Spotlight Exclusives

The Culture of the Non-Poor: A Hidden Force

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This commentary is the latest in the series, entitled “Poverty and Society: A New Inquiry into an Old Question.” Please be sure to read Peter Edelman█¬s “Opening Thoughts” to learn more.

When people talk about the connection between culture and poverty, what they usually mean is the culture of the poor. This is true whether one espouses outdated notions that “blame the victim,” or more recent theories that focus on, for example, the varied cultural influences low-income people draw upon in negotiating and escaping poor neighborhoods.

Yet culture also affects the actions of the non-poor, including the ways that the non-poor respond to the poor. This culture manifests itself most importantly in how it shapes the policies designed to address poverty.

Policymakers are influenced by many things, and culture is one of them. The basic ideas that policymakers hold about the world dictate which policies are desirable, and which are feasible. As the popularity of these ideas ebbs and flows, the type and range of policies desirable or possible also changes.

To date, research on the role of ideas in social policy has tended to focus on the concept of “deservingness.” According to this theory, to the extent that the needy are viewed as “deserving,” social policy tends to be more generous. Conversely, when the poor are seen as “undeserving,” policy tends to be more miserly.

Yet this focus on deservingness is actually off the mark. First, policymakers rarely talk in terms of “deservingness”at least not out loud. Second, social policy is primarily used as a tool to achieve some socioeconomic goal. In the context of poverty, this means that policymakers tend to debate the best way to reduce poverty, not who deserves help.

Welfare reform is a good example. Champions of welfare reform in Congress did not argue that recipients were undeserving of support, rather they argued that because recipients had grown dependent on an overly generous welfare system, the “compassionate” thing to do was to set time limits on welfare so that recipients could learn to be self-sufficient. In this way, it was argued, poverty would be reduced. Welfare reform, in other words, was viewed as a tool for reducing povertya means to an end.

This is where culture enters the picture. The ideas that policymakers hold both about the socioeconomic causes of poverty as well as ideas about who the poor “are” tend to shape the range of policy responses seen as useful.

Contrasting congressional discussions over anti-poverty policy in the 1960s with those in the 1990s provides a useful illustration of this dynamic.

In the 1960s, policymakers understood the key cause of poverty as the breakdown of urban communities, which was itself the result of limited opportunities. The poor were viewed in psychological terms as hopeless, helpless victims, hemmed in by discrimination and unemployment.

This was not, it is worth pointing out, simply a left-wing or Democratic point of view. In hearings over the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 (the centerpiece of the War on Poverty), Republicans largely agreed with this understanding of the problem. Partisan disagreement focused mainly on the quantity of resources that should be devoted to solving the problem. Two key provisions of the Act were Job Corps and Community Action Programs (CAPs). Job Corps was meant to remove the poor from their neighborhoods and provide them not only training but also what Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy described as “hope,” “dignity,” and “self-respect.” CAPs were intended to complement Job Corps by providing communities with a form of organization that would alleviate their sense of helplessness by giving them some degree of power and voice over local institutions.

By the 1990s, the perceived cause of poverty had shifted from limited opportunity to family breakdown, which critics contended was exacerbated by an overly generous welfare system. The poor were seen as rational actors who nonetheless lacked “family values.” Basically, they were cast as good people who made the wrong choices. The thrust of welfare reform in the 1990s was to cut benefits and help the poor make the “right” choices.

Notably, it was not just Republicans who espoused this view. Many of the provisions of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunities Reconciliation Act of 1996 were supported or even spearheaded by Democrats. The primary points of contention were the length and certainty of time limits on benefits and whether welfare should be funded through block grants. But the basic premises of the legislation were rarely questioned.

These two radically divergent historical moments the 1960s and the 1990s – both point to a similar principle. When certain ideas gain currency on both sides of the aisle they can powerfully influence the way policymakers respond to poverty. A new conversation on culture is incomplete if it leaves out this culturethe culture that guides anti-poverty policy.

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Joshua Guetzkow is an assistant professor for the Department of Sociology and Anthropology and the Institute of Criminology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

For a related article by the authors, which appeared in the May 2010 Issue of the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, please visit Sage Journals Online.

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