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.