Reconsidering The 'Culture Of Poverty' Why are poor people poor? For years, many scholars blamed it on a culture of poverty -- the idea that behavior and attitudes played a key role. Then, the concept was blasted as blaming the victim, and almost universally shunned. But a new understanding of the "culture of poverty" has recently emerged.

Reconsidering The 'Culture Of Poverty'

Reconsidering The 'Culture Of Poverty'

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Why are poor people poor? For years, many scholars blamed it on a culture of poverty — the idea that behavior and attitudes played a key role. Then, the concept was blasted as blaming the victim, and almost universally shunned. But a new understanding of the "culture of poverty" has recently emerged.


Patricia Cohen, reporter, New York Times
Sudhir Venkatesh, professor, Columbia University


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

For more than 40 years, scholars and activists have argued over a phrase that became both incendiary and, in some circles, taboo: The culture of poverty - a shortcut to describe urban blacks trapped in a cycle of single mothers and welfare dependents? Or an insult that blames the victims of institutional racism?

And it's more than an academic argument. It's a discussion about why poor people tend to stay poor and what people who haven't experienced poverty don't understand about a culture that includes positive aspects, like survival and resilience.

This week, Patricia Cohen, the arts and ideas reporter for the New York Times, wrote a piece about the revival and redefinition of the culture of poverty among scholars. She joins us in just moment.

And we want to hear from those of you who've lived in poverty. What don't we in the middle class get about your culture? 800-989-8255. Email us: You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, the subjects of the new movie "Fair Game" join us: Valerie Plame Wilson and Ambassador Joe Wilson.

But first, the culture of poverty. And Patricia Cohen of the New York Times joins us from NPR's bureau in New York City. Nice to have you with us today.

Ms. PATRICIA COHEN (Reporter, New York Times): Thank you very much.

CONAN: And the term lingered, as you point out in your piece, almost silently for more than 40 years. Why is it making a comeback now?

Ms. COHEN: Well, there obviously is just a certain amount of time has passed now. It's a long time. You have a new generation of scholars who are coming up.

The time when that particular phrase came up was also - you have to remember, the context of the black power movement, the women's movement, the report, the Moynihan Report, which, I should just add, was never actually published. It was only leaked. And so it was very easy to distort what Moynihan really said. He talked about a matriarchical(ph) society.

So reading today, some of the language does sound very dated and sexist, but if one actually read the whole report, you could see that Moynihan was talking about entrenched problems of racism and economic deprivation and how that, in turn, would cause certain patterns of behavior that could be very self-destructive.

CONAN: And some people said he was maligned for, as you say, distortions. He did go on to a long and successful career as a senator from the state of New York. So I think he got over it.

Ms. COHEN: That's true, although I think there's also some of his there's a new book about him now and some of his letters out. And he said that was the most hurtful, terrible moment in his life.

CONAN: There is, though - you reported about a new spate of research that tends to go into the question of culture in poverty-stricken neighborhoods. These kinds of studies just weren't done for a long time.

Ms. COHEN: No. I mean, really, there was - cultural sociology itself really didn't start to revive until the mid-'80s and '90s. And even today, I was amazed at reading some of the reports, still how there seems to be some tip-toeing around the phrase that the controversy about it was so intense that even some of that lingers today.

CONAN: And why - so intense, and as you also point out, in a largely liberal profession.

Ms. COHEN: Yes. Absolutely. Absolutely. Well, I think that's the liberals were perhaps particularly vulnerable to charges of being racist.

CONAN: Let's talk about some of the studies that are underway. For example, there was one where a - one scholar scattered self-stamped envelopes with addresses on the streets in various neighborhoods to see what percentage of them would actually be mailed.

Ms. COHEN: Right. Well, first what I suppose we should start with is just how they are defining culture, academics. And there's a lot of different definitions of culture, and they don't all agree on exactly what it means.

But this particular scholar who's at Harvard, Robert Sampson, who's been doing a very long-term research project in Chicago, and he would talk about patterns of behavior and the perception of what your neighborhood is like.

