Poverty: what's culture got to do with it?

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This summer, Harvard University professor Robert Sampson walked through Chicago neighborhoods, letting stamped, addressed envelopes fall to the ground. Would neighborhood residents pick up the lost envelope and stick it in a mail box, or would they keep on walking?

What Sampson found was that getting his lost mail back
had a lot to do with where he dropped them. In many neighborhoods, he
got half of them back. But in others - like Grand Boulevard - he got
almost none.

Why? Well, Sampson says, it's all about the one
word that sociologists have been afraid to touch when it comes to
talking about poverty: culture.

Back in 1965, Labor Secretary Daniel Patrick Moynihan was the first to blame poverty on culture. "The Negro family in the urban ghettos is crumbling," he wrote, adding that welfare dependency, crime and family structure created neighborhoods were kids were doomed to remain poor.

His ideas were widely criticized at the time, especially in academic circles, where people felt he was blaming the poor for their situation and failing to recognize the wider systemic problems that caused poverty.

But new researchers, like Sampson, are picking up where he left off, and trying to understand how culture influences poverty in more subtle ways. His letter experiment, for instance, shows how in some neighborhoods, people look out for each other, while in others, there's a strong push to fend for yourself.

The New York Times chronicles some of these new researchers, like Sampson, today, showing that their research is helping to explain poverty in new ways. They're not afraid to use culture as an explanation, but they are more careful about how they use it. "Today, social scientists are rejecting the notion of a monolithic and
unchanging culture of poverty. And they attribute destructive attitudes
and behavior not to inherent moral character but to sustained racism and
isolation," writes Patricia Cohen.

When we hear reports about shootings on the South and West sides of Chicago, we might just assume that kids there are raised to be violent. But the culture of poverty is more discreet, more insidious, says pioneering researcher William Julius Wilson.

"If you don't develop a tough demeanor, you won't survive. If you have
access to weapons, you get them, and if you get into a fight, you have
to use them," says Wilson.

Photo credit: dawgbyte77

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  • I'm a little late to comment on this but this study seems a little odd. Did Sampson control for the different amounts of pedestrian street traffic? I would guess that 100 people might walk by a dropped envelope in Lincoln Park or the Loop for every one who walks past a similar envelope in Douglas. Grand Boulevard is a very quiet neighborhood.

  • In reply to 55thSt:

    You're not late at all. Thanks for commenting!

    This study hasn't been published yet, so I don't know how they calculated it. My guess is, they would take in population size and street traffic to be more accurate, but I don't know. Definitely a good point.

    Street traffic itself can also be a sign of neighborhood health. People feel safer when there's more people out on the streets, in general, but then people also tend to stay inside if they fear danger or crime. So it can be a self fulfilling prophecy.

    I noticed your name is 55th street. Do you live near Grand Boulevard? If so, do you think it's the kind of neighborhood where people look out for each other?

  • In reply to 55thSt:

    I live in Hyde Park but don't have a car and work part time near IIT. I bike and ride the bus through different parts of Douglas and I like that neighborhood. It's population has declined by so much that it often feels like a ghost town. Late at night there are areas I would not feel safe walking around (the same is true of HP and also Lincoln Park) but I don't think people there don't look out for each other.

    If people are afraid to go out on the street because there are few other people out, is that culture or circumstances? Is there a "culture" in Grand Boulevard of staying behind closed doors or is it just people who got stuck for various reasons in a neighborhood that lost about 50% of its population since WWII.

    I'd like to see the study. I like that the scientist came up with such a simple, low cost test of neighborliness. I'd just like to see the result comparing say a low income busy area like 63rd and Ashland with a quiet residential street in Winnetka.

    Thanks for responding.

  • In reply to 55thSt:

    There's an interesting book that I, ah, borrowed once in the course of reporting a story and never gave back. It's called "Bridges Out of Poverty," and it makes the point that all economic levels have their own culture, whether that's poverty, middle class or wealth.

    To illustrate the point, the book had three quizzes. Each of them asked whether you had certain skills. I did poorly on both the poverty and wealth quizzes, which had questions like "Could you move in a day?" or "Do you know how to hire a decorator for a party?" But the middle-class questions seemed obvious.

    The point, of course, is it's only obvious if you belong to the culture.

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    As you know most of the communities (such as Bengali) in this sub-continent(Indian) are covered by ‘Culture of Poverty’ (Oscar Lewis), irrespective of class or economic strata, lives in pavement or apartment. Nobody is seriously ashamed of the deep-rooted corruption, decaying general quality of life, worst Politico-governance, bad work place, weak mother language, continuous consumption of common social space (mental as well as physical, both). We are becoming fathers & mothers only by self-procreation, mindlessly & blindfold(supported by some lame excuses). Simply depriving their(the children) fundamental rights of a decent & caring society, fearless & dignified living. All of us are driven only by the very animal instinct, pushing persons to a nasty survival, indulging the entire community to go perish. Do not ever look for any other positive alternative gesture/values to perform human way of parenthood - deliberately stop giving birth to any child him/herself till the society improves up to the mark, co-parenting children those are born out of extreme poverty, instead. If the Bengali people ever desires genuine freedom from vicious cycle of poverty, need to involve themselves in ‘Production of Space’(Henri Lefebvre), an intense attachment with the society at large to overcome inherent ‘hopeless’ mindset, decent Politics would certainly come up. – SB, 16/4, Girish Banerjee Lane, Howrah -711101, India.

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