Is There a Culture of Poverty?

By: Thomas C. Greaves

Originally Published in 1971

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Culture-PovertyWhat, if anything, culture has to do with poverty is one of the great issues of contem­porary cultural anthropology. This is so because urban poverty generates increasing conflict and moral outrage in our society, because it has been intractable to solution despite the investment of enormous effort and resources, and because a number of very diligent anthropologists have been trying to get to the bottom of it. Many readers may find this paper a sort of briefing on the current ratio of knowledge and ignorance on this problem among urban anthropologists. Others may discover for the first time that there are not one, but two, major theoretical positions being tested against the data. Still others may find persuasive reasons for believing that this inquiry entails ramifications of far greater import than the academics of theory-building. That this paper offers some predictions about how it may come out is probably of much less importance. If this essay does any of these things effectively, it will have done its job.

Urban anthropology, of which this issue forms a part, is mostly a very recent under­taking. A review of credentials is in order because people can, and do, question whether cultural anthropology has any legitimate business in a city, given that its development, its theory, and its tool kit are mostly the product of tribal and village research. There are many standard sorts of researchers involved in contemporary cities, among whom sociologists, demographers, city planners, economists, and students of government are only the more prominent. What can urban cultural anthropologists say about the urban poor that these specialists cannot say with greater authority?

Cultural anthropology, wherever it is done, has a particular and quite circumscribed exper­tise. First, we have a special assortment of methods which, artfully used, can produce a more complete understanding of the customary behavior of a community than the methods of any other scientific discipline. (The claim is not a sweeping one; note the limitations imposed by the words “complete,” “customary,” and “com­munity.”) Second, cultural anthropologists have a kind of cross-cultural fluency in the features and structure of culture in societies, large and small, around the world. Finally, the discipline is pre­occupied with seeking to understand man’s only unusual fundamental attribute, culture. Thus our competence in modern cities is limited to ques­tions about the culture of urban people, what comparisons with other cultures can show, and, in general, what discoveries can be derived from a localized, intensive scrutiny of people who know each other.

Whether the culture of our urban poor is the same as that of their more affluent suburban neighbors, or different, is a question for which expertise in each of these three attributes is required. It is intrinsically an anthropological question and, if the remainder of this paper is convincing, one can conclude that here urban anthropologists have a significant contribution to make to our present struggle to coexist with our cities.

The question being posed has been phrased in a number of ways. Do poor people of our cities have a culture of their own? What about Black people? Do they have a culture of their own? Is theirs a Culture of Poverty, Black or otherwise?

The late Oscar Lewis coined the now popular phrase, “Culture of Poverty,” in the late 1950’s as a result of intensive studies of family life in Mexico, Puerto Rico and New York. His widely known books, The Children of Sanchez, Five Families, La Vida and Pedro Martinez depict in autobiographical detail the stark, bitter realities of being poor. Lewis saw families and their neighbors ensnared in a monotonous, often frustrating, virtually escape-proof lifeway:

The culture of poverty is both an adaptation and a reaction of the poor to their marginal posi­tion in a class-stratified, highly individuated, capitalistic society. It represents an effort to cope with feelings of hopelessness and despair which develop from the realization of the improbability of achieving success in terms of the values and goals of the larger society.

The culture of poverty has, its own structure and rationale, as a way of life which is passed down from generation to generation among family lines. This directs atten­tion to the fact that the culture of poverty in modern nations is not only a matter of economic deprivation, of disorganization or of the absence of something. It is also something positive and provides some rewards without which the poor could hardly carry on.

Yet the rewards are meager:

It does not provide much support or long-range satisfaction and its encouragement of mistrust tends to magnify helplessness and isola­tion. Indeed, the poverty of culture is one of the crucial aspects of the culture of poverty.

Lewis has been also careful to point out that this culture of poverty is not totally distinct from that of the more comfortable members of society —not to the degree, say, that an Eskimo’s culture differs from a Navajo’s. It is, more accurately, a sub-culture with many traits overlapping those found in surrounding society. This is not to say, however, that this is just a slightly distinct vari­ation. Lewis has found a consistent uniformity among large numbers of poor people whether in Mexico City, San Juan, or Harlem. In the United States it occurs among Spanish Americans, Negroes, American Indians, and poor white Southerners. So, although it is a i, in Lewis’ view it is one with substantial individuality.

