Why is poverty in the US so persistent?

There must be an explanation, right? Some general attempts:

The US economy has more than tripled in size since 1960. How is it that we still have as many poor–50 million or more–as were first measured back in the early 60s when people began trying to do counts? Yes, there are more people living in America–population has nearly doubled. So the percent of people below the poverty line has decreased. Yet the way we define poverty, officially, probably grossly undercounts those struggling in poverty, because it overestimates the cost of food in a household budget, while underestimating the costs of transportation, housing, and health care. US inequality of income and wealth are higher than any other industrialized nation. How do we explain this persistence of poverty in one of the wealthiest countries in the world?

Is there a culture of poverty? And if so, why is it important to understand?

Anthropologist Oscar Lewis borrowed ideas from the field of economic development (from Nobel laureate Gunnar Myrdal), and applied them to field work he was conducting in poor Mexican and Puerto Rican communities. He identified in his research what he referred to as a culture of poverty. So we should have some working definition of culture. A very basic definition might call it a system of shared values, beliefs, expectations, symbols, artifacts (this is material culture technology, tools, things, etc.), transmitted from one generation to the next. Generation in this context doesn’t mean in societal terms–literally elder generations pass down these common threads to younger generations. Think of society as people, and of culture as the structures by which they understand each other (including language). So, the idea behind an ‘ underclass’ of poor would be that there is a group of people that thinks differently, has different beliefs about their aspirations and opportunities, and for purposes of this course, would be among the most persistently poor within the society.

Oscar Lewis observed what he saw as a culture of poverty among these communities leading to self-defeatist, self-indulgent attitudes. Concepts such as planning for the future–delaying gratification–were rare and unimportant. Attitudes and beliefs seen as self-defeating were learned by younger generations from older generations, that is, youth are socialized into this culture.

Economist Bradley Schiller says that a culture of poverty can only exist if there is a distinct difference between the way poor people and non-poor people think and behave. He lists four standards that must be met:

  1. Poor and non-poor must value that being deferred
    • For instance, putting money into savings accounts, schooling; the value may not be on education, but on local opportunities;
  2. Poor and non-poor must have similar opportunities to defer
    • poor vs wealthy schools and opportunity (will schools in poor areas get people as far as well-funded schools where the majority of students enroll in college?);
    • Poor families can’t afford to support high ed aspirations for as long (households have less money to ‘defer gratification,’ in Schiller’s terms);
    • Millionaire Eugene Lang in 1981 gave a speech to an East Harlem class, promising them college tuition if they finished high school; 90% graduated from high school; 29 enrolled in college; 9 have finished–this all seriously challenged the ‘conventional wisdom,’ and statistics for students in inner-city schools. What’s the insight here?
  3. Poor and non-poor must equally suffer from deferment (in the short term-how much does it hurt the non poor?)
    • Middle/upper class schools are more pleasant places to be, and often more conducive to learning;
  4. The likelihood of actually attaining gratification at the end must be similar for both groups;
    • Middle class education is more likely to lead to college entrance, further education and higher expected incomes;
    • In other words, what’s the point of delaying if there’s no gratification at the end??

It’s safe to say, non-poor may value education more than poor, BUT-it is just as likely the result of different perceived opportunities that can result from education-they have better schools, more opportunities than those from poor school districts. They value higher education more because they know they have a good chance of receiving one some day.

More generally, if poor have less opportunities to begin with, and less money to realize them, then the likelihood of actually reaching that point of gratification is low-they may be self-indulgent, in other words, as Oscar Lewis concluded in his study. Or maybe they’re just poor.

William Julius Wilson’s underclass theory

According to sociologist William Julius Wilson, people living in areas of concentrated poverty do behave differently:

  • They share a unique set of values that could be considered a culture of poverty.
  • But the causes are external, more difficult for them to control, and different from Lewis’ theory. They center around:
    • Reduced opportunity;
    • Exodus of middle class blacks that has further isolated inner-city poor (how? what role might schools play?);
    • Social and economic isolation as the cause; (racial discrimination in housing where the jobs are; poor transportation to get to those jobs for those that live elsewhere);
    • Definition of the underclass: ‘the most disadvantaged of the black urban community’; ‘those outside the mainstream of the American occupational system’;

Wilson cites structural changes leading to development of underclass:

  • Industrial re-structuring-less low-skill, higher wage jobs in the economy; leads to a mismatch of skills;

  • Migration of jobs to suburban areas-underclass lacks the transportation necessary to compete for these jobs (and in many cases, the skill sets-strike two);

