culture of poverty

I meant to rag on this post by Cathy Young at Reason a while ago, but I forgot. There’s mostly just one small part that bugged me:

The right, meanwhile, tends to blame bloated welfare programs for keeping the poor trapped in their condition, as well as the ‘‘culture of poverty” with its deeply entrenched social problems—which, all too often, translates into blaming the poor themselves. After the catastrophe in New Orleans, several conservative websites ran an article by Ayn Rand follower Robert Tracinski, who not only decried the effects of the welfare state but also referred to New Orleans’s poor as ‘‘sheep” and ‘‘parasites.”

This is a nice pattern in writing I am learning to recognize and instantly, to use Cathy’s phrase, “recoil from”. It involves a categorical dismissal of a ridiculous idea for posterity’s sake – followed by a big fat giant “but” that completely invalidates the previous dismissal. For example, this thread on NiT where I encountered the sentence “No one deserves to be raped. But …” and knew it was okay for me to stop reading.

So, too, here we have someone doing the same thing. Cathy continues:

Most decent people, whatever their politics, will recoil from such dehumanizing rhetoric.

.. with you so far ..

BUT the ‘‘culture of poverty” argument itself cannot be so easily dismissed. Yes, some people are poor because of bad luck or catastrophic illness; but chronic, multigenerational poverty is another matter.

Augh, you blew it! Actually, Cathy, it can be dismissed, and it has been by many. No one denies that “chronic, multigenerational poverty” exists, but, newsflash, “culture of poverty” is a codeword in conservative parlance for blaming poor people and calling it a day. It takes and grossly misinterprets the work of people like Lewis (who coined the term) and Murray, some of which is questionable to begin with. William Julius Wilson’s The Truly Disadvantaged provides the best critique of these ideas that I’ve read. This bit (p 56) sums up his ideas best:

.. the argument that associates the increase of social problems in the inner city with the crystallization of underclass culture obscures some very important structural and institutional changes in the inner city that have accompanied the black middle- and working-class exodus, and leaves the erroneous impression that the sharp increase in social dislocations in the inner city can simply be explained by the ascendancy of a ghetto culture of poverty [emphases mine – chris]. The problem is much more complex.

More specifically, I believe that the exodus of middle- and working-class families from many ghetto neighborhoods removes an important “social buffer” that could deflect the full impact of the kind of prolonged and increasing joblessness that plagued inner-city neighborhoods in the 1970s and early 1980s, joblessness created by uneven economic growth and periodic recessions. This argument is based on the assumption that even if the truly disadvantaged segments of an inner-city area experience a significant increase in long-term spells of joblessness, the basic institutions in that area (churches, schools, stores, recreational facilities, etc.) would remain viable if much of the base of their support comes from the more economically stable and secure families. Moreover, the very presence of these families during such periods provides mainstream role models that help keep alive the perception that education is meaningful, that steady employment is a viable alternative to welfare, and that family stability is the norm, not the exception.

To summarize, Wilson, in this book, looks at the structural reasons why poverty might be chronic and multigenerational, rather than just dismissing it offhand as a “culture of poverty” and leaving it at that.

But anyways, back to Cathy Young’s piece:

Yes, poverty in the African-American community results largely from the terrible legacy of a racism that, for generations, denied blacks not only equal opportunity but basic civil rights.

Of course, who could deny that?!

BUT whatever its historical root causes, poverty also perpetuates itself (across racial lines) through a variety of self-defeating habits and behaviors

Augh, so close!! 0 for 2!

Cathy’s article is otherwise an innocuous enough look at the rhetoric of both the right and the left, but her token dismissal of the right’s hateful rhetoric towards poor people rings a little hollow when it’s immediately followed by excuses for it, utilizing the all-powerful conjunction of disingenuity, “but”.