Oscar Lewis’ idea of the culture of poverty has very widespread currency. One finds it expressed by a great many agencies that must deal with the poor. The concept has given rise to variants, such as “slum culture,” “drug cul­ture,” and the recalcitrance of Appalachia. It is self-perpetuating. Parents pass on to children a different value structure which produces a disinterest in schooling, in gainful employment and job advancement, a lack of respect for law, and an acceptance of violence, casual love affairs, fatherless families, garbage-strewn streets, dilapi­dated housing and welfare checks. It is seen by most of the rest of us as a dysfunctional variant of American culture; the sooner it is remolded in the image of the dominant culture the more rapidly America can get about the business of realizing the American Dream.

Oscar Lewis has done the fields of anthro­pology and urban studies many services. His imprint is deep and indelible. Among other things, he precipitated a great interest in close examination of the lifeways of the poor, and out of the resulting studies have arisen data and conclu­sions which contradict the thesis of a culture of poverty. It is to these that I want now to turn.

The best study so far which espouses this contrary view is the widely-known Tally’s Corner by Elliot Liebow. His year-long research among the Negro denizens of a street corner in Washington, D. C., indicated that they talked and acted quite differently from, say, affluent suburbanites, and in many ways fit the image I have outlined above. Yet Liebow consistently found the basic aspirations of these streetcorner men to be those to which most Americans subscribe: a stable family life, a steady job, prestige by achievement, the importance of education, the duties of parents toward children. However, none of Liebow’s streetcorner men had a stable family life, steady job, or much education. They behaved in marked contrast to values, rules and standards in which they really believed. Liebow’s study is a master­piece of analysis demonstrating step by step why the situation of being poor and Negro in a society where the power, opportunities and wealth are largely monopolized by others has led to the terrible frustration of being taught values and standards which are impossible to achieve. People in this situation develop an alternative set of rules and behaviors—what Liebow calls “shadow values”—which represents the next best alternative to the life style that has been denied. This secondary set is not viewed as equally satis­fying or independently constituted. Rather, the two systems are inseparable, the secondary set reflecting at every point having to cope with failure to attain the primary standards.

Tally’s Corner has come to be joined by several other studies which independently have reached similar conclusions in St. Louis among residents of a federal housing project, in Syracuse among fatherless families, and in New York City in a district of Negroes and Puerto Ricans. These data indicate that U. S. ghetto dwellers subscribe to general American values about as closely as other segments of the nation, but their behavior differs markedly because of the near absence of opportunities to realize these values in practice.

So we have two views, two ways of explaining, why people in ghettos behave differently from he people in the suburbs. Both Lewis and Liebow find the facts of ghetto behavior rather similar. Where they disagree is in whether or not the ;contrast between this behavior and that of well-off Americans is due fundamentally to a difference n culture, or to a difference in opportunity.

It is easy to get the impression that the point of the issue is really semantics, that whether one calls it culture or not is simply a problem of definition. But it is something much more basic: if one operates on the assumption that there is a culture of poverty, then the strategy for eradicating it is to intervene at the point of transmission, he child-rearing process, where the dysfunctional values are inculcated in the children. This is the fundamental assumption behind the Moynihan Report: the unstable Negro ghetto family with the sometime husband is the culprit. Intensive social work, day-care centers, and Head Start schooling all further this strategy; intervene in the upbring­ng of the children and the cycle will be broken. Liebow’s work, on the other hand, indicates that the ghetto family is doing a remarkable job in spite of meager resources, terrible hardship, and he fact that most of its progeny are doomed to failure and frustration against its own, and our, standards. The strategy recommended by the findings of Liebow and the others I have men­tioned is to open up opportunity, and specifically not to tamper with families. The problem is far more basic than semantics.

