Pat Moynihan’s Non-Vindicating Vindication

Monday’s front-page New York Times piece, “‘Culture of Poverty,’ Long an Academic Slur, Makes a Comeback,” is about how it’s okay again for scholars to talk about the “culture of poverty” and to study “cultural” aspects of the subject.

It’s a trend reporter Patricia Cohen suggests vindicates Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who popularized the term in the mid-’60s when he infamously wrote that much of black America was caught up in a “tangle of pathology” resulting from “the weakness of the [black] family structure,” which he called “the principal source of most of the aberrant, inadequate or antisocial behavior that did not establish, but now serves to perpetuate, the cycle of poverty and deprivation.”

But Cohen cites no one defending the term “culture of poverty,” though the headline suggests as much. And some of the studies cited as being part of a vindication of “cultural” studies of poverty are things that few sociologists–who, of course, routinely study “culture” as a matter of course–would ever have objected to. Exactly who, for instance, would object to a study of the effects of community violence on the ability of children to learn?

And, as Cohen explains, at least two of the studies cited in her report (including one that looks at what makes parents with kids in daycare more likely to develop networks of support) don’t track with income or ethnicity, making them examples more suitable for inclusion in an article other than the one she wrote.

One of Cohen’s problems seems to be in her narrow definition of “culture,” which buys into the the right-wing view that culture, in this context, denotes such issues as marriage, “illegitimacy” and so on. In other words, largely Moynihan’s view of things.

Unless I am imagining things, scholars have been studying for decades how cultural factors such as educational and economic opportunity, violence and even nutrition affect poverty and poor communities.

In the end, Cohen’s suggestion that Moynihan’s racist views are back in academic vogue amount to little more than Princeton sociologist Douglas Massey saying Moynihan has been “maligned” (without explaining how), a gratuitous mention of comedian Bill Cosby’s more Moynihanian sociological conjectures, and the Times‘ devout wish to see the great man vindicated.

About Steve Rendall

Senior Media Analyst and Co-producer of CounterSpin Steve Rendall is FAIR's senior analyst. He is co-host of CounterSpin, FAIR's national radio show. His work has received awards from Project Censored, and has won the praise of noted journalists such as Les Payne, Molly Ivins and Garry Wills. He is co-author of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error (The New Press, 1995, New York City). Rendall has appeared on dozens of national television and radio shows, including appearances on CNN, C-SPAN, CNBC, MTV and Fox Morning News. He was the subject of a profile in the New York Times (5/19/96), and has been quoted on issues of media and politics in publications such as the Chicago Tribune, Washington Post and New York Times. Rendall contributed stories to the International Herald Tribune from France, Spain and North Africa; worked as a freelance writer in San Francisco; and worked as an archivist collecting historical material on the Spanish Civil War and the volunteers who fought in it. Rendall studied philosophy and chemistry at San Francisco State University, the College of Notre Dame and UC Berkeley.