Twisting the Phrase “Culture of Poverty”

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Barbara Ehrenreich (Photo credit: Robin Holland)

This piece first appeared on

It’s been exactly 50 years since Americans, or at least the non-poor among them, “discovered” poverty, thanks to Michael Harrington’s engaging book The Other America. If this discovery now seems a little overstated, like Columbus’s “discovery” of America, it was because the poor, according to Harrington, were so “hidden” and “invisible” that it took a crusading left-wing journalist to ferret them out.

Harrington’s book jolted a nation that then prided itself on its classlessness and even fretted about the spirit-sapping effects of “too much affluence.” He estimated that one quarter of the population lived in poverty — inner-city blacks, Appalachian whites, farm workers and elderly Americans among them. We could no longer boast, as President Nixon had done in his “kitchen debate” with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in Moscow just three years earlier, about the splendors of American capitalism.

Camden, NJ. (Photo credit: Lauren Feeney)

At the same time that it delivered its gut punch, The Other America also offered a view of poverty that seemed designed to comfort the already comfortable. The poor were different from the rest of us, it argued, radically different, and not just in the sense that they were deprived, disadvantaged, poorly housed or poorly fed. They felt different, too, thought differently, and pursued lifestyles characterized by shortsightedness and intemperance. As Harrington wrote, “There is… a language of the poor, a psychology of the poor, a worldview of the poor. To be impoverished is to be an internal alien, to grow up in a culture that is radically different from the one that dominates the society.”Harrington did such a good job of making the poor seem “other” that when I read his book in 1963, I did not recognize my own forbears and extended family in it. All right, some of them did lead disorderly lives by middle class standards, involving drinking, brawling, and out-of-wedlock babies. But they were also hardworking and in some cases fiercely ambitious — qualities that Harrington seemed to reserve for the economically privileged.

According to him, what distinguished the poor was their unique “culture of poverty,” a concept he borrowed from anthropologist Oscar Lewis, who had derived it from his study of Mexican slum-dwellers. The culture of poverty gave The Other America a trendy academic twist, but it also gave the book a conflicted double message: “We” — the always presumptively affluent readers — needed to find some way to help the poor, but we also needed to understand that there was something wrong with them, something that could not be cured by a straightforward redistribution of wealth. Think of the earnest liberal who encounters a panhandler, is moved to pity by the man’s obvious destitution, but refrains from offering a quarter — since the hobo might, after all, spend the money on booze.

In his defense, Harrington did not mean that poverty was caused by what he called the “twisted” proclivities of the poor. But he certainly opened the floodgates to that interpretation. In 1965, Daniel Patrick Moynihan — a sometime-liberal and one of Harrington’s drinking companions at the famed White Horse Tavern in Greenwich Village — blamed inner-city poverty on what he saw as the shaky structure of the “Negro family,” clearing the way for decades of victim-blaming. A few years after The Moynihan Report, Harvard urbanologist Edward C. Banfield, who was to go on to serve as an advisor to Ronald Reagan, felt free to claim that:

“The lower-class individual lives from moment to moment… Impulse governs his behavior… He is therefore radically improvident: whatever he cannot consume immediately he considers valueless… [He] has a feeble, attenuated sense of self.”

In the “hardest cases,” Banfield opined, the poor might need to be cared for in “semi-institutions… and to accept a certain amount of surveillance and supervision from a semi-social-worker-semi-policeman.”

By the Reagan era, the “culture of poverty” had become a cornerstone of conservative ideology: Poverty was caused, not by low wages or a lack of jobs, but by bad attitudes and faulty lifestyles. The poor were dissolute, promiscuous, prone to addiction and crime, unable to “defer gratification,” or possibly even set an alarm clock. The last thing they could be trusted with was money. In fact, Charles Murray argued in his 1984 book Losing Ground, any attempt to help the poor with their material circumstances would only have the unexpected consequence of deepening their depravity.

So it was in a spirit of righteousness and even compassion that Democrats and Republicans joined together to reconfigure social programs to cure, not poverty, but the “culture of poverty.” In 1996, the Clinton administration enacted the “One Strike” rule banning anyone who committed a felony from public housing. A few months later, welfare was replaced by Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), which in its current form makes cash assistance available only to those who have jobs or are able to participate in government-imposed “workfare.”

In a further nod to “culture of poverty” theory, the original welfare reform bill appropriated $250 million over five years for “chastity training” for poor single mothers. (This bill, it should be pointed out, was signed by Bill Clinton.)