Questions of ethics and social justice also turn on whether one adopts the approach of Lewis or that of Liebow. If one assumes that the poor have a distinct sub-culture with certain “positive” features, then one ought to feel morally uncomfortable trying to eradicate their lifeways. The issue would be dissimilar only by degree from promoting the dissolution of Navajo or Eskimo cultural heritages. Hence one could con­clude that within the Lewis approach ethics and social justice argue for constraining programs of massive intervention rather than mobilizing them. The implications of Liebow’s views are quite different. Conventional notions of fair play and compassion exhort us to action, to open up opportunities to realize the goals we all seek, and to dismantle the institutional barriers to an equal share of our society’s wealth, responsibility and power. Emphatically these differing interpreta­tions involve far more than a disagreement over labels.

At this point the reader might well be won­dering who is more likely to be right, Lewis or Liebow? Providing an answer is much more diffi­cult than simply depicting the contenders and there are several reasons why. One worth under­scoring is the very fragmentary state of research. Liebow’s book covers in depth the lives of only six Negro men on one street corner in Washing­ton, D. C. Lewis’ U. S. research is mostly about a single Puerto Rican family in Spanish Harlem. We have a handful of other studies, some good and some less so, but the total is meager and widely scattered. Given that ethnically and racially the poor are not all alike, that one section of the ghetto will probably be different from another, and that these differences may be still greater from one city to another, our task is akin to draw­ing a large and vital map with knowledge about only a few of the squares. It is really guesswork, and will be so until we know a great deal more.

But there are some provocative early returns which evoke hunches about what the outcome might be. One stems from the fact that Liebow’s material is basically involved with just two aspects of human life, family composition and employment. While to Americans these are of great importance, our culture has other facets as well. Religion, art, literature, music, bonds of kinship and friendship, local level arrangements for social control and decision making, language usages, folklore and a great deal more are parts of every people’s culture. In the case of the American poor, some of these other realms of culture may be more divergent from the Middle Class than job and family standards.

A body of recent data indicates that this may be so. Roger Abrahams’ little book Deep Down in the Jungle brings together Negro folklore collected in Philadelphia that is lyrical, complex, evocative and of a very separate nature from the rather impoverished oral tradition of the main­stream Middle Class. Lee Rainwater’s detailed study of poor Negroes in St. Louis, Behind Ghetto Walls, offers parallel material. Linguist William Labov in The Study of Nonstandard English has analyzed the dialect of English used by lower-class New York Negroes and finds it rich in idiomatic expressions having strict rules of grammar and syntax, and fully as serviceable as so-called Standard English. Marjorie Goodwin, a graduate student getting her doctorate in my department, has been finding rules of sequence in conversation and games among Negro school­children thoroughly contrasting with anything from my own, very unexceptional Middle Class background. These and other aspects of what little we know of the American minority poor indicate to me that while standards of employ­ment and domestic roles may be shared with the Middle Class, there is clear contrast when we move beyond these two areas.

Particularly for American Negroes this diver­gence may be widening as effort and pride are invested in furthering Black art, music, history, religion, and local community organization, cat­alyzed by the newly popular identity term “Black.” In this connection it would be my guess that one of the most potent culture-building phrases to be uttered this century is Stokley Carmichael’s “Black is beautiful!” So although the evidence is still ridiculously sparse, there is, I think, sub­stance to claims for Black Culture. If we took the trouble to look (and here Oscar Lewis has been of only marginal help), Spanish-Americans and other constituents of the minority poor seem likely to have much cultural uniqueness as well, though it would vary by degree and may empha­size some aspects of culture more than others.

If the reader has stayed with me this far, he will have noted that the above considerations reduce the scope of the Lewis-Liebow disagree­ment, but do not resolve it. Within the sphere of employment and domestic standards, Lewis’ inter­pretation still indicates that Middle Class norms are at best a pipe dream to the minority poor, while Liebow maintains that they are not. What is the likely answer here?

