Social scientists credit Oscar Lewis (1914-1970), an American anthropologist, with introducing the concept of a culture of poverty. He first suggested it in 1959, in his book, Five Families: Mexican Case Studies in the Culture of Poverty. The concept refers to the ideas and behavior developed by poor people in some capitalist societies as they adapt to urban circumstances. Lewis conceptualized the culture of poverty as having its own structure and rationale and as consisting of a way of life that is passed down from generation to generation along family lines.
The view advanced by Lewis emphasized that the culture of poverty in capitalist societies was not simply a matter of economic deprivation or the absence of something. Rather, it is also something that provides individuals with a framework for interpreting their lives and the problems they encounter in their daily existence. Furthermore, the culture of poverty transcends regional, rural-urban, and national differences to produce remarkable similarities in family structure, interpersonal relations, and value systems in different societies.
Poverty and the Culture of Poverty
Lewis recognized that there are degrees of poverty and many kinds of poor people. Not all societies have a culture of poverty. Lewis argued that a culture of poverty is more likely in societies with a certain set of conditions. First, these societies have a cash economy, wage labor, and production for profit. Second, they have a persistently high rate of unemployment and underemployment for unskilled labor. Third, there is the presence of low wages. Fourth, these societies fail to provide social, political, and economic organization either on a voluntary basis or by government imposition for the low-income population. Fifth, there exists a bilateral kinship system rather than a unilateral one. In a unilateral kinship system, one traces descent either through males or through females. In a bilateral system, one traces descent through males and females without emphasis on either line. Sixth, the values of the dominant class stress the accumulation of wealth and property, the possibility of upward mobility, and thrift, and they explain low economic status as the result of personal inadequacy or inferiority.
The way of life that develops among some of the poor under these conditions constitutes the culture of poverty. Lewis described this way of life in terms of some 70 interrelated social, economic, and psychological traits. These traits represent a reaction of the poor to their marginal position in a class-stratified, highly individuated, capitalistic society. They represent an effort by the poor to cope with feelings of hopelessness and despair that develop from the recognition of the improbability of achieving success in the larger society. The number of traits and the relationship between them could vary from society to society.
Lewis theorized that the culture of poverty is not only a present adaptation to a set of objective conditions of the larger society. Rather, once it comes into existence, it tends to perpetuate itself from generation to generation because of its effect on children. For example, Lewis argued that by the time slum children are age 6 or 7, they have usually absorbed the basic values and attitudes of this culture of poverty and are not psychologically geared to take full advantage of increased opportunities that occur in their lifetime.
Traits of the Culture of Poverty
Lewis derived the essential features or traits of the way of life he termed the culture of poverty from an extensive collection of life histories and psychological tests with families. For example, in his classic work, La Vida (1966), he described the culture of poverty in terms of poor families in Puerto Rico and New York. From these studies, he suggested that social scientists could identify and study the traits that formed the culture of poverty from a variety of points of view: (a) the relationship between the culture of poverty and the larger society, (b) the nature of the slum community, (c) the nature of the family, and (d) the attitudes, values, and the character structure of the individual.
The Culture of Poverty and the Larger Society
Lewis argued that one of the crucial characteristics of the poor in a culture of poverty is their lack of effective participation and integration in the major institutions of the larger society. This characteristic results from a variety of factors, including lack of economic resources; segregation and discrimination; fear, suspicion, or apathy; and the development of local solutions for problems faced by the poor. While the poor “participate” in some of the institutions of the larger society as inmates in prison, as recipients of welfare, or as soldiers in the armed services, participation in such institutions perpetuates the poverty and sense of hopelessness.
The low wages and chronic unemployment and underemployment of the poor lead to lack of property ownership and an absence of savings. These conditions reduce the likelihood of effective participation in the larger economic system. In addition, a constant shortage of cash and inability to obtain credit results in borrowing at high rates of interest, use of secondhand clothing, and furniture and pawning of personal goods.
Lewis also reported that people with a culture of poverty have a low level of literacy and education, are not active members of political parties, and make very little use of community resources such as banks, hospitals, museums, or art galleries. Moreover, they have a critical attitude toward some of the basic institutions of the dominant classes. For example, they may dislike the police, hold a mistrust of the government and those in high positions, and display a cynicism that extends even to the church.
