The Emotional Power of the "Culture of Poverty"

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Patricia Cohen writes about arts and ideas for the New York Times.

I am a longtime admirer of Mr. Patterson’s work, so I am particularly distressed that he found my Oct. 17 article off base. In this case, however, I think he misread or misinterpreted what I wrote about the Moynihan report and poverty studies.

I was very careful to write that Moynihan’s report popularized the idea of the culture of poverty—not that he made up the term or specifically used it. That is because while others in academic and policy circles had used the expression and were familiar with the idea, it wasn’t until the Moynihan report that it became headline news and entered the public discourse in a big way. Michael Harrington’s book did much to bring the issue of poverty to public attention but it was not the notion of a culture of poverty—with its controversial connotations of “blaming the victim” —that captured attention. Ideas frequently have a life before they become a common part of the national conversation. The rising black power and women’s movements—which found Moynihan’s language about ghetto life and a matriarchy particularly offensive—certainly influenced the reception of this particular iteration as opposed to previous ones. In any case, the fact that it was the never-published Moynihan report that precipitated such a widespread and ferocious response is clear evidence that it was this particular document—as opposed to earlier ones—that caught the public’s eye.

There is obviously much to be written about the history of the Moynihan report alone. It is worthy of a book, as Mr. Patterson notes. I have read much about the report — first studying it in graduate school, and then, in preparation for the story, re-reading the report itself very carefully, along with the extensive commentary in that special issue of the Annals on the Moynihan report from 2007 edited by Doug Massey and Robert Sampson, as well as the new Annals issue on culture and poverty. I also interviewed many of the top scholars on the subject, including Mr. Massey, Mr. Sampson and William Julius Wilson, to mention just three noted by Mr. Patterson.

Unfortunately, in a single, 1,200-word newspaper article there is only so much background that can fit. I did try to make clear through the comments of Doug Massey that Moynihan’s work was grossly distorted. Indeed, Moynihan paid special attention to the structural causes of poverty and was both a keen analyst and visionary thinker. As many people have pointed out, most of the critics at the time never even read the report. But since I write for a newspaper, this story was not focused primarily on a retrospective look at the Moynihan report, but rather one that reported on the latest work in the field.

Recognizing just how explosive some of these ideas still are, I was very careful to double and triple check the nuances of my story with experts. I was very gratified to receive many complimentary notes on the story and its accuracy from eminent scholars in the field, including Robert Sampson and William Julius Wilson.

As for Mr. Patterson’s specific criticisms, it is simply incorrect to say that in the article I “missed [Moynihan's] message that white racism and economic injustice are the sources of black family disintegration, and that the ‘tangle of pathology,’ though savage, is not ‘inescapable.’”

To quote from the story:

With these studies come many new and varied definitions of culture, but they all differ from the ‘60s-era model in these crucial respects: Today, social scientists are rejecting the notion of a monolithic and unchanging culture of poverty. And they attribute destructive attitudes and behavior not to inherent moral character but to sustained racism and isolation.

That point is reiterated with quotes from Mr. Wilson, in reference to his response to the 1994 book “The Bell Curve”:

Professor Wilson said… “they had not captured the cumulative effects of living in poor, racially segregated neighborhoods.” He added, “I realized we needed a comprehensive measure of the environment, that we must consider structural and cultural forces.”

Given Mr. Patterson’s abiding interest in poverty, it is surprising he doesn’t find the renewed interest in culture and poverty “newsworthy.” Clearly those who actually study poverty do. That is why there was a special issue of the Annals devoted to culture and poverty that begins by noting “Culture is back on the poverty research agenda,” adding “scholars have begun to explore a long-abandoned topic.” The wave of fresh research was pointed out to me when I attended the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association this summer. One panel devoted to the subject noted: “After decades of neglect—following in the wake of the controversial ‘culture of poverty’ thesis—there has been a resurgence of scholarship at the intersection of culture and poverty.”

These points and others are in my story (as are links to the relevant papers and meetings), which can be found at

The inaccurate characterization of what was actually printed seems to me further evidence of just how much emotional power the term “culture of poverty” still holds and why people have been so reluctant to use it. The phrase evokes such a strong response that readers can end up missing what is actually being said.

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Gareth Davies - 11/1/2010

James Patterson is in my view correct to identify Michael Harrington as the writer who did most to impregnate understandings of poverty with a strong cultural element during the 1960s. In the 'New Yorker' review that did so much to bring his work (and the subject of poverty) to national prominence, including to the attention of John F. Kennedy,Dwight Macdonald highlighted this element of Harrington's argument: Of the three block quotes that he extracted from 'The Other America', the most vivid described the "emotional upset" of the poor,explaining that they "seek immediate gratification," suffer from a "depression" that becomes "internalized," and that -- in sum -- "the poor are not like everyone else....They think and feel differently."

At other points, Harrington emphasizes the structural barriers to success that confront the poor, but it was the idea of poverty as a separate subculture that really gave dramatic force to his powerful, polemical expose. Yet Harrington has generally avoided the obliquy that descended on Moynihan in 1965 when he outlined a clearly structural explanation for black poverty in the 'Negro Family' report.

There are two obvious explanations for the different receptions of these two analyses of the dynamics of deprivation: (i) Harrington played an important role in stimulating a new national conversation about poverty, at a time when it was little-discussed, and this achievement outweighs the conceptual shortcomings of his book; (ii) his cultural characterization of poverty is not racialized.