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October 18, 2010

A return to the "culture of poverty," with nary a mention of the rural variety

A headline in today's NYT proclaims, "'Culture of Poverty,' Once an Academic Slur, Makes a Comeback." Journalist Patricia Cohen writes of a new (or renewed) academic turn to discussions of poverty in relation to culture, and she recalls a time when such discussions became politically incorrect.

The reticence was a legacy of the ugly battles that erupted after Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then an assistant labor secretary in the Johnson administration, introduced the idea of a “culture of poverty” to the public in a startling 1965 report. Although Moynihan didn’t coin the phrase (that distinction belongs to the anthropologist Oscar Lewis), his description of the urban black family as caught in an inescapable “tangle of pathology” of unmarried mothers and welfare dependency was seen as attributing self-perpetuating moral deficiencies to black people, as if blaming them for their own misfortune.

Cohen then goes on to report recent events (e.g., the 2010 meeting of the American Sociological Association and a special issue of The Annals, the journal of the American Academy of Political and Social Science) which suggest an academic turn back to thinking about poverty in relation to culture.

Cohen quotes Robert Sampson, a Harvard sociologist who explains that culture in this context means "shared understandings." He continues:

“I study inequality, and the dominant focus is on structures of poverty” ... But he added that the reason a neighborhood turns into a “poverty trap” is also related to a common perception of the way people in a community act and think. When people see graffiti and garbage, do they find it acceptable or see serious disorder? Do they respect the legal system or have a high level of “moral cynicism,” believing that “laws were made to be broken”?

I find it interesting (albeit not terribly surprising) that Cohen's story focuses entirely on urban poverty. The photos and textual illustrations--like that of Sampson--are all drawn from urban contexts. Cohen does not use the words "rural" and "nonmetropolitan" even once.  She uses the phrase "persistent poverty" several times, yet among counties that the federal government designates as "persistent poverty" (meaning 20 percent or more of their populations were living in poverty over the last 30 years, as measured by the 1970, 1980, 1990, and 2000 decennial censuses), 340 of 386 such counties are nonmetro (with populations under 100,000 and the single largest urban cluster with fewer than 50,000).  Surely these, too, are places where poverty and culture are intertwined.

Dean Joliffe of USDA Economic Research Service wrote in a 2004 issue of the agency's Amber Waves publication:

Persistent poverty is also more pervasive in the most rural areas, as seen in the share of counties that were persistently poor—4 percent of metro counties, 13 percent of micropolitan counties (the more urbanized nonmetro counties), and 18 percent of noncore, nonmetro counties (the most rural of nonmetro counties). (For more information on these classifications, see “Behind the Data” in Amber Waves, September 2003.)

A strong regional pattern of poverty and persistent poverty also emerges. No persistent-poverty counties are found in the Northeast, and only 60 of the nonmetro persistent-poverty counties are in the Midwest and West. The remaining 280 nonmetro persistent-poverty counties are in the South, comprising 25 percent of the total nonmetro population there. Furthermore, the nonmetro South, with over 40 percent of the U.S. nonmetro population, has a significantly higher incidence of poverty. Poverty estimates for 2002 indicate that, in the South, 17.5 percent of nonmetro residents were poor compared with 14.2 percent of all nonmetro residents. Understanding differences in poverty between nonmetro and metro areas of the U.S. is important to understanding differences in well-being across these areas and can help inform the policy dialogue on poverty reduction strategies.

If sociologists and policy makers are re-thinking the role of culture in relation to poverty, they should consider how rural sub-cultures--and not only urban ones--evolve in the context of and in response to entrenched, inter-generational poverty.

Dr. Jennifer Sherman's, Those Who Work, Those Who Don't: Poverty, Morality and Family in Rural America (2009) is a book that does just that. Sherman's book is an ethnography of a small logging community in northern California in the wake of economic restructuring associated with the northern spotted owl's designation as an endangered species. While Sherman does not endorse a "culture of poverty" in the sense of suggesting that poverty persists because poor people are lazy (quite the contrary--see pp. 185-86), she does describe a rural culture that is shaped by entrenched economic distress across a community. One aspect of the relationship between poverty and culture in some rural contexts is the turn to morality and the focus on family values as a way of differentiating among people in the context of a largely homogeneous community, where few other bases for distinction exist. We need more work like Sherman's--work that attends to rural difference and observes it with compassion--to inform policymakers' responses to entrenched poverty and its relationship to place and culture.

Cross posted to Legal Ruralism and SALT Law Blog.