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Is the Culture of Poverty really Back Again? by Jerry Krase

According to Patricia Cohen recently in her front page The New York Times article, the ‘Culture of Poverty’ is making a “Comeback” complaining that  “For more than 40 years, social scientists investigating the causes of poverty have tended to treat cultural explanations like Lord Voldemort: That Which Must Not Be Named.” As partial explanation for shy social science she offered that: “The reticence was a legacy of the ugly battles that erupted after Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then an assistant labor secretary in the Johnson administration, introduced the idea of a “culture of poverty” to the public in a startling 1965 report. Although Moynihan didn’t coin the phrase (that distinction belongs to the anthropologist Oscar Lewis, his description of the urban black family as caught in an inescapable “tangle of pathology” of unmarried mothers and welfare dependency was seen as attributing self-perpetuating moral deficiencies to black people, as if blaming them for their own misfortune”

On one of what The Times might characterize as a left-leaning website discussion there was a call to arms to devise a “disciplined” counter to this perceived right-leaning more and less-informed, but nevertheless intentionally provocative commentary.  After all The Times actually tries to be “fair and balanced” as opposed to other organs for which the claim is sufficient.

Frankly speaking, I don’t think a ‘disciplined’ response is the only thing that is needed from us. I am concerned just as much now, as I was then, when Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s purposely misunderstood work ‘The Moynihan Report’ was first published (1965). I justifiably feared that it would be used (as it was) for (neo-conservative) political purposes. My sense is that its re-emergence at this moment in time is related to the well-financed media trend toward ignoring the causes of poverty in America and re-blaming its victims. The current depression in America (perhaps world-wide) was caused by the greed of global financial institutions and yet it is the less affluent public that will suffer the consequences. As it was in the past depressions, one major aspect of this offensive defensive strategy is to create scapegoats such as the (remember the term) “undeserving poor”?

Right now the newspapers (mass media in general), including the allegedly liberal The New York Times, is filled with more and less reasoned attacks on decently paid public and private workers, hard-earned pensions and health care benefits, and well-funded public education, and just about anything else that hints of the dreaded “socialism” which lurks behind the curtain of left-leaning elected officials… beginning with Obama. The current juggernaut of moneyed interests funding rabid political candidates and campaign ads in vulnerable democratic legislative districts is another part of the strategy.

The long-term strategy of the Right was to create large deficits in order to argue that government (except for invading countries with important oil fields) was too large and too costly. One trap almost everyone fell prey to was tax reductions which created enormous wealth for those at the top and pin and pocket money for the rest of us. One odd case in point is the fact that until a few years ago New York State and New York City were giving tax rebates as the economy was tanking.

Sorry for the ramble, but we sociologists never ignored the power of culture as it is, after all, the flip side of social structure but we also didn’t fall for easy answers to difficult problems.

I should mention at the same time that the mass media is rediscovering culture, the modern structuralist par excellence, Claude Levi-Strauss, is also back in vogue — just in time for the demise of post-modernism as well as post-structuralism. Go figure.

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