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

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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