When I woke up this morning to the elections’ results, I remembered this concept of “la cultura de la pobreza” or culture of poverty, a theory that anthropologist Oscar Lewis developed in the 60s. I am a girl of the 70s, the time when everything seemed possible, and younger people might not remember but back then we gained a lot of terrain in women’s rights, civil rights and human rights.
In his work, Lewis mentioned some seventy characteristics distinctive of the culture of poverty, and he argued that:
“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.”
Among other characteristics, the original theory described poor people as having distrust in institutions –police and government–, as strongly oriented to live in the present, and having little interest in planning their future.
The concept was introduced in American politics by Daniel Patrick Moynihan in 1965, the assistant labor secretary during the Johnson administration, who described the urban black family as incapable of escaping the cycle of poverty, and the makers of their own bad by transmitting those values from one generation to the next. The same has been argued for other sectors of low-income and minority populations.
The theory was harshly criticized for blaming the poor for being poor and for developing ways to cope with poverty. Anthropologist Carol B. Stack criticized the theory saying that this explanation was political in nature, and that it served conservative interests.
The truth is, whatever comes first, the egg or the chicken, the American ethos –the belief that freedom includes the opportunity for prosperity and success, and that upward social mobility is only achieved through hard work – has done a good job at reinforcing these ideas. Those who fail to make it have only to blame themselves because they do not make enough effort or they do not take advantage of opportunities.
In addition, large sums spent in pounding these ideas while discouraging people to have a saying only help to continue the status-quo.
Conservative strategies have proven time after time that they do not favor the interests of the working poor. While they continue to oppose decent minimum wages that would help families rise from the claws of poverty, keep undermining the chance for large parts of the immigrant population access to a lawful participation in the working and political life of this country, and avert the access of low-income people to higher education, to public healthcare and to better economic opportunities, the culture of poverty will continue to persist.