Behind the Headline: Barack Obama vs. the Culture of Poverty

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Barack Obama vs. the Culture of Poverty
3/28/14 | New York

Behind the Headline
An Appeal to Authority
Fall 2008 | Education Next

Two giants of the blogosphere, Jonathan Chait of New York magazine and Ta-Nehisi Coates of the Atlantic, have been engaging in an epic debate this month over the concept of “the culture of poverty.”

Coates kicked off the debate in mid-March after Paul Ryan made a speech in which he talked about the problem of men in the inner cities not  working. Ryan attributed the problem to the culture of the inner cities. Coates argued that this view of the culture of our inner cities has become widely accepted even by progressives, who no longer pay much attention to other causes of poverty, such as racism.

Chait responded by saying that progressives — and President Obama — are not saying that inner city culture is the only cause of poverty. They believe that culture contributes to poverty but is not the only cause.

Coates responded with a long piece citing numerous historical sources in defense of the idea that white racism is and has always been more of a problem than black people not “holding up their end of the bargain” or being in need of moral instruction.

Chait answers that to identify the culture of poverty as a contributor to poverty does not require blaming people for their failures or considering them irresponsible or immoral. It can mean simply that young people may grow up around cultural norms that inhibit their later success.

Chait continues

People are the products of their environment. Environments are amenable to public policy. Some of the most successful anti-poverty initiatives, like the Harlem Children’s Zone or the KIPP schools, are designed around the premise that children raised in concentrated poverty need to be taught middle class norms.

An Ed Next article by David Whitman, “An Appeal to Authority: The New Paternalism in Urban Schools,” looks closely at how schools like KIPP seek to impart middle class values. Whitman describes these schools as paternalistic, but what he means by this is not imposing values that are foreign, but rather, helping to support values that are already embraced by people in the community. Whitman notes that

Paternalistic programs survive only because they typically enforce values that “clients already believe,” [Lawrence] Mead notes. But many paternalistic programs remain controversial because they seek to change the lifestyles of the poor, immigrants, and minorities, rather than the lifestyles of middle-class and upper-class families. The paternalistic presumption implicit in the schools is that the poor lack the family and community support, cultural capital, and personal follow-through to live according to the middle-class values that they, too, espouse.

Whitman’s article, which includes a longer discussion of paternalism and culture, is drawn from his book Sweating the Small Stuff: Inner-City Schools and the New Paternalism.

-Education Next

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