The Culture Of Poverty

Scholar and author Sudhir Venkatesh and sociology professor William Julius Wilson help solve the culture of poverty puzzle. Can a little money can make a difference to those who were born and live in poverty? And is poverty something you have control over?

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ALISON STEWART, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. Neal Conan is away. I'm Alison Stewart in Washington, D.C. Thanks for joining us.

Now to paraphrase a famous epigram, the rich are different from you and me. They have more money.

Now, what if you substitute the word poor for rich? Does this still hold true? For those who were born and live in poverty, will a single change in circumstance, a little money, make all the difference or none at all?

For decades, arguments about poverty and culture have revolved around questions about whether poverty is or isn't something that you're born and stay in but something you have control over.

In other words, if you're poor, is it your choice in some way or your fault, as some would phrase it?

Today, we'll talk with scholar and author Sudhir Venkatesh about how we understand this puzzle. Is there a culture of poverty? We'll also speak with William Julius Wilson, possibly the field's most famous contemporary sociologist, about the poor and behavior.

And then later on in the hour, on the Opinion Page, does the Kindle mean the death of literature or the birth of something even better? But first, what are your experiences with poverty? And if you don't have any, do you believe there is a culture of poverty?

Our number here in Washington is 1-800-989-8255. The email address is talk@npr.org, and you can join the conversation on our Web site by going to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Sudhir Venkatesh is a professor of sociology at Columbia University and the author of "Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor." He joins us from his office in New York City. Thanks for being with us.

Mr. SUDHIR VENKATESH (Author, "Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor"): It's great to be here, Alison.

STEWART: Sudhir, I want to get a base level so that we can have the conversation from this point on. Explain first what is meant by the phrase the culture of poverty. How would you explain this to your first-year students?

Mr. VENKATESH: Well, when we hear the phrase, we would probably think of it as a uniquely American phrase, but in fact it began with an anthropologist, Oscar Lewis, who was in the slums of Mexico, trying to understand why generations of poor people seemed to reproduce the same circumstances.

And he said you know what? Maybe there's something in the way they live, in their lifestyle. He called it their subculture, such that certain behaviors get transmitted from generation to generation.

That was in the '50s. Go, you know, a few years later, we see Daniel Patrick Moynihan, before he became senator, pick up this idea and use it in the context of American society.

This was after the post-world-war era, when there was the affluent society, as Galbraith, a famous economist, said. But African-Americans were not participating. Why?

And so Moynihan suggested that perhaps there are cultural issues at place. And he pointed to the family structure, and he said that the family structure in most inner-city communities is so weak that it transmits these values to generations over and over, so that we have to take it - we have to find ways to take care of the family structure.

And just again, just briefly, we - for the next 30 or 40 years, you have this debate between liberals who come back to Moynihan and say no, it's not family, it's not culture - it's discrimination, it's racism. These are victims you're talking about. So they need money, they need resources, and their culture will change eventually.

And then conservatives who say why do we want to throw all this money down the drain if, in fact, people need to change their behavior? None of this money is going to do any good unless people change themselves.

So it's this tennis ball going back and forth between liberal - conservatives: do we change the culture, or do we give people resources and the culture will eventually change over time? And that brings us to today and this very poignant book by William Julius Wilson.

STEWART: Well, the Moynihan study was extremely controversial.

Mr. VENKATESH: The Moynihan study was extremely controversial, that's right, because it really took a phrase that was only being used in a very small circle and then using it to explain something as big as the African-American condition. And just listen to this one quote in Moynihan.

It says, quote, "the fundamental problem is that of family structure, that the negro family in the urban ghettos is crumbling."

So he takes away - this is in the opening of what was eventually called The Moynihan Report. All of the economic circumstances are boiled down to - we have to look within the family.

And you can imagine, this was the moment when Lynden Johnson and others were creating the great society, and they were trying to get support for programs, for money, for resources. And Moynihan says, you know what, we have to think in a more complicated way.

