Culture of poverty

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The culture of poverty is a concept in social theory that asserts that the values of people experiencing poverty play a significant role in perpetuating their impoverished condition, sustaining a cycle of poverty across generations. It attracted policy attention in the 1970s, and received academic criticism (Goode & Eames 1996; Bourgois 2001; Small, Harding & Lamont 2010), and made a comeback at the beginning of the 21st century.[1] It offers one way to explain why poverty exists despite anti-poverty programs. Critics of the early culture of poverty arguments insist that explanations of poverty must analyze how structural factors interact with and condition individual characteristics (Goode & Eames 1996; Bourgois 2001; Small, Harding & Lamont 2010). As put by Small, Harding & Lamont (2010), "since human action is both constrained and enabled by the meaning people give to their actions, these dynamics should become central to our understanding of the production and reproduction of poverty and social inequality."

Early formulations[edit]

Early proponents of the theory argued that the poor are not only lacking resources but also acquire a poverty-perpetuating value system. According to anthropologist Oscar Lewis, "The subculture [of the poor] develops mechanisms that tend to perpetuate it, especially because of what happens to the worldview, aspirations, and character of the children who grow up in it". (Lewis 1969, p. 199)

Some later scholars (Young 2004; Newman 1999; Edin & Kefalas 2005; Dohan 2003; Hayes 2003; Carter 2005; Waller 2002; Duneier 1992) contend that the poor do not have different values.

The term "subculture of poverty" (later shortened to "culture of poverty") made its first appearance in Lewis's ethnography Five Families: Mexican Case Studies in the Culture of Poverty (1959). Lewis struggled to render "the poor" as legitimate subjects whose lives were transformed by poverty. He argued that although the burdens of poverty were systemic and so imposed upon these members of society, they led to the formation of an autonomous subculture as children were socialized into behaviors and attitudes that perpetuated their inability to escape the underclass.

Lewis gave 70 characteristics (1996 [1966], 1998) that indicated the presence of the culture of poverty, which he argued was not shared among all of the lower classes.

The people in the culture of poverty have a strong feeling of marginality, of helplessness, of dependency, of not belonging. They are like aliens in their own country, convinced that the existing institutions do not serve their interests and needs. Along with this feeling of powerlessness is a widespread feeling of inferiority, of personal unworthiness. This is true of the slum dwellers of Mexico City, who do not constitute a distinct ethnic or racial group and do not suffer from racial discrimination. In the United States the culture of poverty of African Americans has the additional disadvantage of racial discrimination.

People with a culture of poverty have very little sense of history. They are a marginal people who know only their own troubles, their own local conditions, their own neighborhood, their own way of life. Usually, they have neither the knowledge, the vision nor the ideology to see the similarities between their problems and those of others like themselves elsewhere in the world. In other words, they are not class conscious, although they are very sensitive indeed to status distinctions. When the poor become class conscious or members of trade union organizations, or when they adopt an internationalist outlook on the world they are, in my view, no longer part of the culture of poverty although they may still be desperately poor.

(Lewis 1998)

Although Lewis was concerned with poverty in the developing world, the culture of poverty concept proved attractive to US public policy makers and politicians. It strongly informed documents such as the Moynihan Report (1965) as well as the War on Poverty, more generally.

The culture of poverty also emerges as a key concept in Michael Harrington's discussion of American poverty in The Other America (1962). For Harrington, the culture of poverty is a structural concept defined by social institutions of exclusion that create and perpetuate the cycle of poverty in America.

Chicago ghetto on the South Side, May 1974


Since the 1960s, critics of culture of poverty explanations for the persistence of the underclasses have attempted to show that real world data do not fit Lewis's model (Goode & Eames 1996). In 1974, anthropologist Carol Stack issued a critique of it, calling it "fatalistic" and noticing the way that believing in the idea of a culture of poverty does not describe the poor so much as it serves the interests of the rich.

She writes, citing Hylan Lewis another critic of Oscar Lewis' Culture of Poverty:

The culture of poverty, as Hylan Lewis points out, has a fundamental political nature. The ideas matter most to political and scientific groups attempting to rationalize why some Americans have failed to make it in American society. It is, Lewis (1971) argues, 'an idea that people believe, want to believe, and perhaps need to believe.' They want to believe that raising the income of the poor would not change their life styles or values, but merely funnel greater sums of money into bottomless, self-destructing pits. This fatalistic view has wide acceptance among scholars, welfare planners, and the voting public. Indeed, even at the most prestigious university, the country's theories alleging racial inferiority have become increasingly prevalent. [2]

Thus, she demonstrates the way that political interests to keep the wages of the poor low create a climate in which it is politically convenient to buy into the idea of culture of poverty (Stack 1974). In sociology and anthropology, the concept created a backlash, pushing scholars to look to structures rather than "blaming-the-victim" (Bourgois 2001).

Since the late 1990s, the culture of poverty has witnessed a resurgence in the social sciences, but most scholars now reject the notion of a monolithic and unchanging culture of poverty. Newer research typically rejects the idea that whether people are poor can be explained by their values. It is often reluctant to divide explanations into "structural" and "cultural," because of the increasingly questionable utility of this old distinction.[3]

See also[edit]



  • Bourgois, Phillipe (2001). "Culture of Poverty". International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences. Wave land Press.
  • Cohen, Patricia (18 October 2010). "Scholars Return to 'Culture of Poverty'". The New York Times.
  • Duvoux, Nicolas (6 October 2010). "The culture of poverty reconsidered". Books and Ideas. ISSN 2105-3030.
  • Goode, Judith; Eames, Edwin (1996). "An Anthropological Critique of the Culture of Poverty". In G. Gmelch; W. Zenner (eds.). Urban Life. Waveland Press.
  • Harrington, Michael (1962). The Other America: Poverty in the United States. Macmillan. ISBN 9781451688764.
  • Lewis, Oscar (1959). Five families; Mexican case studies in the culture of poverty. Basic Books.
  • Lewis, Oscar (1969). "Culture of Poverty". In Moynihan, Daniel P. (ed.). On Understanding Poverty: Perspectives from the Social Sciences. New York: Basic Books. pp. 187–220.
  • Lewis, Oscar (1996) [1966]. "The Culture of Poverty". In G. Gmelch; W. Zenner (eds.). Urban Life. Waveland Press.
  • Lewis, Oscar (1998). "The culture of poverty". Society. 35 (2): 7–9. doi:10.1007/BF02838122. PMID 5916451. S2CID 144250495.
  • Mayer, Susan E. (1997). What money can't buy: Family income and children's life chances. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0-674-58733-5. LCCN 96034429.
  • Small, Mario Luis; Harding, David J.; Lamont, Michèle (2010). "Reconsidering Culture and Poverty" (PDF). Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. 629 (1): 6–27. doi:10.1177/0002716210362077. ISSN 0002-7162. S2CID 53443130.
  • Stack, Carol B. (1974). All Our Kin: Strategies For Survival In A Black Community. Harper & Row. ISBN 978-0-06-013974-2.