  • Reduction in number of ‘marriageable’ (gainfully employed) black men (higher out of wedlock rates); more single parent households (studies suggest that marriage as an institution is still alive, where marriageable men can be found . . . ); welfare dependency is NOT caused by AFDC (as Charles Murray sez);

  • Selective outmigration of better-off middle class blacks left inner-city population further isolated socially and economically (who would put in factory where skilled workers don’t exist?); increasing concentration of poverty;

  • What happens to property values when an ‘exodus’ occurs? They’re likely to plummet. This is good for deals on housing, but it’s not good for assessed value on property, and schools have traditionally largely been funded by property taxes, which stay in the district. So why are inner city schools chronically underfunded and their teachers often the least qualified and the most overburdened?
  • ‘Neighborhood effects’

    • those left suffered from greater econ. and social stresses (family structure, income);

    • isolation from ‘upwardly mobile’ role models, good schools, neighborhood change agents;

    • shared understandings of aspirations (surviving in an inner city culture may take a different skill set than white middle class suburbanites);

What to do?

Wilson did not advocate race-based policies, because he felt the issue was poverty, not race, and they would benefit the most advantaged groups in minority classes. Instead he pushed for policies leading to full employment; economic development; job training programs; educational improvements. What sort of welfare philosophies do these reflect?

Various studies have produced varied numbers, with respect to the size of the underclass and its distinct characteristics;

  • 41 million (counting everyone living in census tracts with poverty rates above 20%);
  • 4 million in 1980 (70% higher than 1970)
  • 800,000 (persistent poor exhibiting ‘deviant behavior’)
  • (Be wary of statistics)

It is difficult to argue for the existence of an underclass if it cannot be reliably enumerated. Wilson’s theory has been applied differently, and trying to quantify the concept has proven difficult in practice. Does this make his ideas unimportant? Hopefully you conclude no–Wilson makes important points. Blacks were excluded from opportunities to leave decaying inner cities, creating a spiral of downward mobility (less income, lower property values, inferior schools, lower quality of life, etc.), and these inequalities were reinforced over time as others able to leave accumulated economic advantages, cementing their upwardly mobile paths. As Wilson has said, you should not be able to predict how a baby in a hospital nursery will turn out (socioeconomically, that is) by the color of his/her skin (but you can, with some degree of certainty).

Racial inferiority and Charles Murray

The bell curve thesis: Sociologist Charles Murray contends that smarter people do better in our society; whites are smarter than blacks and Hispanics; there is a correlation between intelligence and economic status; there are genetic differences between the races. We are becoming a more meritocratic society. But intelligence is in large part genetically inherited, though unequally among different races/ethnic groups, said Murray and his co-author, psychologist Richard Hernstein.

Interview with Charles Murray

Here is a quote from Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, Slaughterhouse Five (a Nazi sympathizer/former American describing the mentality of American soldiers, for the benefit of Prisoner of War Camp Commandants):

America is the wealthiest nation on Earth, but its people are mainly poor, and poor Americans are urged to hate themselves. To quote the American humorist Kin Hubbard, ‘it ain’t no disgrace to be poor, but it might as well be.’ It is in fact a crime for an American to be poor, even though America is a nation of poor. Every other nation has folk traditions of men who were poor but extremely wise and virtuous, and therefore more estimable than anyone with power and gold. No such tales are told by American poor. They mock themselves and glorify their betters. The meanest eating or drinking establishment, owned by a man who is himself poor, is very likely to have a sign on its wall asking this cruel question: ‘If you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich??’ There will also be an American flag no larger than a child’s hand–glued to a lollipop stick and flying from the cash register.

Americans, like human beings everywhere, believe many things that are obviously untrue. Their most destructive untruth is that it is very easy for any American to make money. They will not acknowledge how in fact hard money is to come by, and, therefore, those who have no money blame and blame and blame themselves. This inward blame has been a treasure for the rich and powerful, who have had to to less for their poor, publicly and privately, than any other ruling class since, say, Napoleonic times (pp 128-29, Dell edition).

