many of the researchers on the culture of poverty hypothesis have claimed that the hypothesis is a misnomer because it’s actually characterizing some aspects of African American culture as related to poverty — when they are shared between poor and non-poor African Americans. These issues are always hard to resolve, and we have several hundred years of Western literature in which people attempt to resolve them on the basis of personal experience. The reasons why the various accounts based on personal experience about culture so often fail to match the self-descriptions of the people in question, or other more rigorous sociological and psychological measurements are not especially clear. But the task is complex and slippery enough that I think it can’t be too surprising.

  44. Matt W. says:

    (”they’re so lazy, why don’t they save their money instead of spending it on junk every month then asking for groceries”) to empathy and understanding (”they aren’t used to having enough money to save because what little they get needs to be used to survive”)

    Question: Aren’t we then just moving from one stereotype to another? And how does “junk” (cable, big tv, etc.) translate to using what little they have to survive?

  45. Matt W. says:

    Maybe instead of working on the cop and com, we should dig down more and look for habits of failure and success and work on the habit level reather than the culture one. It seems it is on that level.

  46. John Taber says:

    Melissa (#41):

    The other breadwinners among my brothers and sisters (a brother, brother-in-law, and sister) each make at least twice what I do. Does that make them (and their spouses) twice as able to raise a family as my wife and me?

    Sociologists in this country have been saying “yes” to that enough to the point that it’s an axiom of government policy. All you seem to be doing is echoing that notion.

  47. Melissa De Leon Mason says:

    Matt- Totally, and that’s an issue with COP. Obviously it’s not the perfect model and I think it would be great to move to the next step and explore different approaches to poverty.

    John Taber- wow, that’s quite a leap you took. Is your family living in generational poverty? If not, this model doesn’t apply to you. Not to mention that your question in no way related to it.

  48. endlessnegotiation says:


    I think your #43 reflects a strong left-leaning academic bias. You assert, basically, that “culture” as a concept is so slippery that for all intents and purposes it is, for any particular group, undefinable and you do this by appealing to individual diversity. That approach completely ingnores the value in examining the “average” value-set held by any particular group. The problem you identify is more a function of intellectual laziness (with respect to survey data) than it is to the concept being undefinable. In my own profession we spend vast amounts of money trying to determine the wants and needs of the average customer while at the same time recognizing that we may have to tailor solutions to individual customers. The average offering represents the starting point at which negotiation begins and therein lies the value. Knowing where to start represents a huge efficiency gain and benefits all involved in the actual/potential transaction. Culture is little different. To say there’s no culture of Islam, or Mormonism, or the United States is to perpetuate a big lie. It would be a grave mistake for me to enter a mosque and begin denouncing the prophet Mohammed if I wanted to try and build a relationship with the people present and knowing the “average” culture for Islam would permit me to avoid that mistake.

  49. OK,

    Melissa I have read your post and largely agree with the theory of COP.

    Now what? If I am a bishop and have a few families like this in my ward how can I use the theory to assist them and help me do my job?

  50. John Taber says:

    No, my family (esp. my parents) thinks they are better than everyone else because their income and education are above average. You seem to follow the same flawed logic, and the question I laid out is a reasonable extension of it.

  51. Kristine says:

    John, I just re-read the post after reading your comments, to see if there was any way in which your critique was relevant. While I would agree that the notion one is “better than everyone else” because of income or education is a pernicious one, I see no evidence that Melissa holds that idea or is promoting it here. Could you elaborate on why you think that talking about cultural differences between rich and poor somehow valorizes one side or the other?

  52. John Taber says:

    The whole basis for what Melissa is laying out is that “We (with the money and education) are better than those without it, and here’s how we ‘help’ them.” It’s the same (tired) argument behind all manner of liberal social engineering, and only perpetuates the stereotypes out there,

    I don’t consider myself inferior to half my elders’ quorum because they have law degrees and I don’t, and typically paid three times for their houses what I paid for mine. But that kind of thinking is logical (and obligatory) based on what’s been posted here. And it’s in perfect harmony with everything I’ve heard growing up. (That doesn’t make it right.)

  53. “I don’t consider myself inferior to half my elders’ quorum because they have law degrees and I don’t”

    You should, man. It’s the best degree there is.

  54. John Taber says:

    That’s right, you (and the PhD holders) know everything, and the rest of us know nothing.

  55. Kristine says:

    John, I read Melissa as saying is “we, with the money and education are failing our brothers and sisters without it. How do we do better at welcoming them into the church?”

