Originally published in The Nation
‘Culture of Poverty’?
New York City
In “Rediscovering Poverty” [April 2], Barbara Ehrenreich quotes out of context a passage from The Other America by my father, Michael Harrington, and charges that in order to comfort the middle-class reader, he presented the poor as different from and inferior to mainstream society.
Ehrenreich cites the passage “To be impoverished is to be an internal alien, to grow up in a culture that is radically different from the one that dominates the society.” The section from which this quote is taken begins with my father agreeing with F. Scott Fitzgerald that the rich are different from the rest of us. He is arguing that economic circumstances shape every aspect of the lives of every member of every social class and that this is particularly true of the poor because their circumstances are so brutal. He then criticizes the middle class for having too limited a vision to see this. Rather than comforting the middle class, The Other America repeatedly criticizes it for applying its values to circumstances to which they do not apply.
Ehrenreich argues that the idea that the poor are different and inferior stems from my father’s use of the concept of the “culture of poverty,” which was later used by conservative opponents of the welfare state to mean “bad attitudes and faulty lifestyles.” Though Maurice Isserman rightly criticizes my father for using the term ambiguously, if one reads the book, it is clear that my father did not see the “culture of poverty” as “bad attitudes and faulty lifestyles” but that such attitudes and lifestyles resulted from the “culture of poverty.” By the “culture of poverty,” he meant an encompassing web of circumstances and not a pattern of behavior.
Barbara Ehrenreich’s commentary is a timely reminder about the extent to which poverty in America remains an unrelenting problem. She wisely refers to Michael Harrington’s incisive The Other America, which helped to catapult poverty into the national spotlight fifty years ago with the launching of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. She offers an excellent historical analysis of why millions of Americans are still trapped below the poverty line.
One hopes her words will spark a new dialogue in the 2012 presidential debates about the importance of focusing on this dark side of America. She has performed a public service by putting into perspective the works of so many academics, urban experts and knowledgeable journalists who have written about poverty and concludes, “Poverty is not, after all, a cultural aberration or a character flaw. Poverty is a shortage of money.”
Barbara Ehrenreich’s books should be required reading for those concerned about the down-and-out in America. But she is somewhat unfair to Michael Harrington and Oscar Lewis. Lewis, the first to use the term “culture of poverty,” thought this applied to no more than 20 percent of America’s poor. He specifically said that the culture of some of the poor was an indictment not of the poor but of the social system that produces that way of life. Harrington, who wrote the most important book on poverty in this country, did not blame the poor for their plight. The culture of poverty has some validity for a subset of the poor. But their unfortunate behavior is the result, not the cause, of their overall deprived condition. Ehrenreich is basically right about Banfield and Murray, and she is certainly right that poverty is basically a shortage of money.
C. EMORY BURTON
Mount Juliet, Tenn.
Barbara Ehernreich’s excellent piece points to conservative literature that would have us believe that people remain poor because they adhere to a “culture of poverty.” She neglects, however, the literature on the other side, for example, Elliot Liebow’s Tally’s Corner and my books, Do the Poor Want to Work and Causes and Cures of Welfare. They show that poor people have the same work and family values, the same motivations, as other Americans. The poor tend to lose faith in their efforts, however, as they fail in the educational system and the workforce. More than a transfer of money to the poor is needed: an increase in opportunities for education, training and meaningful work.
Poverty is not just a number, the number of dollars you are short. Poverty is the silent destructive dissolution of your senses and soul in pounding drudgery, racing in mad dash for trivial survival others take for granted because it has been granted them.
Thank you all for your thoughtful responses to my essay. I am somewhat dismayed, though, by Harrington’s and Burton’s apparent assumption that the poor or a subset of them do in fact exhibit some forms of “unfortunate behavior” that can be attributed to a “culture of poverty.” If there is a “culture of poverty” among the long-term or multigenerational poor, it has always been, in my experience, characterized by a great deal of generosity. As my father used to say: “If you ever need money, go to a poor man, because they’re the only ones who will help you.” The “culture of wealth,” if we could call it that, provides an instructive contrast.