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The Culture of Poverty

  • Bernard Boxill (a1)


A society is culturally plural when it contains a variety of cultural groups. A common view is that just societies are likely to be culturally plural. This view assumes that human beings have rights to remain in the cultures in which they were born, or even to adopt whatever culture they choose. It is also widely believed that cultural pluralism tends to have good consequences. For example, many people suppose that the variety of cultures in a culturally plural society adds savor and interest to the lives of its inhabitants. This view evidently assumes that culture is a consumer good. Another view that cultural pluralism tends to have good consequences rests on the premise that each culture has claims to moral knowledge.



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1 I first came across this idea in Du Bois, W. E. B., “The Conservation of Races,” in The Seventh Son: The Thought and Writing of W. E. B. Du Bois, vol. 1, ed. Lester, Julius (New York: Vintage Books, 1971), pp. 176–87. Apparently the idea has a long history. See the discussion in Berlin, Isaiah, The Crooked Timber of Humanity (New York: Vintage Books, 1992), pp. 812.

2 Ibid., p. 12.

3 Lewis, Oscar, Five Families: Mexican Case Studies in the Culture of Poverty (New York: Basic Books, 1959).

4 See Wilson, William Julius, The Truly Disadvantaged (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987).

5 See Jencks, Christopher, Rethinking Social Policy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992), ch. 4; Mead, Lawrence M., The New Politics of Poverty (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1992), ch. 7; Sowell, Thomas, Ethnic America (New York: Basic Books, 1981), ch. 8; Loury, Glenn C., “The Moral Quandary of the Black Community,” The Public Interest, vol. 79 (Spring 1985), pp. 1126; and Lemann, Nicholas, “The Origins of the Underclass,” The Atlantic, part 1, 06 1986, pp. 3155, part 2, July 1986, pp. 54–68.

6 For the right, see, for example, Mead, , The New Politics of Poverty, or Kaus, Mickey, “The Work Ethic State,” The New Republic, 07 1986.

7 Locke, John, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975), Book 4, ch. 20, section 2, p. 707. See also his comment that “where the hand is used to the plough and the spade, the head is seldom elevated to sublime notions…,” in Locke, , The Reasonableness of Christianity (Washington, DC: Regency Gateway, 1965), p. 193

8 Davis, Allison, Social Class Influence upon Learning (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1952), pp. 1011.

9 Miller, Walter B., “Focal Concerns of Lower-Class Culture,” in Ferman, Louis A. et al. , Poverty in America (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1970), pp. 396, 405.

10 Harrington, Michael, The Other America (New York: MacMillan Press, 1962).

11 Moynihan, Daniel P., The Negro Family: The Case for National Action (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Labor, 1965); reprinted in The Moynihan Report and the Politics of Controversy, ed. Rainwater, Lee and Yancy, William L. (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1967).

12 Rainwater, and Yancy, , eds., Moynihan Report, p. 43.

14 Ibid., p. 76.

15 Ibid., p. 93.

16 Frazier, E. Franklin, The Negro Family in the United States (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1939), The Black Bourgeoisie (New York: Collier Books, 1962), and The Negro in the United States (Toronto: The Macmillan Company, 1957).

17 Frazier, , Black Bourgeoisie, p. 10.

18 Moynihan, Daniel P., “The President and the Negro: The Moment Lost,” Commentary, vol. 43 (1967), p. 35.

19 Lewis, Oscar, La Vida (New York: Vintage Books, 1968), p. li.

20 Ibid., p. xliii.

22 Ibid., p. xlviii.

23 Ibid., pp. xlviii, xlix.

24 Ibid., p. li.

25 Ibid., p. xliv.

27 Ibid., p. xliii.

28 Ibid., pp. xlv, xlvi.

29 Ibid., p. xlvii.

30 Ibid., p. xlviii.

31 Ibid., p. xlv.

32 Ibid., p. xlvii.

33 Ibid., p. clviii.

34 Ibid., p. xlv.

35 Ibid., p. li.

36 Ibid., p. lii.

37 Ibid., p.xlv.

38 Ibid., p. lii. To be at all reasonable, I expect that Lewis means “social work” rather than “psychiatric treatment.”

40 Ibid., p. xlix.

41 Ibid., p. lii.

42 Ibid., p. xliii.

43 Ibid., p. lii.

44 Ibid., p. li.

45 Ibid., p. lii.

46 Gans, Herbert, The Urban Villagers (New York: The Free Press, 1982), p. 284.

47 Gutman, Herbert, “Labor History and the ‘Sartre Question’,” in Gutman, Herbert, Power and Culture (New York: The New Press, 1987), p. 326.

48 Ellison, Ralph, “An American Dilemma: A Review,” in Ellison, Ralph, Shadow and Act (London: Seeker and Warburg, 1967), pp. 303–17.

49 Ibid., p. 316.

50 Ibid., pp. 315, 316.

51 Ibid., p. 316; emphasis in original.

52 Hannerz, Ulf, Soulside (New York: Columbia University Press, 1969), p. 183.

53 Lewis, , La Vida, p. xlvi.

55 Hannerz, , Soulside, p. 185.

57 See for example, Gans, Herbert, “Culture and Class in the Study of Poverty,” in On Understanding Poverty, ed. Moynihan, Daniel P. (New York: Basic Books, 1968), p. 208.

