A new “culture of poverty”: recent research from sociology

An article in this past week’s New York Times explores the scholarly refashioning of America’s “culture of poverty,” a concept popularized by Daniel Patrick Moynihan in his infamous 1965 report, “The Negro Family: The Case For National Action.”  As detailed elsewhere, Moynihan noted some disturbing trends among poor black Americans: fewer sustained marriages, a related increase in births to single mothers, and then additional increases in welfare reliance among black families. “At the heart of the deterioration of the fabric of Negro society,” Moynihan wrote, “is the deterioration of the Negro family.”

A strong statement, certainly, and one that most of us would shy away from. But what is less memorable, and less certainly repeated, is the rest of Moynihan’s argument, one that is slowly gaining credence today. Black America is hurting, the then-assistant secretary of labor noted, because of centuries of slavery and discrimination, a legacy of oppression whose impact would not be easily alleviated by legal integration. The solution, Moynihan postulated, could lie in an infusion of new jobs for black men (and what would eventually become affirmative action).

Unfortunately, Moynihan’s “culture of poverty” appeared static and unchanging (and was thoroughly criticized by contemporaries for its underlying misogyny and racism). Today’s social scientists define cultural influences more broadly–mainly, how our values and beliefs, shaped in part by the communities that surround us, influence on our emotional and physical health. Here the NYT cites Robert Sampson’s interesting study of neighborhoods, wherein he and fellow researchers dropped sealed envelopes, already addressed and stamped, around various Chicago neighborhoods to see which residents/communities would take the time (and care) to mail them.

“Today,” the New York Times article notes, “social scientists are rejecting the notion of a monolithic and unchanging culture of poverty [and] attribute destructive attitudes and behavior not to inherent moral character but to sustained racism and isolation. ” (emphasis mine). To address poverty, then, will mean addressing the underlying social, economic, and political conditions that create and sustain it within diverse cultures.

For more on the link between poverty and culture, see a recent issue of Annals, available here: http://ann.sagepub.com/content/629/1/6.full.pdf+html

For an NPR interview with Patricia Cohen, author of the NYT article, click here: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=130701401&sc=tw&cc=share

And for some criticism, courtesy of Salon, click here: http://www.salon.com/news/politics/war_room/2010/10/22/culture_poverty_battistoni/index.html