John Feehery: Speaking Engagements


Culture of Poverty

Posted on October 18, 2010

Daniel Patrick Moynihan

The New York Times had an interesting story today about how sociologists are beginning to accept what former Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan knew four decades ago:  that one’s culture can play a role in keeping one in poverty (

“For more than 40 years, social scientists investigating the causes of poverty have tended to treat cultural explanations like Lord Voldemort: That Which Must Not Be Named.  The reticence was a legacy of the ugly battles that erupted after Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then an assistant labor secretary in the Johnson administration, introduced the idea of a “culture of poverty” to the public in a startling 1965 report. Although Moynihan didn’t coin the phrase (that distinction belongs to the anthropologist Oscar Lewis), his description of the urban black family as caught in an inescapable “tangle of pathology” of unmarried mothers and welfare dependency was seen as attributing self-perpetuating moral deficiencies to black people, as if blaming them for their own misfortune.”

Further on in the story, a revealing item about the value of marriage:

“Seeking to recapture the topic from economists, sociologists have ventured into poor neighborhoods to delve deeper into the attitudes of residents. Their results have challenged some common assumptions, like the belief that poor mothers remain single because they don’t value marriage. In Philadelphia, for example, low-income mothers told the sociologists Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas that they thought marriage was profoundly important, even sacred, but doubted that their partners were “marriage material.” Their results have prompted some lawmakers and poverty experts to conclude that programs that promote marriage without changing economic and social conditions are unlikely to work.”

According to the latest census results, the number of people who have never married has continued to rise. Also according to the census, “In spring 2008, an estimated 13.7 million parents had custody of 21.8 million children under 21 years of age while the other parent lived somewhere else. About one-quarter (24.6 percent) of custodial parents and their children had 2007 incomes below the poverty level, about twice as high as the overall poverty rate for the total population (12.5 percent). Among White children in families, 22.4 percent lived with their custodial parents. The proportion of Black children in families who lived with their custodial parent while the other parent lived outside their household (48.2 percent) was more than twice as large as the proportion of White children.”

According to Wikipedia:   “Success in marriage has been associated with higher education and higher age. 81% of college graduates, over 26 years of age, who wed in the 1980s, were still married 20 years later. 65% of college graduates under 26 who married in the 1980s, were still married 20 years later. 49% of high school graduates under 26 years old who married in the 1980s, were still married 20 years later. In 2009, 2.9% of adults 35-39 without a college degree were divorced, compared with 1.6% with a college education.”

The New York Times had another interesting tidbit, citing one study that showed that living in a culture of poverty can have an impact on intellectual development: “growing up in areas where violence limits socializing outside the family and where parents haven’t attended college stunts verbal ability, lowering I.Q. scores by as much as six points, the equivalent of missing more than a year in school.”

It is no secret that it is hard to be a single parent.  It is no surprise that single mothers have the toughest time staying out of poverty.  It should be a no shock that the best way to escape poverty is to stay in school, get a college degree, and put off marriage until a time when it is much less likely that you will get divorced.  The problem for those who live in poverty, though, is that the cultural norms of the very poor make it very hard for them to make choices that will help them to escape the clutches of poverty.

It is hard to resist joining a gang, when being a member of a gang is the best way to insure your personal security.  It is hard to stay in school, when the culture surrounding your neighborhood makes fun of you for being uncool or acting white.  It is hard to have the opportunity to learn more when you put your safety in jeopardy every time you leave the house.  It is hard to get married, when nobody you know is “marriage material”, when nobody in your neighborhood has a decent job or prospects for ever getting a decent job.

Poverty is not just a condition that afflicts black people, by the way.  There are plenty of white and Hispanics who live in the same kind of poverty traps that can be found in predominantly black neighborhoods in the big cities.  30% of all single parent white families live in poverty, for example.

It is good that sociologists are finally acknowledging that culture plays a huge role in creating patterns of poverty.  Moynihan, who was lambasted for suggesting such a thing 45 years ago, proved to be right, as he usually was.

We know now that culture plays a significant role in creating poverty.  The question today is how do we fix it?

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