Posts Tagged ‘culture of poverty’

Harvard and Princeton Sociologists Resurrect the“Culture of Poverty” During the Worst Recession Since the 1930’s

October 22, 2010

Jacqueline S. Homan, author of Classism For Dimwits and Divine Right: The Truth is a Lie

In the October 17th, 2010 New York Times article, Culture of Poverty Makes a Comeback by Patricia Cohen, labeling the poor as “the Other”, as “less than” and as morally and socially defective by Princeton and Harvard sociologists and various other poverty pimps has made a resurgence and is now once again in vogue. The article cited former Assistant Labor Secretary Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s description of urban poverty in terms of race and a culture that was a “tangle of pathology” of unmarried mothers and welfare dependency couched as moral deficiencies to blame the poor for their own misfortune.

Moynihan’s analysis appeals to politicians who bandy the poor around like a political football, especially conservatives and moderates (Reagan Democrats), and led to the passage of the Welfare Reform Act of 1996, which placed a lifetime limit of five years, regardless of one’s ability to get a living wage job. This was more generous than the draconian measure that Clinton initially proposed: limiting welfare to two years.

Neither proposed welfare reform bills, including the one that was passed in 1996,  came with the guarantee of a right to a living wage job; or any job at all.

Clinton, like his predecessors Reagan and Bush the Elder, and both parties of Congress declared war on this nation’s poorest, most economically vulnerable and socially disadvantaged citizens: poor women and children and the disabled. These measures were largely the result of the influence wielded by purveyors of the “culture of poverty” school and all its tangential deficit theory views about the poor.

The article quoted coddled Ivy League members of America’s selfish class, as if their bovine excreta passing for “research” were some sort of infallible gospel.

Princeton sociologist Douglas S. Massey argues that Moynihan was unjustly maligned, saying, “We’ve finally reached the stage where people aren’t afraid of being politically incorrect.”

Cohen’s article mentioned that at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, attendees broached the subject of the “culture of poverty.” In Spring of 2009 in Washington DC, social scientists participated in a Congressional briefing on the “culture of poverty” linked to a special issue of The Annals, the journal of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. The introduction proclaimed, “Culture is back on the poverty research agenda.”

How convenient for the resurgence of this deficit theory view of the poor to come on the heels of the worst economic depression since the 1930’s where we now have one in seven Americans living below the federal poverty level. How convenient, indeed, that the entire discourse shifts the burden of poverty from government and the most privileged members of society onto the backs of the poor.

Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-CA) said that the “culture of poverty” views “play an important role in shaping how lawmakers choose to address poverty issues.”

This blame-the-victim claptrap is propagated by those with the most interest in preserving a system of unearned privilege. Blaming the poor for their misfortune is nothing new, but such views that shape social and economic policies never include the views, experiences, and voices of the poor at whom said policies are aimed.

Also quoted in the article was Harvard sociologist Robert J. Sampson who conducted a well-funded and large study of the poor conducted in a way to assign personal value judgments against the poor and confirm his own class bias using the “culture of poverty” school of thought. His experiment entailed dropping fake letters on the streets of a poor Chicago neighborhood to see if anyone would pick them up and return them. Sampson said he studies inequality and that the dominant focus is on structures of poverty, and suggested that the poor are amoral with no respect for the rule of law because they “believe that laws were made to be broken with impunity.”

It is beyond arrogant for those who have received the most advantages and benefits from an entire system of unearned privileges to authoritatively proclaim that it’s the undeserving, defective poor who need to be “fixed” and taught how to get with the middle class program, and then call such ideas “scholarship.”

There is nothing that remotely passes for intellectual and academic honesty in a study that was undertaken with confirmation bias reeking with the stench of classism.

Poverty pimps who advance the “culture of poverty” school despite knowing better, do so to curry favor and receive social prizes and rewards from the corporate ‘Massas’ who endow their academic department chairs, fund their research, and pay them to serve as “policy experts” in right-wing think tanks.

Capitalism is based on entitlement, and as you go up the economic ladder, attitudes of self-importance and entitlement increase. But we never talk about the culture of greed and getting ahead at all costs that is so prevalent among the middle and upper classes who think they have a “divine right” to come first.

The notion that the misery and deprivation commensurate with grueling poverty is merely the “undeserving poor” getting their “just desserts” for being morally defective is not an original idea. It is rooted in Protestant Calvinism — the Calvinist deficit theory view of the poorest and most downtrodden people is predicated on the ideologies of predestination.