In order to uncomplicate the problem, we might presume for the moment that the Rios family studied by Lewis and the several street-corner men of Tally’s Corner are somewhat “representative,” even though eventually we will find out that to some degree they are not. (Nobody is ever completely average.) If one disregards the problem of how representative they are, then one should ask if the reason Lewis and Liebow differ is because the culture of poverty exists for Puerto Ricans, but not for Negroes. My hunch, on the strength of only one study, is that this is not the heart of the problem. Ulf Hannerz, a Swedish anthropologist, has published a skillfully done study called Soulside in which he interprets the Negroes of a Washington, D. C. ghetto neighbor­hood in Lewis’ framework. This suggests that the differences between Lewis and Liebow are not to be explained by the fact that one studied Puerto Ricans and the other, Negro Americans. Rather, I suspect the conflict lies at a deeper level, ulti­mately to require new fieldwork of the most sophisticated kind.

Return for a moment to the real point of issue. Lewis and Hannerz are saying that on the whole poor people behave the way they do because it is customary. They entertain wistful desires con­cerning mainstream employment and family norms, but no one is devastated because these dreams go unfulfilled. Liebow, on the other hand, finds his streetcorner man constantly trying to measure up to standards he regards as essential, “as failing to do this, and of concealing his failure from others and from himself as best he can.” The issue to be resolved is just how dearly these largely unattainable Middle Class standards are held by the minority poor.

All I can offer here is speculation; evidence to support anything more certain simply has not yet come to light. My guess is that Liebow’s for­mulation regarding attitudes toward employment and family structure will turn out to be more right than the Lewis formulation. Here are some of the reasons for that guess.

First, Lewis’ theoretical statements have not been tied closely and systematically to his data. His books provide prodigious quantities of almost unedited narrative data and a brief theoretical formulation, with the implication that the links between the two are obvious. While a general plausibility is certainly there, I find this procedure not nearly so persuasive as the detailed, step-by-step analysis leading one from the data to the conclusions characteristic of Tally’s Corner.

Second, Hannerz’ analysis of the Washing­ton, D. C. ghetto neighborhood (in which he con­cludes that there is a separate sub-culture) makes a crucial analytic decision I think is unwarranted. To admittedly oversimplify his argument, in effect he reports that these people do indeed desire Middle Class norms, but since success by those standards is objectively out of reach for most, we should take as central those other values and aspirations which do coincide with what they do —those Liebow calls “shadow values.” It is a logical conclusion, then, that a separate sub­culture exists since the values and standards are different. Says Hannerz, it is no different than a hunting-and-gathering society wishing it had free poaching rights in a zoo; the fact that it is in the forest instead of the zoo means that we should disregard such wild hopes and designate those standards and values which back up the situation the hunters actually have to deal with as the central ones. But the analogy of the hunting society in a zoo is a false one because our urban poor are face-to-face every day with the Middle Class “zoo,” bombarded by all the media with Horatio Alger success themes, and have for role models people from among themselves who have “made it.” If the hunting society actually did live in a zoo, saw others enjoying unrestricted poach­ing rights, and saw an occasional one of their own get awarded a license, then the analogy would be accurate. But the conclusion would be different. Thus, the Hannerz study is less of a challenge to Liebow’s position than it appears.

Third, the studies by Lee Rainwater in a St. Louis federal housing slum, Louis Kriesberg’s Syracuse study of “fatherless families,” and recent work by the Valentines in a major North­eastern ghetto (see the appended reading list) have all been written since the controversy emerged, are of high research quality, and all offer far more support to Liebow’s position than to Lewis’ with regard to standards of employment and family life.

On the basis of these factors, it is my guess that in these important aspects of culture, there is more credence in the Liebow formulation than the Lewis one. For other aspects of culture there seems to be more divergence and more reason to talk about a distinctive cultural heritage. But being certain of this requires a lot more data than we presently have. Overcoming public fictions and “shadow values” to see which drummer the minority poor really hear requires uncommon skills, particularly since anthropologists do not have easy access to the urban poor. In a milieu of harsh intergroup antagonisms, exacerbated by the accelerating structural collapse of our cities, anthropologists of the dominant class, race, and dialect are received with a prudent distrust. A conclusion derived from better stuff than hunches and guesses will not be drawn tomorrow.

Cite This Article

Greaves, Thomas C.. "Is There a Culture of Poverty?." Expedition Magazine 14, no. 1 (September, 1971): -. Accessed June 19, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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