The Culture of Poverty — or the Poverty of Culture?

A number of years ago (1989 to be exact) I reported and wrote a story for Life magazine called Children of Poverty.

As this was still the milk-and-honey era of print journalism and it was Life, we spent a lot of time searching for the iconic subject to profile, canvassing the country – through what was then a still healthy “stringer” system – to locate the “perfect” representation of a family living in poverty.  We wanted to suggest the lock that poverty had on people — a not-so-sly insinuation that the condition was somehow passed from generation to generation – but we also wanted to raise the hope that it was a tabula rasa, ergo children, and  imply that one could possibly escape their fate.

I’m not sure if we succeeded, but you can imagine the surprise of my editors, after the nationwide hunt, when I delivered snapshots of  the winning family.

“They’re white!” exclaimed one, in not very complimentary tones.

“Exactly!” I replied.  My argument was simple: there were more caucasions living  in poverty than African-Americans;  at the time, the 1988 census, there were 7.4 million whites and 4.3 million blacks living below the poverty line.  (Today  it is 27 million whites and just under 10 million blacks).

“This is a story about poverty not race,” I argued.

We had some intense discussions over the next several days, but I was very proud of my magazine  for  deciding to buck what was then the reigning zeitgeist: ignore poverty completely since it was, as everyone knew, an African-American problem and political correctness dictated that no one touch it.

Flash forward to October 18 of this year, to what I thought would be enlightenment, in the form of a front-page story in the New York Times, ‘Culture of Poverty,’ Long an Academic  Slur, Makes a Comeback

The single quote mark should have been a warning sign.

The story, by Patricia Cohen, was not about righting the racial wrongs of our attitudes toward poverty; it fell instead into the same racial stereotyping traps that we tried so hard to avoid in our Children of Poverty story in  Life. This doesn’t mean Cohen’s piece isn’t worthy of reading; au contraire, it’s worth studying.  And since it has been picked up by the education press (see  The Gadfly and Joanne Jacobs) and educators must deal with issues of poverty and race all the time, I felt compelled to weigh in, even at this late date.

Cohen’s story is misguided on several levels, but the basic problem is that she claims to be writing about “the culture of poverty,” but instead writes about the revival of academic interest in the dysfunctional African-American family, the subject of a controversial 1965 report by Daniel Patrick Moynihan (“The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” which can be viewed here.).

This is a bad conflation – and it does nothing for Moynihan’s reputation.  Cohen has to admit that the former Harvard professor and, at the time, Nixon advisor, “didn’t coin the phrase,” but she doesn’t mention the fact that “culture of poverty” is not even in Moynihan’s report.  And so the Times story ends up being one long discussion that, once again, inappropriately and unfortunately leaves the impression that the culture of poverty is somehow a black problem.

For educators and education policymakers Cohen’s lengthy misadventure  should be read as a cautionary tale:  If anything, the controversy about Moynihan’s 40-year-old report – and the subsequent “comeback” – is less a story about political correctness than it is about intellectual lethargy.   The trap lives on.

EdSector’s Rob Manwaring tackled a similar subject recently  in a thoughtful essay called “Moving Beyond ‘It’s Poverty Stupid’ – Dropouts, Incarceration and Intergenerational Poverty.” And though he unfortunately talks about  “intergenerational impacts [that are] strongest among black males” in the prison population, he does at least, in the end,  get to the nitty-gritty question for educators:

Does poverty make it more difficult for students to succeed? Yes. But, is education a better investment to break the cycle of poverty than any other alternatives? That is the debate that we should be having. Let that debate begin.

Indeed.  The debate we should be having is about the culture of miseducation. As the recent Gadfly (above) had it:

New findings indicate that income alone does not determine a student’s ability to succeed. Great schools and programs change lives and life prospects, while helping to create support networks for children and parents alike.

Let’s put the discussion about African-American culture and the culture of poverty to rest.  In fact, let’s let Moynihan do it, as he did in his 1965 report:

That the Negro American has survived at all is extraordinary — a lesser people might simply have died out, as indeed others have. That the Negro community has not only survived, but in this political generation has entered national affairs as a moderate, humane, and constructive national force is the highest testament to the healing powers of the democratic ideal and the creative vitality of the Negro people.

Bottom line: our education system has perpetuated the culture of poverty legend long enough, not by failing to integrate schools, but by failing to teach black children.

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