Culture and Poverty

The early 1960s saw an unprecedented mix of social science and educational policy in the U.S. If the 1950s issued mandates for civil rights for all citizens and equal education for all children, then the 1960s had to administer the political mandates into documented realities. It was a fertile time for scientific explanations of the success and failure of minorities and the policies employed, or at least invoked, in their name. In a series of books starting in 1959, anthropologist Oscar Lewis used the term “culture of poverty” not just to describe, but to explain the behavior of poor people he worked with in Mexico, Puerto Rico, and New York. For Lewis, the culture of poverty described not just the problems the poor had to deal with, but the problems they caused. By Lewis’s theory of culture, persons raised in poverty acquire attitudes and skills well tuned to the life they share with those immediately around them; continued use of such attitudes and skills makes people permanent members of the culture of poverty. Responsibility for the reproduction of their situation rests more with the poor than with the more affluent classes. The major dividing issue concerns just how much poverty must be understood as not only a debilitating environment, but one in which all members of a society play a part.

Lewis’ work became the center of great debate for both family and school policy (see, for example, Martin Deutsch’s “The Disadvantaged Child,” or D.P. Moynihan’s “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” which echoed E. F. Frazier’s earlier portrayals of poor, Black communities as disorganized and immoral). From 1965-1975, powerful critiques of culture of poverty theorizing emerged in anthropology (E. Leacock, C. Valentine), linguistics (W. Labov, R. Shuy), psychology (M. Cole, S. Scribner), literature (T. Morrison), and the very idea seemed to disappear until a recent resurgence, particularly in sociology (M. Lamont, W.J. Wilson). Our contribution is to articulate a more inclusive theory of culture by which all participants—Hamlet’s “fat king and lean beggar . . . two dishes, but to one table”—must be accounted for in the unbalanced distribution of educational degrees, wealth, and status.

–Reflections on Culture and Poverty by Ray McDermott


Additional Resources

Culture, Learning, and Poverty

A course taught by Shirin Vossoughi and Ray McDermottThis course looks closely at the history of categories, assumptions and ideas used to analyze (sometimes justify, sometimes struggle against) educational inequality in the United States from the 1950’s to the present.

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