So it's kind of the way business as usual is done. So his experiment was basically to see: Is there a sense in the community of looking out for other people, even when you have nothing to gain? And so his experiment was to drop a letter, stamped, so all you had to do would be to put it in a mailbox. And what was the - what percentage of the people in a neighborhood did that?

And it was not necessarily the income of the neighborhood that determined whether those letters actually got mailed, but rather, you know, the culture, let's say. Was there a sense of following the rules and of trying to help other people out?

CONAN: We're talking with Patricia Cohen, who covers arts and ideas for the New York Times, wrote the piece "Culture of Poverty Makes a Comeback," which was published in Sunday's edition of the newspaper.

There's a link to it at our website. You can go to and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

We want to hear from those of you who have lived in poverty. What is it about the culture in these neighborhoods that we in the middle class just don't get? 800-989-8255. Email: And we'll start with Ali(ph). Ali's with us from Minneapolis.

ALI (Caller): Hi, Neal. Thanks very much for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure. Go ahead.

ALI: I just wanted to make a brief comment, and then I'll take my answer off the air. I wanted to let you know that the neighborhood that I actually grew up in the early '90s in Minneapolis is like the housing projects of Bronx in New York, just like that. Low-income people are all living in one neighborhood, and the schools have almost exclusively are attended by, you know, the students from that specific neighborhood.

So the school district doesn't allow you to go over to the, you know, like, the southeastern part of Minneapolis, where the schools are actually prosperous, as opposed to our neighborhood, where the schools were failing and the teachers really didn't care.

So in one way, I also want to make that comment that because of the neighborhood, every - you know, because of the socioeconomic status of our people that live in that neighborhood, the schools also were failing. So, in a way, the society is setting us up for failure in the future because the schools are failing themselves.

And the other point I'm going to make quickly is, you know, people who are dependent on the welfare system are being told that, for example, it's I don't have the exact number, but hypothetically, if you family makes $20,000 a year, we're going to cut off the welfare.

So everybody's thinking about, oh, I don't want to make $20,000 so I can stay on welfare. Why don't they change the rules so people can get ahead in life and at least say, well, what's the point of telling people you have a limit in order to stay on welfare?

CONAN: Ali, thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it.

ALI: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. And let's bring another voice into the conversation, Sudhir Venkatesh, who's a professor of sociology at Columbia University, with us on the line from New York City.

Nice to have you back on the program.

Professor SUDHIR VENKATESH (Sociology, Columbia University): Thank you for having me.

CONAN: And what Ali was describing was, well, you hear this a lot: set up for failure. You live in a neighborhood where there is intense poverty, that it's concentrated in these housing projects. The schools are bad. There's no way out.

Prof. VENKATESH: That's right. And the tangle for social scientists is to try to figure out how to act. Where do you go in these neighborhoods? And this is a question that came, started with Moynihan and hasn't really left us.

Do you put money into these neighborhoods and try to bring programs like Head Start or improve the education system? Is it job training? Or is it something that's more fuzzy, which is that do you act in some ways to change the people themselves, improve their work ethic, improve their optimism or their ability to follow the rules?

This is a classic question. The critique back to some of the scholars could be made in the following way, which is that we know that there are plenty of people getting government assistance who are wealthy, who run wealthy institutions. And so would we ever say in that circumstance that there's a culture of dependency?

So one of the challenges for social scientists is to make sure that we treat the poor and the rich, who are in similar positions, the same way.

CONAN: And that's been difficult for people who make assumptions about, well, people who live in poverty and can't and their children live in poverty, their parents lived in poverty. It seems to be an unending cycle, and assumptions get made about some of their, well, their character, I think.

Ms. COHEN: Well, I just wanted to jump in here, Neal, because I...

CONAN: Patty Cohen, go ahead.

Ms. COHEN: Because there were almost 400 comments, all of which I read through, to the story just on - from one day on the Times website.