The argument for the “culture of poverty” has been internalized these past 30 years by lawmakers from both sides of the aisle who say that social security is a “milk cow with 310 million tits”; that unemployment benefits (which only cover about 40% of the unemployed) makes the jobless “lazy” and encourages them to buy drugs; that the miserly inadequate food stamps allotment in post-welfare reform America makes the recipients rich and causes obesity; and that the solution for 50 million uninsured Americans, 44 million struggling in unrelenting misery below the poverty level, and for the 35 million ill-housed, are more vouchers, more “free market” capitalism, and more budget cuts for food stamps, Medicaid, and Medicare to pay for middle class unemployment benefits extensions — leaving the poorest of this nation’s jobless to starve to death given that food stamps is the sole income for six million of the most disadvantaged and unemployable jobless.

As it stands, deregulation of utility monopolies in tandem with deep cuts to the already underfunded LIHEAP program, which provides very stingy and inadequate help to only 20% of the eligible poor while 80% of the poor are turned away, has resulted in nearly ten million US households suffering without at least one life-sustaining utility. The increasing number of casualties among the poor from freezing in unheated homes and apartments or fatal residential fires caused by unsafe alternative heating methods in a desperate attempt to avoid freezing to death, evidences only some fruits of the “culture of poverty” school’s bitter harvest of classism.

The past three decades of abusive social and economic policies justified by the “culture of poverty” amount to one sordid continuum of human rights violations against the “undeserving” poor. For those who have unfairly benefited from a legacy of unearned privileges, including advanced educations at prestigious universities, to use their privileges like a cudgel to beat the poor into the ground and crush them underfoot for personal gain and accolades under the guise of “scholarship” is sociopathic.

We don’t have a “culture of poverty.” We have a culture of capitalism that promotes, perpetuates, and maintains classism — the least challenged bigotry that is responsible for the most social harm. We have a capitalistic society that touts greed and self-centered entitlement as a virtue. We have an architecture of aggression in which capitalism’s biggest losers (poor women) are set up and labeled as “the Other”; devalued and unacknowledged.

"Classism For Dimwits" by Jacqueline S. Homan

This culture of capitalism is centered on the idea that wealth and privilege is sacrosanct, that only the “fittest” deserve anything and to hell with those of us who have been socially excluded and economically marginalized in order to make way for the spoiled, overprivileged alpha dipshits of this society to grab everything they can latch their greedy grasping meat-hooks onto; without a shred of remorse for the human casualties they leave in their wake.

Since cultural norms, mores, and trends are largely defined by the higher status and more affluent classes, this “culture of poverty” was created by the privileged. The injustices and social ills framed by deficit theory thought are not caused by “just a few bad apples.” They’re caused by a cultural ethos; a sociopathic one that is reflective of the dominant class’s “values.”

It has not escaped the notice of those of us who struggle in poverty and who agitate for social justice that the government is described as “democratic” when it serves only the interests of the privileged and economically powerful elements of our society. In the words of Michael Parenti: we have a “democracy for the few.” And whom this “democracy” serves was made painfully obvious by the absence of poor people’s voices.

When poverty is couched in euphemisms that really mean race and gender, it’s a deliberate attempt to justify classism and legitimize the economic terrorism and social repression visited upon the poor of all races and genders. Being black, being a woman, or even being a single mother doesn’t make one poor — abusive social and economic policy and discrimination does.

Raising rhetorical questions associating crime and poverty in terms that label the poor as “criminals” is a deliberate promotion of prejudice. The poor are routinely denied employment opportunities because there is now a widely held view among human resources personnel and corporate employers that the poor are a bad risk for hiring because they’re likely to steal. Asking why the poor “break the law with impunity” implies that they’re not punished — an outright fraud when everyone knows that the poor overwhelmingly comprise the US prison population. It further ignores the fact that when people see those with lots of money and privilege breaking the law on a grand scale with impunity, there is a loss of respect for any law.

The “culture of poverty” claptrap also led to the assumption that poverty can be reduced to a lifestyle choice — something former House Speaker Newt Gingrich claimed from his bully pulpit during the Clinton administration as he cheered the Welfare Reform Act of 1996. The Welfare Reform Act of 1996 threw this nation’s poorest and most socially disadvantaged families and individuals under the bus; 99% whom were women and children (only 1% of AFDC recipients were able-bodied men) under the guise of “personal responsibility” — a unilateral social contract best described as a policy of Benign Neglect in which the entire burden of poverty was dumped on the poor while society and government did nothing to guarantee poor women living wage jobs with health benefits, child care help, and assistance in obtaining reliable transportation.

Former Wisconsin governor and US Department of Health & Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson provided the template for the Welfare Reform Act of 1996 is one of the “pro-life” religious conservatives who would deny poor women access to birth control and abortion while cruelly leaving poor single moms and their babies utterly destitute if society failed to provide the supports required for poor mothers to enter the workplace and guarantee them living wage jobs with health benefits.