Even today, more than a decade later and four years into a severe economic downturn, as people continue to slide into poverty from the middle classes, the theory maintains its grip. If you’re needy, you must be in need of correction, the assumption goes, so TANF recipients are routinely instructed in how to improve their attitudes and applicants for a growing number of safety-net programs are subjected to drug-testing. Lawmakers in 23 states are considering testing people who apply for such programs as job training, food stamps, public housing, welfare, and home heating assistance. And on the theory that the poor are likely to harbor criminal tendencies, applicants for safety net programs are increasingly subjected to finger-printing and computerized searches for outstanding warrants.

Unemployment, with its ample opportunities for slacking off, is another obviously suspect condition, and last year 12 states considered requiring pee tests as a condition for receiving unemployment benefits. Both Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich have suggested drug testing as a condition for all government benefits, presumably including Social Security. If granny insists on handling her arthritis with marijuana, she may have to starve.

What would Michael Harrington make of the current uses of the “culture of poverty” theory he did so much to popularize? I worked with him in the 1980s, when we were co-chairs of Democratic Socialists of America, and I suspect he’d have the decency to be chagrined, if not mortified. In all the discussions and debates I had with him, he never said a disparaging word about the down-and-out or, for that matter, uttered the phrase “the culture of poverty.” Maurice Isserman, Harrington’s biographer, told me that he’d probably latched onto it in the first place only because “he didn’t want to come off in the book sounding like a stereotypical Marxist agitator stuck-in-the-thirties.”

The ruse — if you could call it that — worked. Michael Harrington wasn’t red-baited into obscurity.  In fact, his book became a bestseller and an inspiration for President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. But he had fatally botched the “discovery” of poverty. What affluent Americans found in his book, and in all the crude conservative diatribes that followed it, was not the poor, but a flattering new way to think about themselves — disciplined, law-abiding, sober, and focused. In other words, not poor.

50 years later, a new discovery of poverty is long overdue. This time, we’ll have to take account not only of stereotypical Skid Row residents and Appalachians, but of foreclosed-upon suburbanites, laid-off tech workers, and America’s ever-growing army of the “working poor.” And if we look closely enough, we’ll have to conclude that poverty is not, after all, a cultural aberration or a character flaw. Poverty is a shortage of money.

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  • bevcat5

    Wow!  People need to listen to this woman!  I have become increasingly financially challenged (might as well be politically correct, right?!) since the 1970’s – in spite of earning a BA and a 2-year degree.  I am also a sociology major and she is on to something here.  I can guarantee that all the other “poor” people I know are not at all in a different “class” or have a different value structure!   

  • Vivek Jain

    Paul Street fearlessly asks the questions that no one will dare approach. Invite him on your show, Bill!

  • Kathleen Hall

    So F’ing true.

  • Ccampana

    She is wonderful.  When she says “If you’re needy, then you must be in need of correction…” I keep thinking about “Job,” who has done nothing wrong, but no one believes him.  The idea of course is the old one: we bring all suffering on ourselves. Yet it was also Job who told his ‘friends’ (paraphrase) “You are just afraid of what you see.”

  • Rshands

    The Wall Street trader lives from moment to moment… Impulse governs his behavior… He is therefore radically improvident: whatever he cannot consume immediately he considers valueless… [He] has a feeble, attenuated sense of self.
    In the “hardest cases,” the banking community might need to be cared for in “semi-institutions… and to accept a certain amount of surveillance and supervision from a semi-social-worker-semi-policeman.”

  • Taichi-wuchi

    Some of the replies on these threads appear to be from some other other planet like dysfunctialand.
    I think it might have something to do with deviant coping.  I know people are not found of psychology terms but sometimes they are the best explanation of the problem.  How am I going to save the world if nobody understands what I am trying to explain to them?  The only thing some people can enjoy is bad things happening, especially to somebody else.

  • Ryan Budget Slashes Safety Net on 'Path to Prosperity' | Connecting the Dots, What Matters Today |

    […] view, that there is a culture of poverty, is certainly not a new idea. But it’s not clear that it will resonate with Americans in this […]

  • Gpeerless

    The legitimate establishments such as the government, banks, mortagage lenders, wall street, financial brokers and the IRS have systematically put in force wording, fees, red tape, loop holes, not to help the less educated overcome but to keep them from advancing so they remain rich.
    Programs and people, such as Bill Moyers, are bringing to light the self-interest of people, groups, and programs that work toward the status-quo rather than becoming enlightened for the advancement of all people.  “OCCUPY” will have its day.

  • Tennille Merkle

    Here’s a radical idea… what if poverty is increasing because middle class people are slipping into poverty, because THEY are the ones who don’t plan ahead, live hand to mouth, be unable to defer temptation, etc.?  As we saw with the Great Recession, most of us are really just one crisis away from financial ruin, homelessness, etc, but all this time, most of us aren’t gearing ourselves for that one crisis.  We’re too busy planning our next smart phone upgrade.

