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Theories of Poverty


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Theories of Poverty: The Culture of Poverty


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The concept of a culture of poverty was introduced by American anthropologist, Oscar Lewis, as a result of studying the urban poor in Mexico and Puerto Rico. The culture of poverty constitutes a "design for living" that is passed on from generation to the next. Individuals feel marginalized, helpless and inferior, and adopt an attitude of living for the present. They are fatalistic. Families are characterized by high divorce rates, with mothers and children abandoned; they become matrifocal families headed by women. People adopting this culture of poverty do not participate in community life or join political parties; they make little use of banks, hospitals and the like. According to Lewis the culture of poverty perpetuates poverty: It "tends to perpetuate itself from generation to generation because of its effect on children. By the time slum children are aged six or seven, they have usually absorbed the basic values and attitudes of their subcutlure and are not psychologically geared to take full advantage of changing conditions or increased opportunities which may occur in their lifetime. However, Lewis regards the culture of poverty as applicable to Third World countries, or countries in the early stages of industrialization, and claims that it is not prevalent in advanced capitalist societies. But sociologists such as American Michael Harrington (The Other America) do argue that the culture of poverty can apply to advanced industrial societies. American anthropologist, Walter Miller, also argues in this way, claiming that the American lower class has its own set of focal concerns that emphasize masculinity, living for the present, and luck rather than effort as the basis of success. He regards this class subculture as self-perpetuating. He also claims that it is an adaptation to low-skill occupations. For example, people with this attitude have an increased ability to tolerate boring work and to find gratification outside work. Some critics of the concept of a culture of poverty claim that their own studies do not provide evidence of it. For example, Kenneth Little's study of West African urban communities shows that the poor do participate in many voluntary associations. Similarly, William Mangin's study of Peruvian barrideas, people living in shanty towns, shows a high level of community and political involvement and a great deal of "self help". J. Schwartz also finds in his study of slum areas of Venezuela little evidence of apathy and resignation. Charles and Betty Lou Valentine studied low-income black Americans and did not find evidence of a poverty of culture; or rather they concluded, "Apathetic resignation does exist, but it is by no means the dominant theme of the community." Madge and Brown (Despite the welfare state) claim that "there is nothing to indicate that the deprivations of the poor, racial minorities or delinquents, to cite but three examples, are due to constraints imposed by culture." Another line of criticism of the concept of a culture of poverty is to explain the culture as a reaction to situational constraints. Lewis and Miller argue that the attitudes expressed by the culture of poverty are a reaction to low income and a lack of opportunity, so that if these causes would be removed, so would the culture of poverty. Hylan Lewis, an American sociologist, writes: "it is probably more fruitful to think of lower class families reacting in various ways to the facts of their position and to relative isolation rather than the imperatives of a lower class culture." Sociologists arguing this situationalist explanation claim that the poor in fact share the same values as the rest of society, but their behaviour is a response to their perception of hopelessness in realizing these ideals. Elliot Liebow's Tally's Corner, is a major contribution to this approach. He studied the life and culture of black "streetcorner men". He argues that the habits of members of this group, such as blowing money on a weekend of drinking, are reactions to their knowledge of their situation: "He is aware of the future, and the hopelessness of it all." Since he has a dead-end job and insufficient income, the streetcorner man is "obliged to expend all his resources on maintaining himself from moment to moment." These men want to have a conventional family life, but their incomes are too low to support it. "To stay married is to live with your failure, to be confronted with it day in and day out. It is to live in a world whose standards of manliness are forever beyond one's reach." In reaction to this hopelessness, the men develop a "theory of manly flaws". Rather than blame the breakdown of their marriage on their lack of income and situation, they prefer to attribute it to their "success" as men - their need for sexual variety and adventure, for example. The Swedish anthropologist, Ulf Hannerz, adapts Liebow's work. He argues in Soulside that whilst the theory of manly flaws is initially a reaction to a situation, it also becomes a self-perpetuating subculture. That is, "this model of masculinity could constitute a barrier to change." Thus, even if the situational forces were removed, there could be a cultural lag, making the poor resistant to changes in culture.
Contents of
Theories of Poverty

1 Theories of Poverty: Structuralism or not
2 Theories of Poverty: Individualistic theories
3 Theories of Poverty: The Culture of Poverty
4 Theories of Poverty: The Underclass, Charles Murray - the underclass in Britain
5 Theories of Poverty: The Underclass, Frank Field - Losing Out
6 Poverty and the Welfare State, Conflict Theories of Poverty
7 Theories of Poverty: Poverty and Power
8 Theories of Poverty: Poverty and stratification
9 Theories of Poverty: Marxism and poverty
10 Theories of Poverty: Poverty and Capitalism

Related articles: (1) Attitudes to Work, (2) Theories of Poverty