And liberals said, wait a minute, we still have to start these programs like Head Start, Affirmative Action - things that we know today. So it was very contentious, and it really polarized the debate on race and culture in the U.S.

STEWART: Let's talk about what's going on in the United States right now. According to the census, about 12.5 percent of our population is considered to be living in poverty. So of those 37-million people, are they there because of systemic issues, or are they there because of certain behaviors and family behaviors that might keep them living in poverty?

Mr. VENKATESH: As always, the answer is probably somewhere in between. The one - we're at a historical moment, and one thing in which one aspect of our society is a little different, and that is that you can point to multiple generations of African-Americans that have had success.

They've entered mainstream institutions. We have an African-American as a president. And so we see that people have been able to transcend race in some sense that they can actually improve their condition.

So how do we explain all of these folks in the inner city and who are in concentrated-poverty neighborhoods? And it has just gotten to a point where we have to figure out how to think about culture in a way that's nuanced, in a way that gives people the responsibility to make their own decisions. And I think that's where we're at now in the Obama administration and in the aftermath.

What can legitimately expect from people in the inner city? What can we legitimately expect from the poor themselves? What is their responsibility? In addition to the kinds of resources that they need, what can we expect them to do on their own?

STEWART: At this point, should we be discussing race when we talk about poverty?

Mr. VENKATESH: Well, if we do, we have to think what social scientists would call symmetrically. That is that if we're going to look at African-Americans in poverty, we have to look in white Appalachia and in rural areas of the country where there could be other ethnic groups, not just white, not just black: Latino, Asian, etc.

And it makes sense to think about the discussions of culture, ethnicity and poverty. But unfortunately, usually we only talk about African-Americans in poor ghettos. Where probably a better way of thinking about the way in which culture matters, the way in which people's thoughts and lifestyles matters, is what about poverty broadly? And that's what we have to do, to look across the country as a whole.

STEWART: All right. I'm going to ask you to stand by as I talk to Bob, who is from San Antonio, Texas, and Bob, you're on the front lines of this a bit. You're a teacher?

BOB (Caller): Yes, yes ma'am. I teach at a Title I school, and Title I means that - I believe that at least 83 percent are at or below the poverty level. All the kids receive food every day: lunch - breakfast and lunch, and for some it's the only meal.

And you know, just like your speaker was saying that I fluctuate between Republican and Democrat or conservative and liberal with all my beliefs. Every day is frustrating. Monday is typically - to be very specific, I give homework.

I give a typical homework assignment: read a short story, answer a few questions, do a small project, something like that - and it's due every Friday. And I receive an average of 20-percent turn-in rate.

Teachers that I actually work with have actually told me that I am setting these kids up to fail by giving them homework. And it really angers me because I'm trying to set them up to succeed. But there just seems to be just a - it's a cultural - primarily Mexican-American where I am, and it just really frustrates me.

I married the very first Mexican woman I ever married - or met, and my wife is a doctor in the Air Force. Her parents never told her to do her school work. They never attended any of her swim meets or anything like that because they were working to support the family.

However, her whole family is successful in their own right - engineer, teacher, doctor - and I just see, when I look out into my class, I don't see many doctors, engineers or teachers. As a matter of fact, I probably see - the ones who are turning in their homework are the ones who are going to succeed, in my opinion, and the others are just going to turn into a minimum-wage worker, and it's…

STEWART: And Bob, do you see - do you get to speak to these kids' parents? Do you ever see them come to parent-teacher conferences? Are they available? Are they…?

BOB: No. Parent-teacher conferences - I teach approximately 160 kids. Eight will show up. And we will have more - we will be available at various times. Education, even though if you were to ask any people in this neighborhood what's the most important thing in America, they would say education, but it's not treated in the most important manner.

It is almost to the point of being resisted. Sometimes when I'm teaching - and I'm not that boring. You know…

(Soundbite of laughter)

BOB: (Unintelligible) things that have to be done, but I know that I'm not that boring. I will get just almost resistance, almost physical resistance to doing the work - putting their heads down or sitting there…

You know, I can present the most dynamic lesson plan I can come up with, and then I will say okay, and let's get to work, and there will be absolutely no movement in the classroom whatsoever.

