Political Cultures and the Culture of Poverty

“‘Culture of Poverty,’ Once an Academic Slur, Makes a Comeback” reports the New York Times this morning, referring to the debate that started with Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1965 report that described “the urban black family as caught in an inescapable ‘tangle of pathology’ of unmarried mothers and welfare dependency.” According to the story, written by Patricia Cohen, while the idea had lots of traction politically up through Clinton’s war on welfare “as we know it,” many on the left in academia took offense at the suggestions that blacks were somehow to blame for poverty and that the situation was next to hopeless. And so discussing it became verbotten for decades.

I was just a tot when all that happened, but I grew up hearing references to the “culture of poverty” notion, and I never found it offensive, at least not prima facie. To say that one is born into a culture that is disempowering and hence helps explain inequity makes sense to me, especially if we don’t then blame the victim.  This country is in toto to blame for a history that has never been recognized, wrongs that have never been righted, legacies that are harmful all around.

As Cohen reports, economists, sociologists and others are returning to the idea now, shorn of some of the baggage, able to actually look at the situation of unwed parents, absent fathers, and continuing poverty as a problem of culture.  The new crop of academics are looking at the effects of shared understandings and perceptions. Positive ones help communities flourish; negative ones seem to doom communities to perpetual dysfunction. Paraphrasing Harvard sociologist Robert Sampson, Cohen writes,

The shared perception of a neighborhood — is it on the rise or stagnant? — does a better job of predicting a community’s future than the actual level of poverty.

I applaud all the work that Cohen points to in using the rubric of culture to understand poverty.

But I think we should take this much further.  Even more widespread and endemic than a culture of poverty is a culture of powerlessness. Maybe five percent of the population is exempt from this problem, those with the money and / or connections and / or sense of efficacy to think that what they care about matters and that they can make a difference. So many more think that what they think about on issues of common, political concern just doesn’t matter and that little they do will make any discernible difference. It’s a wonder that as many people vote as do.

Our culture of powerlessness tells us that politics is what governments do, not what civil societies, publics, or public spheres do. It pays attention to administrative and economic power, not what Habermas calls, following Dewey’s lead,  communicative power or what Arendt calls the power of acting and speaking in the presence of others. This is the culture we need to cultivate.

By Noelle McAfee

I am professor of philosophy at Emory University and editor of the Kettering Review. My latest book, Fear of Breakdown: Politics and Psychoanalysis, explores what is behind the upsurge of virulent nationalism and intransigent politics across the world today. My other writings include Democracy and the Political Unconscious; Habermas, Kristeva, and Citizenship; Julia Kristeva; and numerous articles and book chapters. Edited volumes include Standing with the Public: the Humanities and Democratic Practice and a special issue of the philosophy journal Hypatia on feminist engagements in democratic theory. I am also the author of the entry on feminist political philosophy in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and well into my next book project on democratic public life.

1 comment

  1. there is a song by the hip-hop artist immortal technique that speaks to some of these causes, one of which i found particularly enlightening. in the beginning of the song he discusses how ‘players’ and ‘pimps’ are only men who have been wounded in love once before and now behave misogynistically out of vengefulness/sklavenmoral. he says ‘most n—-s are only players cuz they got played/and have not let go of that s— since the 7th grade/ yeah you got your heart broke, life sucks doesn’t it?/ but you shouldn’t f— up someone else’s life because of it/someone did your mother like that, that’s why you’re fatherless/ before jail or racist cops that’s what the problem is.’

    where i think this is especially interesting is in how it mediates a tension we find between left and right on ‘the culture of poverty’ kind of outlook–on the left there is the danger of objectivizing african-americans (ie treating the problem as one not happening to capable subjects but machines determined wholly by their environment) and on the right the ignorance of environment and over-emphasis on personal responsibility and bootstrap stuff.

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