And there were a couple of misconceptions that I saw repeated. And so I just wanted to point out a couple of things, one of which is, you know, poverty has been with us a long time. It's a very complex issue that has many, many different causes. And I don't think anybody is simplifying it down to, say, one particular thing.

And one of the key features, I think, of the new look into culture is to talk about or emphasize that a lot of the underlying causes are structural, that it's because of economic conditions or racism.

And we're looking at what we're talking about as persistent poverty, the most disadvantaged, those people who, as Sudhir said, generation after generation seem to be stuck in this kind of abyss and unable to climb out.

And so I don't think there is any one single answer, because it's these are very, very complex, long-standing problems.

CONAN: And Sudhir, as you look at these new kinds of studies, there doesn't seem to be any effort to label this as a monolith, as one cause only.

Prof. VENKATESH: No, no. And so the researchers are very careful to try and show the diversity of experiences, and so on. I think there's another thing happening in our society that probably the research is very slow to take up, and that is that inner-city poverty is actually declining.

The greatest poverty in America - and this may surprise some of the listeners - is actually in the suburbs, for one. It's in some rural, isolated areas. So, for example, West Virginia has the second-highest poverty rate of any state, almost 20 percent.

And it's also being reproduced by some of the fastest growing economic industries - so health care, the service sector, entertainment. The areas of greatest job growth are also the ones that are not paying a living wage. So people who come there end up being impoverished over the long run.

So it's a far different world than when Moynihan was looking at the core inner cities and seeing a minority population that was isolated. Today, we just have a much more complicated landscape.

CONAN: Here's a tweet we got from MonkeyMinion: One thing that middle-upper-class don't understand about poverty is that many times, it's not laziness that puts people in poverty.

And Patricia Cohen, that lay at the heart of many of the criticisms of this 40 years ago.

Ms. COHEN: Right, exactly. And, in fact, one of the researchers mentioned that in the popular understanding of poverty, it is often portrayed as an either-or. You know, either people are lazy, and that's why they're not getting ahead, or it's there are no jobs there.

And it just goes back to what we were saying before, that it's a much more complex picture than that.

CONAN: We're talking about the culture of poverty, the controversy over that phrase and what it tries to explain, why poor people tend to stay poor.

We want to hear from those of you who've lived in poverty. What don't we in the middle class get about your culture? 800-989-8255. Email us:

Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

Researchers have tried for decades to answer the question: Why do poor people tend to remain poor across generations - at least some of them? We're talking today about a phrase that gained popularity in the 1960s -the culture of poverty - that sparked a debate which continues today, though a new generation of scholars is beginning to do new areas of research into culture and poverty, though they've redefined both of those terms.

Our phone number: 800-989-8255. Email us: You can join the conversation at our website, too. Go to Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

We want to hear from those of you who've lived in poverty. What don't we in the middle class get about your culture and the positive aspects about it? Our guests are Patricia Cohen of the New York Times. We have a link to her article, "Culture of Poverty Makes a Comeback" at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And Sudhir Venkatesh, he's professor of sociology at Columbia and wrote the book "Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets." And let's see if we can get another caller on the line. Let's go to Monica, Monica with us from Ashville, North Carolina.

MONICA (Caller): Hi. Can you hear me?

CONAN: Yes, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

MONICA: All right. I think that what happens with academics is they do not ask the people who are actually poor themselves what they need, which is somewhat patronizing in the extreme.

People can basically fall out of poverty for many reasons in this country: lack of medical insurance, medical problems, whatever. And then when you become poor, there's a one-size-fits-all attitude that you're treated with. If the academics want to know how to solve poverty, they need to ask the poor themselves, and I'll just take my answer off the air.

CONAN: Well, Monica, before you go, did this happen to you?


CONAN: And how were you treated? How would you characterize it?

MONICA: As a second-class citizen, as if I did something wrong to become ill without insurance in America.

CONAN: Well, thank you very much for the call. We appreciate it.

MONICA: Thank you for talking about this.

CONAN: And...