  56. John, the beginning to true wisdom is knowing that you know nothing, so you’ve got that going, at least!

  57. John Taber says:

    But that’s my point. I have less money and education than others in my family and in my ward. I’m less of a person as far as those who have it are concerned – and not having children yet doesn’t help either. (Meanwhile, I still get squeezed by affirmative action because I’m a white male.)

    There are members of my ward who have houses big enough for my row house to fit in their front hall. That part of the ward has produced every bishop since at least 1981, and now includes the entire bishopric, the elders’ quorum president and one counselor, the ward clerk, and ward young women’s president. Most of those with major callings who don’t live right in that area don’t live too far away. What kind of message does that send to the rest of us who (comparatively speaking) are just trying to get by?

    I find the stereotypes that Melissa is laying out here to be downright repugnant. I find Steve’s condescending attitude to be typical of him, and lawyers everywhere.

  58. endlessnegotiation,

    Your thoughts are interesting. In the present context, of course, you and I should probably agree that the culture of poverty hypothesis advanced by Melissa is a descriptive failure — because on the dimensions she discusses, the generationally poor are on average about the same as the generationally middle class in survey data, controlling for race. So your remarks don’t in any way save the “culture of poverty” hypothesis.

    I’d note, furthermore, that your remarks don’t at all correspond to what I tried to say — and likewise don’t correspond with my sense of what I did say. I said that it’s tricky to figure out the appropriate boundaries for generalizations about cultures, and that people often make serious mistakes in doing so. Further, accounts based on personal experience, rather than survey data, are especially error-prone. I think all of those comments are compatible with the idea that the average in a survey response among members of a culture can be a useful thing to discuss. Among other things, simple averaging requires an a priori definition of the boundaries of the culture in question. Latent group techniques can estimate those boundaries at the same time as the averages in question — but only by making strong assumptions.

    Finally, and emphatically, I’d point out that claiming that cultures are messy and the boundaries are difficult to operationalize without error (and that idiosyncratic reliance on personal experience has the potential for built-in biases) is a long way from denying the existence of culture.

  59. Where did Matt W.’s comment go? I saw it briefly before the content vanished, and it was about the question of survey bias. I’m using the GSS, and I’ll do a post next week (after a conference) showing the numbers and the actual survey questions. Suffice it to say that the GSS is an academic survey, which means that the standards for sampling and question wording are much higher than in the typical marketing survey. There are almost certainly remaining problems — but the studies I’ve cited earlier in the thread have used a range of different surveys with different questions and so forth, and none of them has found the differences predicted by the culture of poverty hypothesis. That provides an important validity check.

    The last, and most important, point is that survey research is known to have less bias in generalizing than personal experience or convenience samples. If survey work shows little or no evidence for the culture of poverty hypothesis, we aren’t logically compelled to relinquish the hypothesis. However, we are suddenly placed in a situation in which the highest-quality available evidence contradicts the hypothesis. That should at least lead us to ask some very hard questions about why we want to retain it — especially when other ways of thinking about poverty are available that can help us develop empathy.

  60. John, relax already! How DARE you impugn the good name of lawyers!

  61. …including your own sister!

  62. I don’t completely agree with John Taber, but I see where he is coming from. Most of us, for whatever reason, tend to find a moral superiority in the life station we are in, especially when it is a result of choices we made.

    Do we have more money because we have more education and a lot of initials after our name? Then we are superior to those who don’t.

    Did we choose not to get that education, and as a result have less money (and a smaller house), but are still active, temple-recommend holders? Then we are superior to those who are more materialistic–evidenced by the late model cars and large homes.

    We are friends with a couple who is working this out in their marriage. She is working on her education so they can have the better car and better house, and he is happy living day to day, meal to meal. They’ve survived so far, he thinks, so what they’ve done is okay. From her perspective, all they have done is survive, and she’d like more security. Is one view of life morally superior to others? Not necessarily.

    I think part of the point of the post is that those who have the education and better paying jobs seem to have a higher activity rate than those who are scraping by. The question is why? Part of the answer could be that those who put the priority on the education also have the tendency to look more long term, which means a willingness to commit more to activity in the church.

    FWIW, we currently live in an apartment that is larger than the homes of many of the members in our ward. We are in the process of buying a house that will be one of the largest in the ward. Does that make me morally superior to those others? I don’t think so. If the extra mortgage we are taking on means that I skip paying tithing to make the house payment, it means I have made at least one wrong decision. And yet as I look at our future budget, tithing will continue to be the second-largest monthly expense, ahead of food, car payment, or anything else.