Since the enactment of Welfare Reform, Tommy Thompson (and other political leaders who swallowed the “culture of poverty” pablum spoon-fed by Ivy League “poverty experts”) defeated measures to track the outcomes of all the poor women and children thrown off of welfare after exhausting their five year lifetime limit, regardless if they were able to get a job.

Are the promoters of the “culture of poverty” school proud of these “scholarly” achievements that encouraged nationwide mother-mugging and framing poverty as a “choice?”

There is a fundamental mathematical theorem that has been proven over 200 years ago, named after mathematician and clergyman Thomas Bayes, who studied how to compute a distribution for the probability parameter of a binomial distribution. Bayes’ Theorem treats conditional probability and the outcome based on the relationship of the conditional and marginal probabilities of events. One of the most simple and basic mathematical statements of Bayes’ Theorem is:

P(A|B) = [P(B|A)*P(A)/P(B)]

{Read as: “The probability of A given B is equal to the probability of B given A times the probability of A, all divided by the probability of B.”}

where :

P(A) is the marginal probability of event A. It is “prior” in the sense that it takes nothing into account of anything known about event B.

P(A|B) is the conditional probability of A, given B.

P(B|A) is the conditional probability of B, given A (also called the “likelihood”)

P(B) is the prior or marginal probability of event B and acts as a normalizing constant.

Theorems analogous to this one cover situations entailing more than two events. Applying Bayes’ Theorem to the existing axioms and theorems of calculus, we can describe the marginal probability distribution of a variable to a data set where the likelihood function is the probability of “y” successes in “x” trials for a binomial distribution, in the set of all real variables. (The most common application being in the study of voting patterns and employer drug testing).

More famous applications of Bayes’ Theorem are the Monty Hall Paradox and the Principle of Restricted Choice, which proves with a mathematical certainty that making the “right choices” 100% of the time is impossible. It is therefore intellectually dishonest and morally bankrupt to frame the discussion of poverty in terms that blame the poor for their poverty by reducing it to “lifestyle choices” and the “culture of poverty.”

It is no secret that middle and upper class people also frequently screw up and make the same “poor choices” as poor people. But the difference is that the outcome is totally different; such that it does not punish them with lifelong destitution and misery. It is also known that the middle and upper classes have a lot more options available to them while options for the poor are really a Hobson’s choice (either way, you’re screwed). Any well-funded and large “study” of poverty that makes personal value judgments about the poor based on whether or not anyone in a poor neighborhood picked up fake letters deliberately dropped on the street is shambolic. So here’s a thought for future “poverty studies”:

Being poor is being fetishized, demonized, and infantilized by teams of “poverty experts” from the middle and upper classes.

Being poor is hoping you and your disabled spouse make it through winter alive without freezing to death, or dying in a house fire from a space heater mishap after your gas got cut off because they raised the rates by 20% and you can’t afford the bill.

Being poor means nothing around your run-down home ever works and everything is in serious disrepair because there’s no money, or way of getting money, to fix what’s in disrepair.

Being poor and white means being an invisible non-person.

Being poor means you have no pictures of your “ancestors” — or even of yourself and your sister — after being evicted where anything you might have had got taken away from you when your roach-infested ghetto apartment got padlocked.

Being poor is a lifetime of everything always getting taken away from you.

Being poor is being wrong even when you’re right.

Being poor is never fitting in.

Being poor is guilty until proven innocent and still getting slapped with unaffordable fines or a criminal conviction regardless.

Being poor means never getting a chance your entire life, and then having some self-centered privileged person tell you how poor they are when they enjoy far more economic opportunity, comfort, and security than you will ever get a chance to have — especially if you’re still poor by the time you’re middle-aged (and therefore unemployable) after an entire lifetime of never getting a chance for a good job, no matter how hard you tried.

Being poor means going hungry at least two or three days out of each month for years.

Being poor is living in a neighborhood where you can’t put chairs or a couch near the window because of the drive-by shootings.

Being poor is dying or becoming permanently disabled from pregnancy and childbirth complications.

Being poor is facing having to go blind from glaucoma because there really isn’t “all this help out there.”

Being poor is losing a leg from diabetes complications because you couldn’t get the help you needed to afford diabetic supplies and the low starch/low carb low MSG diabetic-friendly foods so you could manage your diabetes better in the first place.

Being poor means that your only interactions with middle class “professionals” are through bullet-proof glass windows at government agencies and welfare offices after waiting all day to be “served”, and then being told “sorry, we can’t help you.”

Being poor is everyone who isn’t poor wondering why you went back to the abusive asshole (whom you hope won’t kill you) who gave you that black eye when it’s either that or live on the streets with NO way to get a living wage job and get on your feet and support yourself after your 30 day time limit at the battered women’s shelter is up.

Being poor means you have to choose whether you have electric or gas, or food or a roof over your head.

