October 27, 2010
You’ve heard of pop culture. Meet pov culture, the culture of poverty. A recent New York Times article by Patricia Cohen provides a history of the poverty culture theory, which states that persistent poverty is the result of a web of closed doors leading to bad choices, leading to closed doors, leading to more bad choices, etc.
The most compelling example of pov culture I’ve ever read is Random Family by Adrien Nicole LeBlanc. Subtitled Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx, Random Family made it clear to me that being poor in a blighted place where every else was poor, except the drug dealers, who were rich for a while but then went to jail or got shot, was like living in a dysfunctional web. The world of poverty is a culture, in the exact same way that Ancient Greece was a culture. Poverty has its own set of behaviors, beliefs, and expectations.
Somehow, growing up in the projects, I avoided the culture of poverty. I think it was because:
- I was sent to a private school, which separated me from the other kids in my neighborhood (and their attitudes about life) for eight hours every day.
- I was repeatedly informed by my mother that we were not “on welfare.” We lived on “Social Security disability” because Daddy was “chronically disabled.” This also made me feel separate from the unfortunate connotations that were attached to the word “welfare” in the 1960s.
- My much-older siblings, who had already flown the coop before the coop became the projects, were college graduates. At age five, I knew that a thing called college existed and that my older sister had gone there on something called a full scholarship. Escape from the projects was always a possibility for me.
- The projects in the 1960s were about teens drinking beer at night down at the end of development; the powerful force of the drug culture did not yet exist.. (A note of interest: my 1960s projects were lily-white.)
I came from a culture of academic excellence and upward mobility before I entered the world of the culture of poverty. My mother was a bystander among the welfare mothers who raised their kids to aspire to a rent-subsidized apartment right next to mom’s, because they didn’t know there was anything better to achieve.
The other kids viewed me as different from them, I think, and not because I talked about being different or tried to act differently. I think it just came across in my demeanor—the fact that I wasn’t going to stay where they were. In the NYT article, Harvard sociologist Robert J. Sampson is quoted as saying that culture is “shared understandings.” My understanding of the projects was different from theirs. To me and to my family, it was way station: although my mother never left it, I knew that I would, like a traveler on a layover who knows she won’t spend the rest of her life in a grungy hotel room in Minneapolis—just one night.
That one night was about eighteen years long, but I got out. Some of our neighbors did, too, taking advantage of nursing programs, vocational education programs, the military, and college grants. One woman even married up and moved to a brand-new house in the suburbs. But some of our neighbors had three generations living in the projects.
Sampson correlates poverty and “moral cynicism.” That makes sense to me. Like the people in Random Family, my neighbors spent most of their time navigating the web of being poor and trying not to get caught by the welfare agent or the police for some minor infraction of the rules of either entity. They had no mental space, no imagination, left over for envisioning a way out.
According to Cohen’s article, poverty is about more than how little money you have. My neighbors where I live now don’t have a lot of money, but they don’t have moral cynicism either. Sampson talks about “the shared perception of a neighborhood.” Here, we all see this neighborhood as a place where the lawns should be cut and the doors should have seasonal wreaths. In the projects, those things were far down on the list of “shoulds.” Besides, the housing authority never bothered to plant grass.
How to provide open doors for the people living in the culture of poverty? Many find my ideas, which are settlement-house type ideas, naive. But here they are:
- Expose them to a culture other than pov culture.
- Bring examples of the culture of aspiration into their neighborhood.
- Talk to them as if they can get out.
- Model moral optimism.
- Don’t expect them to change overnight.
- Praise small changes.
- Don’t give up.
- Resist stereotypes: As the article reports, low-income unmarried mothers don’t necessarily think marriage is useless. They just think the men in their circle are not marriage material.
The only time many people see pov-culture people is on a street corner, waiting for a bus. Even then, you can make a difference. Instead of looking at the person and thinking of him as lazy, stupid, or in love with squalor and violence, think of him as someone from another culture. It’s as hard for him to assimilate into your world as it would be for you to feel comfortable in his. Smile and say hello. Every little dent in the armor of moral cynicism is a step toward eliminating pov culture.