Are We to Blame?: A Reassessment of Poverty in Black and Latin@ communities

Poverty is a big issue that plagues American families across this nation. Poverty is even higher amongst Blacks and Latinos/as (at 16.7 percent and 11.3 percent respectively). Solutions to the poverty issue have been thrown around for centuries, including various welfare programs, work programs like Job Corps, education programs like Head Start, and the list goes on. A significant portion of these programs have been successful, but programs aimed at helping the poor do not retain popularity for long. Also, these programs are not structured to reach out to all poor individuals living within our cities and states. It may not be fair to summarize the sentiments of some of our politicians, but Ill take a stab at it. For the most part, opponents of help programs state that individuals have to learn how to help themselves. Those who persistently live in poverty only have themselves to blame. Sound familiar? To me, these ideas sound alot like the “culture of poverty” theory. For those not familiar with this theory, read below:

According to Oscar Lewis, “The subculture of the poor develops mechanisms that tend to perpetuate it, especially because of what happens to the world view, aspirations, and character of the children who grow up in it.” Lewis argued that although the burdens of poverty were systemic and therefore imposed upon these members of society, they led to the formation of an autonomous subculture as children were socialized into behaviors and attitudes that perpetuated their inability to escape the underclass.

Some of the characteristics of the poor living within the “culture of poverty,” according to Lewis, are provided below:

The people in the culture of poverty have a strong feeling of marginality, of helplessness, of dependency, of not belonging. They are like aliens in their own country, convinced that the existing institutions do not serve their interests and needs. Along with this feeling of powerlessness is a widespread feeling of inferiority, of personal unworthiness. This is true of the slum dwellers of Mexico City, who do not constitute a distinct ethnic or racial group and do not suffer from racial discrimination. In the United States the culture of poverty that exists in the Negroes has the additional disadvantage of racial discrimination. People with a culture of poverty have very little sense of history. They are a marginal people who know only their own troubles, their own local conditions, their own neighborhood, their own way of life. Usually, they have neither the knowledge, the vision, nor the ideology to see the similarities between their problems and those of others like themselves elsewhere in the world. In other words, they are not class conscious, although they are very sensitive indeed to status distinctions. When the poor become class conscious or members of trade union organizations, or when they adopt an internationalist outlook on the world they are, in my view, no longer part of the culture of poverty although they may still be desperately poor.

Although I do not completely agree with Lewis’ assessment, is he partially correct? Are there some people, whether they be Black, Latin@, or White, who adopt this “lifestyle” because they know that they can survive with the help of government aid programs? Are there some people who remain unemployed because of welfare benefits? I wont answer any of those questions. Regardless of the validity of this situation, a few individuals’ actions should not be representative of entire groups. There are SEVERAL people who work hard each day for minimum wage who still need government aid and there some who do not.

Ultimately to answer the headline of this blog post, there is no simple solution to ending poverty in minority communities. However, we should still strive for better schools, better housing, greater health awareness (a post on Diabetes is coming soon), and continue our long and often tiring job searches. Hardwork is rewarded.

Oscar Lewis :

The Root article on unemployment:

Culture of Poverty 1 and 2:

2 responses to “Are We to Blame?: A Reassessment of Poverty in Black and Latin@ communities

  1. You rightly summarize Lewis (along with Moynahan and others) in saying he argues that “the burdens of poverty are systemic and therefore imposed upon these members of society”. But their description of the “culture of poverty” which results (and takes several generations to solidify) has gotten a bad name because it is used to blame the victim too many times. All you need to do is listen to the Republican candidates to see that. But you then make the same unfortunate leap when you ask “are there some people… who adopt this ‘lifestyle’ because they know that they can survive with the help of government aid programs?” The answer is, yeah, a few! But they are not the problem. The societal problem that we have is the overwhelming majority of kids who grow up in neighborhoods like mine (80% in poverty) that are never taught that they have a choice. And it is not their fault!

  2. Poverty in America is sustained by the very programs and agencies that are there, ostensibly, to help them (us, because I’m in there too). I don’t think you could design a system that is more effective at sustaining poverty than what we have.

    The key factor is how the “system” deprives people of the very mechanisms people need to ascend from poverty. Take any aspect of daily life and by design people have to spend inordinate amounts of time and energy on it:
    Housing – lousy storage (therefor people cannot buy the larger more economical quantities and more trips to the market); usually no plumbing for washer/dryer (this means people have to go to laundromats (very expensive and time consuming); the list goes on.

    Most important, though, is that, “the poor” are generally discouraged from self-employment and entrepreneurial opportunities despite the fact that self-employment and entrepreneurship have a far better chance of helping people out of poverty.

    Finally, “the poor” are treated as a source of cheap labor – one need only review the Workforce Investment Act (an abomination (IMHO) that creates a subordinate working class and a dominant (ruling) class of owners and managers) and then go look for your local Workforce Advisory Council (most cities have local council of some sort that has controls workforce investment funds.

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