  • Jackrabitt

    I read a book in Soc 101, 20 some years ago : Blaming the Victim: can not recall the author. This should be required reading FOR Everyone! Basicly says if the person can be blamed for their situation society does not need to change. Guess what change is needed.

  • Unsanitorial

    Was the author Charles Valentine?
    I have a little brittle paperback copy.

  • Unsanitorial

    You’re right Tennile that no person living on typical wages/salary can plan for the type of financial catastrophes (usually medical, but today often financial fraud) we face in this predatory society. There are not enough hours in the day for one family to do the type of consumer and political research necessary to become completely informed. And then there is the problem of start-up or initial capital. Most people inherit very little and must start out dragging  the burden of interest (home, car, education) before they own anything. I really laugh at the fools who advise the indigent to start their own business because undercapitalized start-ups almost always fail leaving more debt. Such  advisers often operate pyramid schemes.
    So it is true that in a global economy any family with a net worth less than 12 million is actually poor because of their vulnerability. They haven’t enough wealth to defend the wealth they own. So that  is why communal or socialistic organization is necessary. Every honest insurance company is founded on a socialist (pooled risk) premise. Otherwise it wouldn’t work actuarially.  (profits in privatized insurance come from higher premiums or from claim denials) Wendell Potter can explain it.

    So now we have come to a point where the Paul Ryans and Eric Cantors of the world want to prevent even  the lucky from succeeding. And it looks like many comfortable Democrats with a net worth greater than 12 million are ready to go along.

  • Unsanitorial

    You call chichanery “legitimate”?

  • Unsanitorial

    The MSM news teaches us that bad news is fun.

  • Unsanitorial

    Better to all be poor together in solidarity than predatory and alone.

  • Don Orkoskey

    The sinister thing, in my opinion, is that we allow not just money but resources that would allow people to not need money to disappear from the places that the poor inhabit. 

    We remove public transit so the need for a car appears where there was no need before (and you need money to own and use one). 

    We remove physical land from the poor and house them in either high-rises or on land that is professionally landscaped with non-edibles plants. Coupled with the lack of grocery stores and the abundance of “convenience stores” we chide the poor for not managing their diet or their money well. 

    We allow predatory lenders at pay-day loan stores and student loan servicers to use the free market to keep many people locked in a constant state of debt. 

    Poverty is not a character flaw and while money is lacking so is the ability to forgo money. 

    Spending time with working poor folks or even those on assistance you will see many of them quick to lend a hand, a meal, or a dollar to someone without asking for interest or demanding equal labor in return or even asking why they need it. If there is a culture of poverty it’s more a culture of trust and a willingness to help each other. I don’t mean to ascribe some saintliness to all poor people but only to point out that if we want to see them as a group and point out their faults we should also see their virtues, many of which the affluent, as a group, clearly lack.

  • Don Orkoskey

    When I was a child the poor often could sew their own clothes, grow some of their own food, and offset the need for money. Now we force them to use money so each person along the chain can take some out. 

    Poverty is now a commodity. 

  • Scott

    This need to objectify all of those whom we may secretly empathize with , yet ironically find abhorrent at the same time  is sadly a human trait that likely goes back to Lucy.  Because poverty, illness and financial ruin can strike anyone, we seek to get as far away from it as possible; much like death and illness.  When it is proximate, we put a shroud over our eyes, like many good people I know in S. American megatropoleis, where the hungry line the street.  The popular myth in the country I lived in during the 80’s-90’s was that they were all secretly professional beggars who lived in palaces in the ghetto (Favela).  These 2% of the poor we see day after day in front of the Starbucks, make it so easy to caste the entire bunch into an ephemeral nothingness.  We walk by the homeless, not giving them a piece of silver, as there are too many and the thought of this social dialectic being an ever larger part of our Christian nation, is too much to bear.  They must not want a job, right? We create other tools to make the perceived differences appear as character flaws, mental illness and most importantly, a danger to us all.  When this is lined up neatly in our collective minds, reinforced by the language of dehumanization, we can take steps more bold, creating truly different species which deserve neither our concern nor empathy.  Now we are safe in our prejudice, just like Martin Niemoller said we would be.  All of this in a nation built on the idea that, once you somehow escape poverty, a trick that has become harder and harder in my lifetime, one is reborn and welcomed into the real world of Fine Americans.  Irony blasts a trumpet and the reborn learn all the tricks we can teach about how to magically forget that “all people are created equal” and that “we are, but by the grace of God”, one step away from that lonely and forgotten place that follows the poor more closely than the guard at the retail outlet.  Hence, we welcome our “uncle Thomas” (for those who do not learn the secret handshake of racial purity) and they rename themselves Clarence.

  • Jieni4

    The Working Poor in America by David Shipler was very good…
    This guy sorta scares me: