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
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.
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