The culture of poverty is a sociological concept and a theory that implies that poverty may not exclusively result from the lack of resources but also from the acquired value system. The concept was first introduced by American anthropologist Oscar Lewis in his book Five Families: Mexican Case Studies in the Culture of Poverty in 1959 (Johnson, 1995). While there have been many researchers who have supported Lewis’ views on poverty and its causes, a significant number of sociologists have also expressed concerns and criticism about them. Major challenges to Lewis’ theory will be discussed in this essay, and the solutions for urban poverty in U.S. cities by Wilson, Messy, and Denton will be presented.
In his book and essays about poverty, Lewis introduced views that were later supported by many conservatives. Mainly, he argued that poverty in Mexican American and Puerto Rican communities “resulted from a self-perpetuating culture that permitted passing behavior inimical to mainstream success from generation to generation” (Johnson, 1995, p. 789). Over a decade after its introduction, the culture of poverty made a significant impact on American public policy, setting the foundation and shaping the programs for antipoverty legislation.
Critics of the poverty culture theory have identified a number of flaws within it. W. J. Wilson, D. Massey, and N. Denton have argued that Lewis’ theory makes a wrong assumption about culture being a consistent fixed phenomenon. They claim, in contrast, that positive interventions aimed at alleviating the causes and effects of poverty can change the value system within the community and eliminate the attitudes entrenched among its members (Wilson, 2017). In addition, Wilson challenged the culture of poverty theory by stating that it was “structural changes in the American economy that caused the growth of long-term poverty, single-parent families, and welfare dependency” (Johnson, 1995, p. 790). In their book American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass, Massey and Denton argue that “segregation is the key factor responsible for the creation and perpetuation of communities characterized by persistent poverty” (Fulwood III, 1993, par. 5). While the culture of poverty theory acknowledges some of the factors that could cause poverty in certain communities, it still describes people’s attitudes and behaviors as the main reasons for it.
Wilson, Massey, and Denton have suggested a number of policies to address the issue of urban poverty in U.S. cities. Thus, they argued that only “non-racial solutions such as full employment, balanced economic growth, and manpower training and education” can remedy the situation, improving the lives of the urban underclass (Johnson, 1995, p. 791). While the solutions mentioned imply the involvement of the government, the poverty culture theory suggests that such involvement would cause the poor to depend on government benefits, which would only aggravate the situation. According to the supporters of the theory, this dependence reinforces the views and stereotypes that members of the underclass minorities tend to have about themselves.
It can be concluded that there are still many supporters and critics of the culture of poverty theory. While it is mainly embraced by conservative researchers, sociologists, and policy-makers, academics who have established residential segregation theories tend to challenge it. Despite its controversial nature, Lewis’ theory has played an important role in establishing the foundation for many antipoverty policies. Nowadays, there is still a continuous debate over the theory and its underlying assumptions.
Fulwood III, S. (1993). RACE : And the street where you live : American apartheid: Segregation and the making of the underclass, by Douglas S. Massey and Nancy A. Denton. Los Angeles Times. Web.
Johnson, O. (1995). Integrating the “Underclass”: Confronting America’s enduring apartheid. Stanford Law Review, 47(4), 787. Web.
Wilson, D. (2017). Subculture of poverty. International Encyclopedia of Geography: People, the Earth, Environment and Technology, 1-2. Web.