59 Lewis, , La Vida, p. xliv. This suggests that Lewis's culture of poverty is different from the “slum” or “lower-class” concept of Davis and Miller, ; supra nn. 8 and 9.

60 Rainwater, Lee, “The Lower-Class Culture and Poverty-War Strategy,” in On Understanding Poverty, p. 242.

61 Cans, , The Urban Villagers, pp. 284, 285.

62 It may be said that they have rejected the mainstream institution of working or trying to find work. But this suggests a more deliberate response to the dearth of employment opportunities than need be the case.

63 Elster, Jon, Sour Grapes (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983), p. 110.

64 Stack, Carol, All Our Kin: Strategies for Survival in a Black Community (New York: Harper and Row, 1974).

65 Hayek, F. A., “Kinds of Order in Society,” The New Individualist Review, vol. 3 (1964), p. 5. See also “Notes on the Evolution of Systems of Rules of Conduct,” and “The Results of Human Action but not of Human Design,” both in Hayek, F. A., Studies in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967).

66 Hayek, , “Kinds of Order in Society,” p. 4.

67 Hayek, , “Notes on the Evolution of Systems of Rules of Conduct,” p. 66.

68 Ibid., p. 67.

69 Hayek, F. A., Law, Legislation, and Liberty, vol. 1, Rules and Order (London: Routledge and Kcgan Paul, 1973), pp. 45, 46.

70 Hayek, , “Kinds of Order in Society,” p. 8.

71 Hayek, F. A., Law, Legislation, and Liberty, vol. 3, The Political Order of a Free People (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979), p. 166.

72 Ibid., p. 154.

73 Hayek, F. A., The Constitution of Liberty (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960), p. 59.

74 Ibid., p. 161.

75 Hayek, , Law, Legislation, and Liberty, vol. 3, p. 155.

76 Ibid., p. 204.

77 Ibid., pp. 204, 205.

78 See Plato, , Republic, trans. Grube, G. M. A., rev. Reeve, C. D. C. (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1992), Book IX, 592B.

79 Ibid., 501A.

80 Hayek says that his idea that we can “tinker” with tradition is the same as Popper's idea of piecemeal social engineering (Law, Legislation, and Liberty, vol. 3, p. 204n. 50). This seems unlikely, although this is not the place to discuss the point at length. According to Popper, the piecemeal engineer will “adopt the method of searching for, and fighting against, the greatest and most urgent evils of society, rather than searching for, and fighting for, its greatest ultimate good” (Popper, Karl, The Open Society and Its Enemies [New York: Harper and Row, 1965], vol. 1, p. 158). This does not sound like “tinkering” with tradition. See ibid., p. 285n. 4, for Popper's cautious discussion of the similarity of his views to Hayek's views on this point.

81 See, for example, ch. 7, “The Legislator,” in Book II of Rousseau, Jean Jacques, The Social Contract. In an earlier version of this essay, I had associated Rousseau's views with Plato's. I now believe that this was a serious error. Although Rousseau was, of course, strongly influenced by Plato, he did not share Plato's dismissive attitude toward the culture a people happens to have. He made it clear that the legislator must respect and draw on that culture. See, for example, The Social Contract, Book II, ch. 9.

82 Rousseau, Jean Jacques, On the Social Contract with Geneva Manuscript and Political Economy, ed. Masters, Roger D., trans. Masters, Judith R. (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1978), p. 69.

83 Stack, , All Our Kin (supra n. 64), p. 113.

84 The most famous argument for this claim is in Murray, Charles, Losing Ground (New York: Basic Books, 1984), p. 157.

85 Gill, Richard T., “For the Sake of the Children,” The Public Interest, no. 108 (Summer 1992), p. 81. Apparently this is somewhat controversial, at least with respect to the emotional and social development of children. See, for example, Jencks, , Rethinking Social Policy (supra n. 5), p. 130.

86 See, for example, Jencks, , Rethinking Social Policy, pp. 130, 131.

87 Ibid., p. 135.

88 Ibid., p. 134. For further examples of this phenomenon, see West, Cornel, Race Matters (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993), p. 56.

89 See, for example, Keil, Charles, Urban Blues (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968), and the discussion in Valentine, Charles, Culture and Poverty (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968), pp. 8487 and 123–25.

90 Ellison, Ralph, “No Apologies,” Harper's Magazine, 07 1967, pp. 820.

91 Ellison, Ralph, “The World and the Jug,” in his Shadow and Act (supra n. 48), p. 119.

92 Ibid., p. 120.

93 Lewis, , La Vida (supra n. 19), p. xlviii.

94 Elster, , Sour Grapes (supra n. 63), pp. 115, 145.

95 See the variety of definitions in Kroeber, A. L. and Kluckholm, Clyde, Culture (New York: Vintage Books, 1952).

96 Rodman, Hyman, “The Lower-Class Value Stretch,” Social Forces, 12 1963, p. 209.

98 Festinger, Leon, A Theory of Dissonance (Evanston: Row, Peterson and Co., 1956), pp. 37.

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