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Horatio Alger lives! Blame and the culture of poverty

Randall F. Clemens

This post was originally published on January 21, 2011.

Horatio Alger, a 19th century author, wrote novels about poor, downtrodden boys who go from rags to riches. They succeed due to dogged toil. The story is ingrained in the fabric of mainstream America. Fathers tell their sons, “If you work hard, you can make it.” That’s the American dream.

The rags to riches story works in concert with the culture of poverty argument. It goes something like this: a group of people develop a set of beliefs, actions, and perhaps excuses that inhibit them from succeeding in life. Over 40 years ago, when Oscar Lewis introduced the concept and Patrick Moynihan’s report popularized it, some parts of academia reacted strongly. William Ryan, in his book Blaming the Victim, retells a comedic sketch where Zero Mostel acting as a senator from the South wonders about the origins of World War II. At the end of the skit, the senator booms out, “And what was Pearl Harbor doing in the Pacific?” Ryan uses this to illustrate his point: the culture of poverty blames individuals for being the victims of unfair and deleterious structural conditions.

The culture of poverty often evokes two responses. First, some believe the culture of poverty is absolutely wrong and become indignant. Second, others believe the culture of poverty is absolutely right and become indignant. I worry that both sides, being so emotionally charged, are hindering us from having meaningful conversations about how to improve the conditions of economically impoverished people. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your opinion, there is no right answer.

The culture of poverty is a flawed concept, not because it doesn’t exist but because it is too simple. As Sharon Hays, a sociologist at USC, points out in her book Flat Broke with Children, to assume that there is a culture of poverty is neither wrong nor the whole story. Why is it outrageous to think that a young African American male or Latino has developed a series of behaviors to cope with his bleak surroundings? The school experiences and reactions of Primo and Caesar in Philippe Bourgois’ In Search of Respect provide an excellent example of this. What is wrong is to assume that there is only one culture of poverty and that it applies to all. Culture is not abstract. It is everywhere but also mutable and embedded in context.

At the same time, there is a common refrain among academics: culture and poverty are back and open to research (see the May 2010 issue of The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science). While that is true, scholars also know that the culture of poverty has remained a popular shibboleth among mainstream America. Moving forward, academics must not only create a more appropriate vocabulary to explore and describe multiple cultures of poverty but also to communicate the import of understanding the myriad cultural and structural conditions that lead to the generational reproduction of poverty.