April 24, 2008

culture of poverty

Harry at Crooked Timber has a piece up about the deficit model of poverty. Which, more or less, is the idea that poor people have deficits that need to be fixed, and is, depending on who you are, either absolutely obvious or terribly offensive. There are some obvious ways in which poverty creates deficits: lack of time, money, knowledge of how to manipulate the system or what to say to get a response. Also, as Harry points out, poverty is a stressor, which makes it that much harder to adapt to situations effectively and make long-term plans. In addition, I would agree that, for example, inner-city African American culture has certain aspects which can disadvantage its members in terms of mainstream social success.

So yes. Deficits abound, and as far as I'm concerned it is foolhardy to ignore the problems in a culture simply because the group of people with that culture is oppressed. But it's the way this theory gets used, as well as the specific ways it gets promoted, that are troubling. For one thing, most cultures have significant deficits. My mainstream middle class culture sure has a lot of problems, but because we have social privilege, no one worries about those deficits. But glass houses and all that.

For another thing, when people talk about the problems with various cultures, they end up conflating problems with differences. As an example: current mainstream rap and hip hop promote a violent, supremely materialistic view of the world, but that's not all that rap and hip hop are, and it's not a problem with the style of music itself - in fact, I'd argue it's a problem with the record labels that choose that kind of content to promote. Another example: Amish culture values craft skills far more than academic skills; while this value disadvantages the Amish in terms of economic competitiveness, it's not a problem per se (especially since as far as the Amish are concerned, economic competitiveness is close to meaningless). The assumption that everyone should value the same thing is the road to cultural impoverishment, and also to something like the cultural equivalent of monoculture: a world in which, if conditions change, our culture collapses because it has become too specialized.

There's more to say, but I'm having trouble articulating it clearly. Something about the way people use irresponsibility, a quality present in all communities, to essentially wash their hands of the problems of poverty; and something about the way cultures develop, and the adaptive quality of certain cultural values in an environment under pressure. And maybe something about how if you're part of the oppressing group, you're probably not the best person to be telling the oppressed folks how they ought to act.

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