Series: Poverty and Society: A New Inquiry into an Old Question

Series: Poverty and Society: A New Inquiry into an Old Question
Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity
Peter Edelman
August 23, 2011

This commentary is the introduction for the series, entitled “Poverty and Society: A New Inquiry into an Old Question.

The debate over whether there is a “culture” of poverty is hardly new. The subject has always been controversial and, many would say, politicized.

The contemporary American version centers mainly on the inner city, although patterns of behavior among Native Americans evoke the same discussion. And, of course, the work of Oscar Lewis, while not about Latinos in the United States, was an important source of thinking and debate about arguably analogous populations on our side of the border.

Insofar as the American inner city is concerned, the problem many of us have had with “culture” of poverty analysis is that we have seen in it a pejorative connotation that fails to take account of the structural forces in the wider society that interact with the dynamics in areas of concentrated poverty to shape behaviors in those communities. This response was at the heart of the firestorm evoked by the Moynihan report nearly half a century ago.

As time has passed, though, the statistical facts associated with neighborhoods of concentrated poverty – on matters such as the disproportionate incidence of nonmarital and teenage births, dropping out of school, violence in the street and the home, and substance abuse – have made it difficult to analyze the problem in purely structural terms. But whether it is appropriate to use the word “culture” in relation to those issues is another matter entirely.

A synthesis has appeared in the thinking of some researchers and commentators in recent years. The commentary series that follows highlights some of this research, much of which has been pulled together by the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences. The synthesis of these academicians says yes, there are behavioral problems in high-poverty neighborhoods, but they stem originally from a confluence of racial and ethnic discrimination and economic forces. 

The argument continues that the behaviors themselves cannot be overlooked and need to be addressed in remedial strategies, along with intensified attention to structural problems that stem from forces outside the neighborhood. We seem now, finally, to be moving toward a greater realization that, for example, housing, school, criminal justice, and transportation policies controlled from outside, as well as employer decisions, have had an enormous effect in shaping the demographics and behaviors of residents in high-poverty neighborhoods.

At least I hope we are moving toward such a realization. 

It is imperative that all arguments in this delicate area be grounded in careful research. Over the last half-century we have seen far too many epithets and labels dressed in academic garb and propounded as well-grounded conclusions. We need to understand what is cause and what is effect, recognizing that, even if the cause lies elsewhere, we must all take individual and personal responsibility for what we do. 

The remedies, insofar as necessary, should entail helping people on an individual basis in their efforts to take personal responsibility, as well as focusing on reform of the outside systems that impinge. At the end of the day, however, the unassailable fact is that no one can succeed without assuming responsibility for himself or herself, but at the same time too many who make a full effort to do so will fail if society ignores the barriers it builds.

This is the first of a special commentary series from Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity.  Read the rest of the series here.

Peter Edelman is a professor of law, co-director of the joint degree in law and public policy and the faculty co-director of the Center of Poverty, Inequality, and Public Policy at Georgetown University.


This article and series originally appeared on Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity.  It is reprinted here with permisson.

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