Culture of poverty

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The culture of poverty is a social theory that expands on the cycle of poverty. It attracted academic and policy attention in the 1970s, survived harsh academic criticism (Goode and Eames, 1996; Bourgois, 2001; Small M.L., Harding D.J., Lamont M., 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 and Eames, 1996; Bourgois, 2001; Small M.L., Harding D.J., Lamont M., 2010). As put by Small, Harding, and 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

Early proponents of this theory argued that the poor are not simply 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” (Moynihan 1969, p. 199).

Some later scholars (Young 2004; Newman 1999; Edin and 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, therefore, 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 some seventy 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 that exists in the Negroes 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 U.S. public policy makers and politicians. It strongly informed documents such as the Moynihan Report (1965) and 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 (1982). For Harrington, the culture of poverty is a structural concept defined by social institutions of exclusion which create and perpetuate the cycle of poverty in America.


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' model (Goode and 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, "The culture of poverty, as Hylan Lewis points out, has a fundamental political nature. The ideas matters 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." [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). Salehi Nejad (2011) argues that living in conditions of prevalent poverty leads to the development of a culture or subculture adapted to those conditions, and characterized by prevalent feelings of vulnerability, dependency, marginality, and feebleness.[3] 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 '90s, the culture of poverty has witnessed a resurgence in the social sciences, although 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. Small M.L., Harding D.J., Lamont M., (2010)

See also


  1. Cohen, Patricia, ‘Culture of Poverty’ Makes a Comeback,
  2. Stack, Carol. 1974. All Our Kin. Harper & Row.
  3. Salehi Nejad, Alireza. The Third World: Country or People?. London: Titan Inc., 2011
  • Goode, Judith and Edwin Eames (1996). "An Anthropological Critique of the Culture of Poverty". In G. Gmelch and W. Zenner. Urban Life. Waveland Press.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Harrington, Michael (1962). The Other America: Poverty in the United States. Simon & Schuster.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Lewis, Oscar (1996) [1966]. "The Culture of Poverty". In G. Gmelch and W. Zenner, eds. Urban Life. Waveland Press. <templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Lewis, Oscar (1969). "Culture of Poverty". In Moynihan, Daniel P. On Understanding Poverty: Perspectives from the Social Sciences. New York: Basic Books. pp. 187–220.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
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  • Mayer, Susan E. (1997). What money can’t buy : family income and children’s life chances. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-58733-2. Retrieved 2009-11-09.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Duvoux, Nicolas, "The culture of poverty reconsidered", La vie des idées :
  • Patricia Cohen (2010-10-17). "'Culture of Poverty' Makes a Comeback". The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-10-20.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Bourgois, Phillipe (2001). "Culture of Poverty". International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences. Waveland Press.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
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