Being poor means you don’t get the early preventive glaucoma treatment options to save your eyesight, while being told that you don’t deserve your eyesight because you’re just a “loser” who “blames everyone else for your problems” — it’s never the fault of employers who refused to hire you at a good job with health benefits, and it’s never society’s fault for being too selfish and punitive to have a safety net for the economically excluded.

Being poor means access to dental care is a luxury that is as far out of reach for you as a day trip to Sedna.

Being poor is getting denied even a minimum wage job in retail or as a supermarket cashier where you must face the public because of your visibly decayed/broken/missing teeth as a result of never having access to decent dental care — while everybody else who has never been anywhere near as poor as you or for as long as you, tells you that it’s all your own damn fault that you don’t have any teeth and lack the “right image” to be “deserving” of a job because you were “too stupid to brush your teeth properly.”

Being poor means dying a lot younger than those who lived in middle class comfort for most, if not all of their lives.

Being poor means suffering with an untreated UTI until it goes into your kidneys because you couldn’t afford antibiotics.

Being poor means you can’t even get a chance for a minimum wage job at Wal-Mart because your credit is poor due to poverty — which is, by definition, not enough income to afford your basic needs, including utilities, let alone afford an expensive emergency room bill because you didn’t have a good job with health insurance when you got that UTI or that abscessed tooth.

Being poor means that even if you go into unaffordable debt for a Bachelors degree from a state college in order to be “worthy” of a chance for a job, you still won’t get one because your visibly decayed/broken/missing teeth, a big gap in your work history of menial jobs, your lack of the proper clothing and a car, and your address is in the “wrong” side of town — all which serves to alert the employers’ middle class gatekeepers that you’re “not a good fit” for the office culture and that you “lack work ethic.”

Being poor means that nobody cares about you, your problems don’t matter.

Being poor means that no matter how hard you try and whatever you try, you never get a break but you sure get a generous helping of middle/upper class social Darwinist lip service, condescension, and personal value judgments that they call “advice.”

Being poor is always being told that it’s your own fault you had to suffer without getting your needs met your entire life because you’re nothing but a “loser.”

Being poor (if you’re white and female) means that decent paying blue-collar “men’s jobs” are never afforded to you so you can support yourself without having to resort to prostitution or stripping.

Being poor (if you’re white and female) means you’re never good enough to be wanted, loved, married and supported by some middle class mother’s grad school bound son because everybody knows that poor white women are all nothing but “whores who get pregnant only for the welfare check” — or “gold-diggers” who have no social status and cultural capital to bring to the table.

Being poor (when you’re white and female) means never being wanted or accepted. It’s getting left on the shelf since poor white males either see you as a burden they can’t afford/don’t want, or if they DO commit, you frequently become a punching bag for them to take out their own frustrations and resentment at their own oppression.

Being poor is being begrudged any pleasure in life; even the most basic human need to have sex because your birth control options are very limited and if you get pregnant, you have no money to travel to get an abortion and pay for the procedure.

Being poor means any hopes, dreams and aspirations you might have once had got crushed out of you and ground underfoot.

Being poor means you don’t get to have any hobbies because all the cool stuff costs a lot of money — which you don’t have.

Being poor means owing a lifelong debt of nothing but misery and deprivation to the comfortably off for the status crime of being born into “their world.”

Being poor means your suffering and misery doesn’t matter, only those who are poor in other countries are worthy of middle/upper class concern.

Being poor is when middle class people with advanced educations read what you write, they act shocked that you’re actually smart and educated too.

Being poor is having scars that will never heal.

I cannot speak from the perspective of a poor white male or a poor person of color. I am a poor white female that was a homeless orphaned teen who endured danger and deprivation on a daily basis on the streets in a Philadelphia ghetto, so my experience is a white female urban one. I am a 43 year old woman who did “all the right things” and who has no criminal record, but I never made it out of poverty because I never got a chance.

I can count the number of times on one hand that I’ve had access to medical and dental care throughout my entire life. I saw one of my neighbors lose her leg to diabetes for lack of help. I saw another neighbor die at age 37 from an abscessed tooth. I face possible blindness from glaucoma that I got diagnosed with three weeks before my 43rd birthday this past May for which I have yet to get any help outside of universal health care to afford the routine monitoring and possible future treatments in order to preserve my eyesight — a cruel blow for someone in poverty whose life is already difficult enough and whose only outlet is reading books and writing.

I could certainly go on with more on what being poor is, but I think I’ve illustrated enough for you to get my point. I have over 40 years worth of life experience in the trenches of poverty, suffering because of inequality and classism in addition to all the “gender taxes” too. You don’t get to be more of a poverty expert than that.

Jacqueline S. Homan,

Author: Classism For Dimwits


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