STEWART: And they won't engage. Well Bob, do please keep up with it. That was Bob from San Antonio calling. And Sudhir, he pointed this - he touched on something that's sort of interesting and is discussed quite a bit, is low expectations of people who find themselves living in poverty. How does that factor into the success or the lack of success of getting out of poverty?

Mr. VENKATESH: Yeah, that's actually - I think he raised a great point, and he actually points the group, young people, that we often think about - the teenage mother who has a child, and perhaps it's not the best decision for her in an economic sense, or the person who is selling drugs or something like that or involved in the underground economy.

And so pointing to their expectations actually is an interesting way to get out of this bind of our - and here's what I mean.

A liberal explanation would say, let's say, we take the person who's selling drugs on the corner. You know, why are they doing that? Why aren't they going to school?

A liberal might say well, they're the victim of racism and discrimination. They need more resources. A conservative might say they don't have good values.

But when you look at their expectations, you start to see that what really matters is that if that person doesn't see a sign of hope, if they actually can't think about what's going to happen six months, 12 months and so on down the line, why go to school if that's only going to lead them to a dead-end job. And that's the part of the cycle that's really difficult to break, is to have, to create the idea for them that going to school is meaningful, not maybe in six months, maybe not even two years, but somewhere down the line.

How do you alter that? And they're actually just responding to the circumstances that they see around them, which is that most people probably in five years aren't able to get a job - 10 years.

So their expectations are conditioned by having people around them. And I say that, not to absolve them of responsibility, but just to understand - to help folks understand a little bit about why they might make these kinds of decisions that to - people might be irrational.

STEWART: Sudhir Venkatesh. We're speaking with him. He's a professor of sociology at Columbia University.

Coming up, William Julius Wilson, one of the field's most eminent sociologists. He's been studying poverty for decades. He'll join us next. We're taking your calls: 1-800-989-8255. You can also send us e-mail. The address is talk@npr.org. I'm Alison Stewart. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

STEWART: Welcome back to TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Alison Stewart. We're having a conversation with Sudhir Venkatesh, professor of sociology at Columbia University. And what we're discussing is, is there such a thing as the culture of poverty?

And you've written a book called "Gang Leader for a Day," another one called "Off the Books," and you explore thriving underground economies. And the idea is that perhaps people who are living in poverty adapt to their situation and make the best of what they have going on around them.

You know, when you think about some of these young men and women who set up these drug-dealing enterprises, imagine if that young man or woman ever went to business school. Some of the business models really work well.

Mr. VENKATESH: That's right. You know, one of the most surprising things for me - and this was a little while ago in the early 1990s, when I started, and this was the beginning of the so-called crack epidemic, when that really took over our inner cities.

I was watching these young men who were managing this economy stop talking about the work as - or I'm sorry, start talking about the behaviors as work.

So they started to look at drug-dealing not as drug-dealing, but they called it work, and they organized themselves as workers, and they almost tried to mimic the corporation.

That's why culture can be so important, because if they thought about themselves no longer as deviant people, no longer as people even just surviving, but almost as legitimate workers. And that started to attract more people into that particular economy, because hey, it looks almost like it's a form of legitimate work - I can make money, there's no other opportunities, I can buy things. And it's in that sense that you start to see the power of culture, about the power of the way people think.

And the trick, the real trick, and I think William Julius Wilson's new book does this, is how do you give people the chance to be agents over their own lives without necessarily - holding them responsibility but understanding that they have limited opportunities? And it's a very fine line to walk.

STEWART: And we'll bring in Mr. Wilson in just a moment. I do want to get to one of our listeners, Elizabeth from North Conway, New Hampshire. Now Elizabeth, you believe external circumstances are a huge factor here? Elizabeth?