Ms. COHEN: Well, I would say that one point I would like to make is that the new study of culture and the academics who are doing it are going into neighborhoods and spending a lot of time with - in these neighborhoods talking to people. And that really is characterizing it in terms of they're trying to get as much firsthand explanation and research as possible.

CONAN: Sudhir Venkatesh, would you say that there's some element, though, of truth in Monica's complaint?

Mr. VENKATESH: I do. And sociology and a lot of the social science disciplines have often been rightly criticized for taking some distance. And that has two faults. I think the first is, as Monica rightly points out, that it can be very patronizing, that we can tend to treat people as victims and as not being innovative or resilient or having the wherewithal to be able to act in ways that can improve their condition.

The second is that you start to not really see people as completely worthy of attention, because you don't go and take the time to figure out how they live and how they adjust.

And we know that some of the most resilient and innovative and dynamic things that are occurring in terms of human relationships - the sharing of resources, adaptations - these all occur in poor circumstances, whether it's a farming town, a rust-belt town or an inner-city neighborhood.

There are a lot of lessons that could be learned about how to treat your neighbor or how to live in a community, take care of your neighbors and act in a just way so that we don't often look at the poor to learn the broader lessons of life. Sometimes we simply look at them to figure out how to help them. And that can be a little patronizing if that's repeated over the long run.

CONAN: And Patty Cohen, as you investigated this series of studies that have now been done and are being done, that include questions about culture, what in fact do you think we're learning?

Ms. COHEN: Well, I think one point that you emphasized before, which is there is no single culture of poverty, it's very diverse and varied depending on where do you live and ethnicity and race and all of those kinds of things. So there is no one-size-fits-all answer to some of these questions.

But some of the very interesting work, for instance, is being done about single mothers and the relationship of the father to the children, even if the couple isn't married, and looking at ways that fathers may see their obligations even when they're not able, perhaps, financially, to support their children, that there are other ways which they look to support their kids.

CONAN: And the assumption earlier had been that these women, who had, were single mothers, did not value the institution of marriage. One of the studies you cited in your piece contradicted that.

Ms. COHEN: Right. Exactly. It wasn't if anything, they valued marriage so much that they looked at it almost as a sacred union that, most of the time, they didn't think the men measured up and were worthy of it.

So, in that case, the conclusion that some people have drawn is, well, a lot of the programs or policies that have been put into place to talk about how important marriage is are kind of missing the boat, that that isn't the problem. The question is more of how do you make a marriage work out and, you know, even when the circumstances are not perfect.

CONAN: Let's go to Ken, Ken on the line with us from St. Louis.

KEN (Caller): Yes. I agree with the young lady. There is no one single reason. It's multi-faceted. I grew up in a two-family - two-parent family. My father was a 33rd Degree Mason bricklayer and worked for a major railroad company here in St. Louis, but he was an alcoholic. My mom was bipolar - both college-educated, (unintelligible) in Arkansas. But my father would get drunk, you know, lose all his money, and, you know, mom refused to get welfare because she said if they came and saw a pair of his shoes in the house, they would kick her off welfare.

And because she was bipolar, you know, we endured physical abuse, emotional abuse and, you know, she refused to get help from the government. She'd go to the churches and get help because she was Church of God and Christ. But like I said, my dad refused to stop drinking. He was a World War II veteran in Italy, France, Germany and the Philippines, and he blamed it on shellshock. But my mom told him, you know, he was an alcoholic before he went to World War II.

And I am a college graduate. I have a degree in computer science and a minor in music from SIU Evansville. But because of the bipolar genes from my mom's side of the family, I am bipolar, agoraphobic and post-traumatic stress disorder. I'm a Vietnam vet in the Marines Corps.

And I'm still in poverty. I'm on disability now. But I do get out and try to make sure that my grandchildren and my children, you know, get beyond their bipolar - because my son and my daughter are bipolar, also. But they don't know it. I never told them that we had this defective gene in our family.