The punch line here–if you’re so smart, how come you ain’t rich?? The authors are comparing socioeconomic status and intelligence. What is intelligence? Psychologists use IQ tests as a proxy; they measure performance abilities, on a standardized test that compares same-aged cohorts:

  • memory
  • perception
  • verbal skills
  • other kinds of information that may be culturally biased (i.e., only certain social groups might be expected to know that a cup is supposed to go with a saucer)

No one disputes the importance of intelligence. Few would dispute that there aren’t inherited components. But the authors go further, looking for racial differences that seem to emerge from a statistical analysis of IQ test scores. The key question for Murray: is intelligence genetic, or conditioned? And if it’s genetic, what happens if the poorest in the population have the highest fertility rates? The bell curve thesis is one attempt to explain the disproportionate wealth and socioeconomic status enjoyed by whites vis a vis non-whites. Smarter people are more successful, basically, and whites on average are ‘smarter’ (score higher on IQ tests). Murray suggests there are correlations between biology (race or ethnicity, here, since he also pulls in Hispanics) and socioeconomic status (SES), and between intelligence (as measured by IQ) and SES. The statistics can’t account for some ‘counterfactuals,’ though:

Some contradictory evidence:

  • Black and white children from similar backgrounds have similar IQs;
  • Black children adopted by white parents score higher on IQ tests;
  • IQ gap between blacks and whites increases over time when unequal socioeconomic situations are held constant (inequality in schools, e.g.);
  • IQ scores for all groups have risen over last 50 years or so (are we all becoming more intelligent?);
  • Black children moving from rural to urban areas improve IQ scores;
  • Research shows that quality education can improve IQ scores of any group, even those classified as developmentally delayed or disabled;
  • Improving prenatal diets of mothers increases their offsprings’ IQ scores (relationship between prenatal care and child IQ–Hernstein and Murray’s book claimed that poor childrearing was a result of lower IQ);
  • These data cast doubt on the thesis, and on the validity of IQ as a measure of intelligence.

The points:

  • IQ may be important, it may help people in the marketplace; but it is not genetically endowed, and small differences in scores on IQ tests (e.g., 5 to 10 points) between whites and blacks cannot account for the large differences in income (up to $17,000 per year);
  • Socioeconomic status varies by region-are blacks in Western U.S. genetically superior to blacks in other regions? (income averages still well below whites-from 52 – 63% of whites’ average income)
  • What is race? How biological is it? Differences are slight. What do we do with ‘mixed race’ categories? If it’s skin color, mixing over generations and centuries has probably made it irrelevant; also, first humans all came from Africa, according to archeological evidence. What does that suggest?

Murray has been one of the gurus for conservatives since the Reagan era (he wrote another book entitled ‘Losing Ground’); he’s still popular in conservative circles, and his ideas still wield influence in debates over welfare policy.

In fact, while Murray argues that the independent variable intelligence (measured by IQ) ’causes’ the dependent variable, SES (think of how you might measure this), some of the above evidence suggests the causal arrow going in the other direction, standing Murray’s logic on its head: SES can ’cause’ increases in IQ. If IQ changes over the course of an individual’s life, Murray has some more explaining to do, to support his argument that intelligence is inherited. Because Murray says that the social problem is people of lower intelligence having more children (higher birth rates), he tends to ‘reify’ the relationship–in other words, he begins to work backwards from SES–people who are poor have lower SES, therefore they have lower intelligence.

See Stephen Jay Gould’s response (entitled ‘Curveball,’ in The New Yorker, November 28, 1994) if you’re interested in plunging more in-depth into this debate.

Summary questions

  • Is there a distinct culture of poverty? A group that actually passes down the norms and expectations of the impoverished form one generation to the next, where there is virtually no upward mobility?
  • If there is little upward mobility, does that mean there must be a culture of poverty?
  • Why might Charles Murray and William Wilson, who have wildly different ideologies, agree about what should be done to help the poor?
  • What do you find to be more compelling arguments–those citing biology as a key determinant of socioeconomic status, those citing the existence of a distinct cultural group at the bottom of the SES ladder, or those citing structural factors?
  • We’ve essentially discussed four arguments in this class attempting to explain the persistence of poverty:
    • there is a shared, learned culture of poverty (the cultural);
    • there are microeconomic explanations to explain the persistence of poverty and the differences in behavior (for instance, higher rates of birth out of wedlock and lower rates of marriage among black women);
    • there are structural explanations however for why minority populations, especially blacks, predominate in poor inner urban areas–they were excluded from geographic mobility, which Wilson shows limited their social mobility as well.
    • there are biological explanations for poverty’s persistence (Murray’s thesis), and;
    • there are functional explanations to explain poverty’s persistence (remember Gans).


  • Bradley Schiller. 2001. The Economics of Poverty and Discrimination. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
  • Oscar Lewis. 1963. The Children of Sanchez. NY: Vintage.
  • William J Wilson. 1987. The Truly Disadvantaged. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.