ELIZABETH (Caller): Hi. I grew up in a family. My mother was adopted, and she was like raped as a virgin. She raised five kids by herself. And we would scramble - when she bought food, we would scramble to get food and fight over it. And so, you know, I rode my bicycle from Illinois to New Hampshire to start a new life. And I get over here, and you know, I get a job, and you know, I tried - I ended up having a child out of wedlock, okay?

And I get so much discrimination from people because I get on welfare to try and be home for my child like my mother wasn't able to do. I try to be home for him. And then people are saying we don't want your kind in our store and slam the door in my face.

And then having to move every - I always have to get condemned houses to live in and move twice a year when I wanted to get back into college. I paid for my one semester of college out of my pocket.

And you know, now my son's in college through the skin of my teeth. But I'm furious with the way people treat people who don't have money. I'm livid.

STEWART: What is it you would want people to understand? You said you're livid at the way people treat you and have treated you. What do you want them to understand?

ELIZABETH: I want them to realize that I'm a human being and that I'm going through some forces that they don't see. That it's not, you know - I don't feel - I don't do any drugs. You know, I want them to see that there's forces they don't get and that I have to move through.

For instance, to get up to go to work in the morning, I have to dump lots of buckets of water. Then I've got to go chop the ice just to get out the door because, you know, the ice freezes because I can't afford to get someone to, you know, clean my driveway or whatever.

And so, you know, having to get my car jumped. There's so - there's a myriad of things - the river of water that floods through my roof down into my floor. You know, there's a lot of things I've got to cope with before I get to work. The electricity that goes off, keeping my skin healthy, you know, when it's freezing out in the middle of winter. Not because I didn't pay my bill but because the fuel assistance that was helping me didn't kick in on time. Because I always try to pay my bills, and I work hard to do that.

STEWART: Elizabeth, you're telling us it's not just one thing. It's a series of issues.

ELIZABETH: Exactly.

STEWART: Elizabeth, we wish you and your son well. Thank you so much for making the time to call us. We do want to bring in someone that Mr. Venkatesh has mentioned several times. It's almost impossible to talk about social scholars without mentioning Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson.

He's been writing on this subject for decades. His most recent book is "More Than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City." He's on the line with us from his office in Cambridge.

Thank you for making the time today, Mr. Wilson.

Mr. WILLIAM JULIUS WILSON (Author, "More Than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City"): My pleasure.

STEWART: You make the case in your book that poverty, particularly for the inner city, is about both cultural and systemic hurdles. Could you explain a little more for us?

Mr. WILSON: Yes. The purpose of my book was to prompt social scientists to expand their vision of the factors that contribute to racial inequality in the United States, and thereby, you know, reexamine the way they discuss these two important factors, these systemic-structural factors and cultural forces.

And by cultural forces, I'm referring to such things as shared outlooks, you know, belief systems, values, skills, styles of presentation, linguistic patterns, things that emerge in settings created by discrimination and segregation.

And when I talk about structural forces, I am referring not only to the racialist factors, you know, such as segregation and discrimination, but also those that are non-racial, such as impersonal changes in the economy.

And I just, I develop a framework in a book that integrates the structural and cultural forces to not only show how they are inextricably linked but also to explain why structural forces should receive far more attention than cultural factors in accounting for the social outcomes of poor African-Americans and in framing public policies to address racial inequality.

STEWART: What's one small piece of public policy that could change that would make a large difference…?

Mr. WILSON: Well, let me give you one example. I don't know how many of your listeners have heard of the Harlem Children's Zone. This is a program that…

STEWART: Jeffrey Canada?

Mr. WILSON: Yeah, Jeffrey Canada's program where he created - flooded resources, flooded several zones in Harlem with resources that you associate with middle-class neighborhoods. And this program has been rigorously evaluated by Roland Fryer, who's a brilliant young Harvard economist, and the preliminary results of the evaluation are spectacular.