And my daughter is worse than my son. He's an ex-Navy Seal from Afghanistan. And he just got back, and he's depressed now with PTSD, but he is a barber in a little town - and I'm not going to mention it, but he's the only African-American barber in a little town in Arkansas.

But he doesn't understand why he gets the blues so much, you know. But, you know, they are, you know, beyond where I they're doing better than I did when I came, you know, out of the Marine Corps during Vietnam.

But it is multi-faceted, and there is no one reason why you're in poverty. There's a lot of cumulative reasons why you're in poverty. And thank you for this program. It enlightened me on some things that I had forgotten about.

And abuse, and abuse, also. There's a lot of abuse in my neighborhood. I'm in the upper ghetto here in St. Louis, and there's I was abused when I was five years old. That's where my agoraphobia and bipolar came from.

CONAN: Ken, you might also want to consider telling your children and your grandchildren about the - your family history with bipolar disorder. It might turn out to be important if they can get some help.

KEN: Yeah, yeah. I've thought about it. But, you know, like I said, they're still functional. They're at equilibrium right now. So if they start having major problems, I will get them counseling like I had to get, because my family made me get counseling because I was in denial until I was 50 years old and come to find out the reason for my bipolar and agoraphobia was the abuse when I was by three young ladies when I was five years old.

CONAN: Well, Ken, thanks very much for the call. We appreciate your sharing the story.

KEN: Thanks for your program. And I'm a contributor here at KWMU in...

CONAN: That's our member station in St. Louis. And thank you for that.

KEN: God bless you.

CONAN: Appreciate it. Let's see if we can go next to this is Kathy, Kathy with us from Little Rock.

KATHY (Caller): Yes, hi. Good morning. And thank you so much for a wonderful program.

CONAN: Thank you.

KATHY: Okay. I'm one of five siblings. I'm right in the middle. I'm 60. My siblings range today from 50 to 70. I grew up in a beautiful, really nice town in Illinois. When the divorce happened, I was 13, and my mother had to flee. My father was, you know, went on to marry another woman, younger, gave her two children.

And he had money, but because my mother fled the state, she was not allowed to have any support. So my mother moved to California with the five of us, and we came up in a real bad situation. No money, no way to get money. The lawyer said no, you left the - you don't get any money. My mother never had any training. So we went in to a real poverty-type situation, and we ate noodles and broth for years.

But because my mother was in such a state of despair, I've learned today that if the caretakers who are put in charge of young - really young children, because of a desperate situation, if the caretakers are not right and they don't know what they're doing, then the despair can -it's just (unintelligible) to the children and when those children grow up and have their own children, it continues. And in my family, all of my siblings are in really bad shape - drugs, alcohol.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

KATHY: Their children are in worse shape than we were when we were youngsters in the hands of poor caretakers. So it does filter and it doesn't stop.

CONAN: And it does extend through generations, is what you're saying.

KATHY: Absolutely. There is no (technical difficulty) in my mind. I've seen it happen. And I've just - you know, back in the '60s and '70s, when my mother was desperate for help, she couldn't get any money from my father. And she was in such a state of shock because she had lost her husband to a younger woman, you know, the whole story. She didn't ask for help. She didn't know there was help. She was too tired, and she was in such a state of despair that the people who wound up taking care of us were bad guys.

So now that we're all grown up, I'm afraid I'm one of five siblings that really - you know, made it. I got myself a job and I stayed, you know, employed for 30 years. And, you know, I've got my pension, but my siblings don't.

CONAN: Yeah.

KATHY: They - and all of their children are in serious, serious trouble.

CONAN: Kathy...

KATHY: So here's the deal. It's just the despair and lack of consideration for children. And when it starts and it's not checked, it doesn't stop.

CONAN: Kathy, thank you very much for the call. And we...

KATHY: Okay, love, thanks. Thanks for a great program.

CONAN: We wish you the best. Kathy, one of our callers. We're talking with Patricia Cohen of the New York Times. She covers arts and ideas and wrote the story "'Culture of Poverty' Makes a Comeback" for Sunday's edition of that newspaper. There's a link to that story on our website. You can go to, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Also with us is Sudhir Venkatesh. He's a professor of sociology at Columbia University, the author of "Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets."