    What effect will the new house have on our less affluent friends? They may feel less comfortable coming to visit. They may believe we think we are better than they are, simply because we will have a larger house. I don’t know. I think part of the point of the post is that the cultural divide between us and those members in our ward who live in a differnt part of town should not also mean there is a gospel divide between us. We are all brothers and sisters, and should treat each other accordingly.

  63. JNS, that’s a fare response, I’m not sure what happened to my comment.

    I wish you’d had a chance to read the portion on “reasonableness”

    I said I think COP gets a lot of it’s umf from basic reasonable concepts like “It’s reasonable that someone who thinks they can be successful wil be more successful than someone who doesn’t think that way.”

    I really am looking forward to seeing your data in the upcoming weeks.

  64. Matt, I agree — although it’s important to remember that “reasonable” in this sense depends heavily on our stereotypes and what psychologists call “naive causal theories.”

  65. Melissa De Leon Mason says:

    John- You are imagining an argument about moral superiority where there isn’t one. Whether or not anyone is “better than” anyone else has nothing to do with the discussion of whether there is a cultural divide that affects the retention of poorer members of the church. You are misreading what I’m saying, misrepresenting my purpose, and pissing me off with your bitterness. I think Kristine summarized my purpose well in #55. I think, though, that your obvious frustration at the way you feel you’re treated in the church is a good way to imagine how poorer members feel in the church- as you put it, like less of a person.

    Bbell- I’m not sure where to proceed from here, I was hoping this post would generate suggestions. Personally, I don’t know that changing a person’s culture, if that even is where the divide lies, (I’m eager to read JNS’s ideas on this next week) is what we should be doing. If anything, I think COP is helpful giving middle-class members a way to rethink their attitudes towards members living in generational poverty. Certainly not to the point of patronizing them with “the humble poor, they don’t know any better,” but at least past the snap judgment negative attitudes that are too often the reaction of the middle-class member.

    So in that vein, my own thoughts are that it is us as comfortable members of the church who need to re-examine our attitudes and values. I would hope that from there we could take it further and get concerned about the social and institutional structures that keep our brothers and sisters in poverty, but perhaps I’m an idealist.

    But I’m still interested in hearing what people think about poverty and retention. I would love to hear other theories about why the church can’t retain poorer members or areas that need to be addressed to do so. In fact, if you have ideas, e-mail me at tangerinend[the symbol that must not be named] I’d be interested in putting them together to post in the future.

  66. endlessnegotiation says:

    JNS wrote:

    “..the GSS is an academic survey, which means that the standards for sampling and question wording are much higher than in the typical marketing survey.”

    JNS the only marketing surveys you could possibly have in mind are the ones available for free which is a good indication of their relative value. The marketing reports I get have more PhDs behind them than your typical “academic” study, cost tens of thousands of dollars, and are far more accurate than most anything you see in academia (given that that information is usually free as well). But enough with the thread-jack.

    I’ll grant that the matrix outlined above by Melissa is fraught with problems but that does not mean that there is not a cultural component to poverty. Perhaps, I’m being a bit too presumptive here but I think we can all agree that there are certain behaviors that result in poverty including a failure to save, only working just enough to meet basic needs, and acting out in anger, alcoholism, and gambling (to name a few). Those behaviors are learned and driven, in part, by the culture in which one develops. What we’re really arguing about is the relative impact of culture on driving those behaviors. Knowing your particular polical flavor it comes as little surprise that you would discount the impact of culture on economic outcomes. That’s why #43 above came as no surprise. Your rhetoric attacked first the ability of researchers to define a culture of poverty at all and then you stated that even if one was lucky or rigorous enough to do so that it would be too broad to be of any value. Every marketing professor on this planet worth his salt will tell you you’re full of bull hockey. You need to spend a little more time with your colleagues in the Jacobs Center if you want to better learn how to define culture.