They reveal very sharp increases in the math and verbal scores of children in the zone's charter school. You know, the math scores are especially dramatic. Here you have kids from the most impoverished neighborhoods, who by the time they reach Grade eight, the eighth grade, their scores are in the 87th percentile nationwide, scores that are comparable to those of kids in upper-middle-class, suburban neighborhoods.

And the Obama administration is using the Harlem Children's Zone as a model for setting up what he calls 20 Promising Cities across the country. So I think that's one good example of what I'm talking about.

STEWART: Let's bring another of our listeners. Zach(ph) is from Cleveland, and Zach, you manage a housing project, right?

ZACH (Caller): That is correct.

STEWART: And what do you see?

ZACH: Well, you know, one of the things I see is - I read "The Underground Economy," and I also read Steven Levitt's book, where I believe that same professor is quoted when he talks about the drug dealing. But one of the things that I see is that the continual self-renewing prophecy of the single mom. And I think a lot of it has to do with the way housing is put together.

For example, if I have a single mom in my apartment building, and she may have two kids or three kids from two or three different dads, if the dad is around, she gets no aid. If she tries to go to school, she gets no aid. We have set up this system ourselves to basically keep these folks dependent on us when our overall goal is to make them independent.

It would be much - it would be behoove this country if we were to take someone who, let's just say, is of able mind and body and tell them, we're going to help you for the next five years. And we're going to dwindle down that support each year. And at the end of five years, you need to get out and get a job instead of living off the government because you are able bodied. Instead, we see generation after generation in my buildings of people putting their kids on Section 8, on welfare, and the kids don't strive any further because they see moms got herself covered with free housing and free food.

STEWART: Zach from Cleveland, thanks for checking in.

Sudhir, he said something interesting in there - he said several interesting things. But one thing he mentioned is generation after generation after generation. How important is that in terms of two, three, four generations of people staying, living within the poverty line?

Dr. VENKATESH: Yeah. His comment really addresses a critical issue. And, you know, we've actually - and have seen as a result of the Clinton administration - there's a term limit on welfare recipiency. So you can only get these benefits for five years. So there are limits. And yet, still, we see this persistent trans-generational problem. That's why we have to think of alternate explanations, and we have to start thinking about what happens to that young person, where do they get expectations of whether they're going to succeed or fail. And some of that comes from the family, a lot of it comes from the peer group.

You know, there's a strong set of mobility programs that move people into the suburbs. But yet, researchers are flummoxed by this one prompt fact, which is that when young men go out to the suburbs and who are taken away from the inner city, they go back to the inner city to commit crime. Why is that? Well, part of the issue is that they're still hanging around with the same folks. They're not integrated well into their new communities because they're stigmatized, et cetera - or they just don't want to, or they're nervous. So we have to have programs, maybe, that are helping them to do that.

So that's why culture matters in a way. It is a response to structure, but it matters because people see the expectations of others before them, whether in the family or adults and so on, and they learn from those expectations and think that their life is going to replicate what others have before.

STEWART: Well, Sudhir, going back to something that our caller Zack mentioned - I mean, in terms of behavior and culture for people who live in his housing project, it seems like, yeah, it's okay to have two or three kids by different parents, different fathers.

Dr. VENKATESH: That's right.

STEWART: That's okay.

Dr. VENKATESH: Yeah. And it's hard to counter that because what people are doing - anybody - is that they're trying to achieve meaning in their life. And the issue of teenage pregnancy is the best place to look. You know, there's always a question, why do these young women have children when they know it's going make their lives harder? Is it - are they victims of discrimination? Do they lack opportunities? Do they lack values?

A lot of it is that they're with other women in their households who were participating in the same way that having a child means that you get to participate in the household, you achieve meaning as a mother. And there aren't others sorts of opportunities available. And so, you don't expect, you don't think that those are going to be in your future. And so, that's what happens, is that if you just look at the individual, sometimes you see individual failures. You start looking at that network of people, you start seeing that it's a little bit more complicated. But there's also ways to massage that.