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

And I wanted to ask you both about some things that we've drawn from both of those phone calls that we got, and obviously sad stories. But nevertheless, Patricia Cohen, there was one study that was mentioned in your article about something as simple as how a day care center is structured which can give single mothers a much better support structure in their community, or not.

Ms. COHEN: Exactly. I thought that was a very interesting study, actually, because obviously people who are in a better situation in terms of jobs have a larger network to call upon, not only if they lose their jobs to find another one but also in terms of support, all kinds of different ways that a family might need support.

So Mario Luis Small, who is a sociologist at the University of Chicago, looked at different day care centers to see even the way that perhaps the pick-up and drop-off were structured in terms of whether the parents had a chance to gather and talk to each other, or where there were trips planned and such, provided more opportunities for them to network and make connections and to kind of build that kind of support network.

I think anybody in New York, in fact, whether your kid is in school or whatever, knows that there is an informal network where you get information about things and you learn about opportunities, whether they're school-wise or health opportunities or different programs. It's really the informal network that really kind of prime you to be able to take advantage of opportunities when they come along.

CONAN: Yeah. Can you pick up my kid this afternoon? I've got a job interview.

Ms. COHEN: Exactly.

CONAN: Something as simple as that.

Ms. COHEN: Exactly.

CONAN: And Sudhir Venkatesh, it is - you know, it's often easy to dismiss sociological studies as something that, well, as we've heard criticisms of it before, patronizing unconnected to people's real problems. We're not going to find out anything about what to do and what might we - what we might do better unless we know what's going on.

Prof. VENKATESH: That's right. And I'll give you one very quick example to show how important it is to pay attention to people and how they live. We ended - in big cities we just tore down our high-rise so-called projects, our very concentrated poor housing developments. And we've sought to move people to better circumstances and better parts of the city. When those initial moves started to take place, policymakers said let's move a mother or a mother and father and their children.

The problem was that many of the families were living with grandparents and aunts and uncles in the home. And from a policymaker's standpoint, that looked like, well, you know, they weren't following the rules. They were not living as a nuclear family. This was even almost pathological in some cases, you heard the words used. But what they failed to recognize was these families were living this was because that aunt was taking care of the children because the family couldn't afford day care and so on.

And so these families said, if we're going to move, we have to move together, even if we don't look like a nuclear family. And the policy wouldn't let them. So here's a way in which policy with best intentions and says, you know, we should - we want to help parents help their children and we want a home to look in a particular way because it's good for children. At the end of the day, because they didn't listen to how poor families organize themselves so that they can survive, they ended up eventually hurting them and not enabling them to get the vouchers and get the government assistance and disqualifying them.

So it's a very, very difficult line to cross. On the one hand you want to pay attention to people. On the other hand you know that sometimes their behaviors need to change for them to help themselves.

CONAN: I wanted to finish with this email that we got from Cleveland, I think: I was a widowed teen mom of two boys who was fortunate enough to live in the 1990s, during a time when grants, day care vouchers, Medicaid and food stamps where available while I worked part time and earned college degrees. During that time I learned to hustle and do things, like save the change from food stamps to buy toilet paper or soap or sleep in my car after work or to go to class in the morning to save gas. It was hard. But today I teach in a high school in Cleveland and my spirit of hustle that I learned while living in poverty has helped me get my students many of the needed resources we lack in the school.

And I can tell you that I am not a teacher that doesn't care, like your previous caller mentioned, and take great offense to this generalization that fits only a small percentage.

Well, debates over terminology and generalizations, well, that's not going to go away. But thank you, Patricia Cohen, for...

Ms. COHEN: Thank you.

CONAN: ...joining us on this conversation, the culture of poverty - arts and ideas correspondent for The New York Times. And Sudhir Venkatesh, a professor of sociology at Columbia, thank you as well.

Prof. VENKATESH: Thank you.

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