culture of poverty


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culture of poverty

the way of life developed and reproduced by poor people; an explanation for the existence of POVERTY in terms of the cultural characteristics of the poor themselves. The term was first used by Oscar LEWIS (1961,1968), who emphasized ‘fatalism’ as the particular aspect of UNDERCLASS subculture which ensured the inheritance of poverty. He argued that the CYCLE OF DEPRIVATION was self-perpetuating and that children were quickly socialized into the values and attitudes of being poor. Lewis argued that the ‘culture of poverty’ in underdeveloped societies, typified by a cash economy and high unemployment, inhibited the inculcation of the ‘modern’ values appropriate for social and economic development. The idea of a culture of poverty has been criticized, notably by Valentine (1968), for its concentration on the familial and local view of poverty which largely places responsibility for poverty on the individual and the family rather than examining the external influences which may preclude social and economic development.

As applied particularly to the Third World, the ‘culture of poverty’ argument can be seen as part of the general debate, which emerged from the work of Talcott PARSONS, about the importance of VALUES in helping or hindering the process of ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL DEVELOPMENT. In this way, ‘backward’ values, such as ‘fatalism’ and ‘resignation’, were contrasted with the modernizing values of‘enterprise’ and ‘achievement’ visible in affluent capitalist societies (see also ACHIEVEMENT MOTIVATION).

More recent research suggests that people living in the poor shanty towns described by Lewis do not have a fatalistic attitude within a culture of poverty; rather families and neighbours work together to devise strategies in order to adapt and cope with their changing social and economic circumstances. The impoverished inhabitants of Third World barrios and bidonvilles are far from apathetic. Research has clearly shown (e.g. Roberts, 1978; Lomnitz, 1977) how far the qualities of enterprise and inventiveness are needed simply to ensure survival in such adverse circumstances. Typically, family and neighbours develop complicated survival strategies, often involving the articulation of many different forms of informal and formal economic activity Thus, relatively little empirical support has been found for the ‘culture of poverty’ argument. Other explanations are therefore required for Third World poverty (see UNDERDEVELOPMENT).