While people with a culture of poverty are aware of middle-class values, Lewis argued that they largely do not live by these values. For example, the poor typically do not marry, although they consider marriage an important ideal. Lewis thought that this was largely a consequence of their economic condition. Men with no steady jobs or other sources of income want to avoid the expense and legal difficulties of marriage. Women believe that consensual unions are also better for them. They believe that marriage ties them down to men who are immature, abusive, and unreliable, and, in addition, by not marrying, they have stronger ties to their children and exclusive rights to a house or any other property they own.
The Nature of the Slum Community
Lewis referred to the place where the poor resided as “slum communities.” Poor housing conditions, crowding, and a minimum of social organization beyond the level of the family characterizes slum communities. While one can find occasional voluntary associations or neighborhood gangs present in these communities, it is the low level of organization that gives the culture of poverty its marginal quality when contrasted with the complex, specialized, and organized larger society.
However, even in slum communities, one may find a sense of community or esprit de corps. The development of this sense of community depends on several factors, such as the size of the slum community, incidence of home ownership, low rents, stability of residence, ethnicity, kin-ship ties, and the slum’s location in terms of the larger city. For example, Lewis’s research indicated that when there are barriers that separate slums from the surrounding area, when rents are low and stability of residence is great, when the population constitutes a distinct ethnic or racial group, and when there are strong kinship ties, then a strong sense of community can develop. However, even when these conditions are absent, a sense of territoriality develops that demarcates the slum neighborhoods from the rest of the city.
The Nature of the Family
Lewis’s studies indicated that people with a culture of poverty tend to form common-law marriages or cohabiting arrangements. Abandonment of families by fathers is common, and consequently, there is a high incidence of female-centered families and strong ties with maternal relatives. Crowded living arrangements foster a lack of privacy, and scarcity of resources creates competition for limited goods. Sibling rivalry is common, as is rivalry for maternal affection.
Children in these families begin adult activities earlier in their life cycles compared with children from middle-class families. For example, they are more likely to have early initiation into sex and are less likely to complete high school, thus entering the job market sooner than their middle-class counterparts.
Attitudes, Values, and Character Structure of the Individual
Individuals living in a culture of poverty share a set of traits that differentiates them from the rest of society. These traits are behavioral or psychological; the family perpetuates these traits as it passes them down from generation to generation through its psychological impact on children.
Lewis argued that the major individual characteristics are a strong feeling of marginality, helplessness, dependence, and inferiority. People with a culture of poverty also display a sense of resignation and fatalism, present-time orientation, lack of impulse control, weak ego structure, sexual confusion, and the inability to defer gratification. They also are provincial, locally oriented, and have very little sense of history. Typically, they are unable to see the similarities between their problems and those like them in other parts of the world.
Critique of the Culture of Poverty
The term culture of poverty became well-known in the social sciences and in the political arena as well. During the 1960s, for example, Michael Harrington utilized the phrase in The Other America to emphasize how the economy and social structure limited the opportunities of the poor and produced a culture of poverty that the poor did not choose. However, criticisms of the concept also emerged. Two criticisms are especially important.
First, the media and politicians frequently used the concept in a manner different from Lewis’s initial conceptualization. The connection between the political economy and the culture of poverty was frequently absent in their descriptions of the poor. The behavioral, psychological characteristics of poor individuals were emphasized, as well as the problems created by the family structures of the poor. The larger society often blamed the poor for their circumstances because analysis of the poor presented only the culture of poverty. The ties to the economic and structural dimensions of society theorized by Lewis were frequently forgotten. Scholars and activists attacked this “blaming the victim” for being in poverty and continued to conduct research and present policy proposals that link the behavioral outcomes of the culture of poverty to social structural factors.
Second, Lewis presented a view of urban poverty that argued that the urban poor develop their own adaptation that is fundamentally different from the culture of the rest of society. However, an alternative point of view emphasizes that the urban poor share many values of the larger society around them. This view emphasizes that the “subculture” of poverty is part of the larger culture of the dominant society. While one may find in the poor the traits described by Lewis, one also finds that the poor may share values of the dominant society. For example, research reports individuals among the poor who possess a strong work ethic passed on through extended-family networks, only to confront the structural reality of limited job opportunities in the urban ghetto.
Poverty and Culture
The culture of poverty remains an important scientific idea. It refers to one way of life shared by poor people in given historical and social contexts. The concept enables us to see that many of the problems we think of as distinctively belonging to one society also exist in other societies. The concept also enables us to see that poverty can exist without the culture of poverty. Finally, Lewis argued that because the traits associated with the culture of poverty are passed on from generation to generation through the family, elimination of poverty per se may not be enough to eliminate the culture of poverty, which is a whole way of life.
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