STEWART: Let's talk to Anita(ph) who's calling us from San Francisco. Hi, Anita.

ANITA (Caller): Hi. Thank you so much for taking my call.

STEWART: Sure.

ANITA: I'm Mexican-American. I grew up very low income and had the opportunity - thanks to my mom and dad's sacrifice - to attend a fairly wealthy, mostly white high school and grade school in the L.A. area. And I've noticed the real danger and starting to attribute some of these behaviors as inherently cultural to low income families or low income communities because a lot of the stuff you described, I saw the exact same thing among the rich white kids - drug addiction, drug sales, kids show up, you know, high on cocaine - this was the late '80s, early '90s, so there was like a lot of cocaine around.

And so, these white kids would show up to class with like red noses, just totally high on cocaine. And the teachers would be like, oh, are you okay? You know, do you have a cold? You know, that was some of the reactions they got. They were disrespectful to teachers. There was teenage pregnancy.

And just as an example, this one girl that I knew, she, as a reward for getting all Cs, she got a BMW. That was her reward. And I decided that, you know, that the way for me to get out of my low income situation was through education, and I was able to go to Stanford and to - get my master's in Berkeley. And what I wanted to share with you is I think there's a real danger of saying, all these behaviors are somehow inherently cultural, inherently part of the low income situation, because I saw the same exact thing, you know, among kids who had mansions in the Hollywood Hills.

STEWART: All right. Anita, thank you so much. We appreciate you calling in.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And, Mr. Wilson, I'd like to bring you back into the conversation. This young woman, Anita, who called us from San Francisco saying that she saw similar behaviors among wealthy students she attended school with. It raises our question that we started at the top of the section, is there or isn't there a culture of poverty? What do you think?

Dr. WILSON: Let me just say, first of all, the notion culture of poverty carries a lot of baggage…

STEWART: Yeah.

Dr. WILSON: …loaded baggage, and has a specific meaning to some people, particularly conservatives who discuss the culture of poverty who maintained that the factors are so deeply ingrained - the cultural factors - are so deeply ingrained, that even if you open up the opportunity structure, people will not respond. That is not the way that Sudhir and I are talking about culture.

I don't even like to use the term culture of poverty because it has this meaning that implies that people cannot be rescued. And what I try to do in my book is to discuss culture in a more sophisticated way, a more complicated way. It focuses on cultural framing and the meaning-making and how people make decisions and so on, that are responses to chronic racial and economic subordination.

But getting to your question. Yes, I thought this woman raised a very interesting point. Certainly, there are middle class, even upper middle class, even some with rich kids, involved in drugs and the cultural patterns that are associated with drugs. But the big difference is that their parents can often rescue them, that the parents have the resources to help them recover, you know, to overcome their, quote, "deviant," unquote, ways.

Kids in the ghetto do not have that, you see. And what we're hoping to do is to provide these kids with the same resources to help them recover, to help them move out of situations that are ultimately detrimental. That's why I emphasize the Harlem Children's Zone. Here, we have a program that gives kids the opportunity and also make kids aware that they have something to look forward to, and their behavior changes as a result.

These kids are not involved in drugs, for the most part. They're not having children out of wedlock. They're studying hard. They're excited about school because they have been given the opportunities and they have been made aware that they have a future.

STEWART: William Julius Wilson is professor of sociology and social policy at Harvard. He joined us from his office in Cambridge. Thank you so much for making the time, sir.

Dr. WILSON: Thank you.

STEWART: Sudhir Venkatesh, he is the author of "Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor." He's also professor of sociology at Columbia University. Thank you so much in helping us walk-through this discussion. We really appreciate your insight.

Dr. VENKATESH: My pleasure. Thank you.

STEWART: Coming up, those rows and rows of beautiful volumes lining your bookshelf. Will the Kindle - you know the wireless reader from Amazon -make them all disappear? What might be wrong with that? Slate editor Jacob Weisberg, says nothing. It's the opinion page, next.

I'm Alison Stewart. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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