  67. endlessnegotiation says:


    I agree that there is a cultural component to poverty but I’m not ready to to define that culture quite yet. I also think that the restored gospel offers an exciting and wonderful message of hope and joy to people of all social and economic levels. But the Church is not the restored gospel– it may be inspired but it’s little more than a tool for administering ordinances and fellowship. For those in the both lower and upper classes staying “in” the gospel requires significant social sacrifice because the Church is not equipped to accommodate everyone. The poor who have never learned how to save will have an even more difficult time paying tithing. Social elites will have to sacrifice some of their networking opportunities to attend church functions or attend to callings. The uneducated poor will have a difficult time relating to the average college-educated middle-classer. The wealthy will have to get used to the idea that tithing checks are cashed without the subsequent recognition usually afforded them. The Church feels it has to aim for the middle because its goal is to save the most people it can– a strategy that inevitably will leave out those on the cultural margins. The Church could take the “Rick Warren” approach and segment each congregation and offer five different flavored services each Sunday but there’s probably not enough talent in each unit to take that approach. Frankly, I think we’re stuck with what we have until the geezers in SLC decide the one-size-fits-all approach to fellowship (which is really what Church is) might not be the most effective way to win and keep members.

  68. endless, you’re distorting my words again. This isn’t Christian of you. I don’t think people have had any trouble defining a culture of poverty; they’ve defined one, sure enough, only the peer-reviewed survey research on the question has almost universally not matched the definition. In speculating about why that might be the case, I suggested that this has always been a contentious area, one where attempted definitions change all the time and even very smart people have fallen victim to overgeneralization and so forth. But I think you know that. You just want me to be a straw man for you.

    When you say, “JNS the only marketing surveys you could possibly have in mind are the ones available for free which is a good indication of their relative value. The marketing reports I get have more PhDs behind them than your typical “academic” study, cost tens of thousands of dollars, and are far more accurate than most anything you see in academia (given that that information is usually free as well). But enough with the thread-jack.”

    This isn’t true. Just not true. I’ve worked with statisticians who have done extensive work in both fields and the differences are palpable. Academic surveys achieve much higher response rates — which is why they cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, not tens of thousands. The GSS and other comparable collective efforts have involved the efforts of thousands of researchers over the decades since they were started.

  69. Matt W. says:

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. Would it be fair to say that people who live in the COP come to church primarily as recipiants, and not as volunteers? Not that there is anything wrong with that, but I think this is a fairly powerful dichotomy in the church. There are those who need help, and those who help. Sometimes, we are all in the need help category, of course…

  70. Sorry, people, you have made this much more difficult and intellectual than it needs to be. The solution is not to talk about and study the poor; the solution is to serve, help and bless them. As bluntly as I can put this, every hour spent analyzing a theoretical construct is an hour spent not helping an actual person. I don’t read of Jesus studying the poor in the temple; I read of him walking among them, touching them, talking with them, feeding them, blessing them and loving them.

    I am dealing with extremes here, but (echoing Natasha way back in #7) how less likely is a poor convert to attend church regularly if s/he doesn’t own a car and MUST rely on someone else for transportation? How less likely is someone to feel accepted if they don’t own and can’t afford to buy white shirts and ties – especially if the Bishop insists that passing the sacrament requires that type of dress? (Talk about a cultural bias!) How less likely is someone to come to church on Sunday if they are working two or three jobs to provide? How less likely are children and YM/YW to attend mid-week activities if their family’s only car is being used by a parent to work?

    Yes, there are learned, generational habits, but sometimes we middle- and upper-class members overlook the simple and practical reasons and solutions. The solutions for retention? A friend, a responsibility, nurturing in the good word of God – and support and training/skills to leave generational poverty. Not the only answer, but Perpetual Educational Fund, anyone?

  71. Steve Evans says:

    Ray, only by looking at the world around us and putting forth an effort to understand the social and market forces which cause poverty can we hope to provide any sort of long-lasting remedy. How do you think the Perpetual Education Fund ever took shape? Besides, studying poverty and its genesis and effects is not exclusionary, to my knowledge, with doing alms on a regular basis. Nonsense.

  72. I understand that, Steve. I oversimplified my response on purpose, and I intended to point that out and apologize for doing so, but forgot to add that. I didn’t realize I had forgotten until I read your response and re-read my post. I am sorry for that error, since it changed what I tried to say in a very fundamental and HUGE way.

  73. Did it again. Tough day all around.

    Just to be clear: I am a strong proponent of studying things in order to find solutions. What I meant to add in what I originally posted was that you can’t divorce the two – studying AND serving. I saw a marked divergence in the responses away from Natahsa’s point early on and the dozens that followed. Again, I apologize sincerely for my fingers not typing what my brain was saying. Lacking the wrap-up, it came across as harsh and condescending when I re-read it – and that was not my intent, at all.

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