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Culture as a cause of poverty has been wilfully misinterpreted

Tuesday 19 August 2014

The new poverty – a culture of the poor – has little power to relieve its own suffering, as welfare sanctions and cuts demonstrate Jeremy Seabrook

theguardian.com, Thursday 14 August 2014

When the term “culture of poverty” was first used by the anthropologist Oscar Lewis in 1959, it was seized upon as “evidence” that poverty is not caused primarily by an absence of material resources. This was never Lewis’s intention. In a 1966 essay for Scientific American, he wrote: “A culture of poverty is not just a matter of deprivation or disorganisation – a term signifying the absence of something. It is a culture in the traditional anthropological sense in that it provides human beings with a design for living, a ready-made set of solutions for human problems, and so serves a significant adaptive function.”

This was wilfully misinterpreted by those who believed poverty could not be abated by throwing money at it (that sole remedy for all other social ills); it was absorbed into an ancient moral critique of the poor; identified in modern industrial society with chaotic, disorganised lives, absence of parental ambition for children, aversion to hard labour and a tendency to addiction.

Lewis’s work influenced a report by Daniel Moynihan during the Lyndon B Johnson presidency’s “war on poverty” in 1965, which spoke of a “tangle of pathology” in relation to black families, and highlighted a “deviant maternalism” as a consequence of the fugitive male – a claim feminists later vehemently rebutted. In any case, riots in Los Angeles, Detroit and other US cities in the late 60s eclipsed theories of culture, which yielded to more pragmatic social programmes of investment and renewal of urban areas.

But the idea of culture as a cause of poverty has been tenacious; because it not only is readily assimilated to earlier ideas of “the undeserving”, but also lends a shimmer of scientific authority to ancient prejudice. It certainly animates the reformist zealots of Britain’s coalition government. This culture poses an anthropological problem, similar to that faced by imperialism when it confronted the “savage” societies of its overseas possessions. It requires colonisation of unorthodox or aberrant beliefs, and conformity with “correct”, universal values, which always coincide with those of the rich and powerful.

The culture of poverty today presents itself as “a culture of welfare dependency” – a useful distraction from material deprivation. The word “culture” is also widely misused by politicians and journalists: we hear of a culture of bullying, a culture of neglect, a culture of fear, a culture of secrecy – so many cultures to be changed by fiat of the Talcott Parsons of suburbia, the Durkheims of the inner city!

Rather than a “culture of poverty” (which implies passivity of poor people), we should perhaps think of “the culture of the poor”. This culture does exist. It has not remained static, but is dynamic, and follows changes in industrial society. In the early industrial era, poverty was a forced frugality, a want of the necessities for survival – a lack of nutrition, shelter, fuel. Resources at the disposal of industrial workers were inadequate for a dignified sufficiency; people used desperate expedients – pawning clothes and redeeming them on payday, scavenging in the rural hinterland for dietary supplements, dependency on loans, frequent removals to avoid bailiffs.

This culture was superseded in an age of affluence, when to be poor came to mean living off the remains of wealth, the throwaway surplus of the rich. If contemporary poverty is less divisive than its predecessor, this is because rich and poor are now united in a common endeavour – a desire for more, which coincides with the imperatives of capitalism. The earlier culture of the poor offered a different solution: it was, to some degree, self-conscious, since the labour of the people was indispensable to industrial society, and this gave them considerable power.

With the removal of much industry from the rich world, the poor were remade in the image of wealth. This is different from the incipient consciousness of the impoverished workers of Victorian Britain, who had a collective character. It responded to, and recognised, a common human destiny. It was, of course, dominated by male labour, since the labour of men was, in most industries, the only thing that stood between women and children and total destitution. This has been overlooked by those who have exulted in both the diminution of men’s power (high time though it may have been), and – perhaps involuntarily – the loss of any sense of a shared predicament; since the culture of contemporary poverty is characterised by a ruthless, unsentimental individualism.

The new poverty, the triumphant poverty of modernity, unlike its predecessor, is not in opposition to capitalism. Quite the contrary; it pays homage to it, fealty almost. It represents the extinction of social hope – the saving grace of an earlier, though even more grinding, capitalist poverty. Present-day poverty has little power to relieve its own suffering, as demonstrated by the misery created by “benefit sanctions”, a reduction in allowances and cuts to welfare. It illuminates the wider dependency of humanity upon the market; market-dependency, a condition that does not name itself.

Since capitalism has extinguished significant alternatives – belief systems, values or ideologies that could conceivably replace it – the new poverty has nothing to offer in its own stead; only the sharp, opportunistic wisdom of getting by, surviving; living, as they say, one day at a time. The poor are victims of capitalism’s realm of freedom, which favours those chosen by fortune or chance – the holder of the lucky number or the winning ticket, the windfall, the possessor of the startling talent or stupendous prowess, the bonanza in the lottery of a capitalism identified as life itself.

This “culture of the poor” scarcely contains the seed of an alternative, or even of opposition: occasional outbreaks of violence, looting and destruction, occur, but are put down with considerable severity, as the riots of August 2011 showed. This is modernised poverty, which must console itself with the overflow from the waste pipes of wealth. The only promise of emancipation for the poor comes from within the very structures that oppress them. No wonder the culture of poverty is a theory for our time: it lends an aura of academic authority to the idea that poverty is transmitted culturally, and economics has little or nothing to do with it.

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