Often, when Nigerians are asked to define culture, they say something along the lines of ‘culture is the way of life of a group of people’.
Whatever you perceive culture to be, you are unlikely to consider poverty as a way of life or a feature of culture; after all, poverty is something that happens to people, perhaps, because of market failure or government failure. To say that poverty is cultural would be implying that being poor is a way of life, and just how absurd would that be?
Apparently, not absurd enough because in 1959, anthropologist Oscar Lewis broke new ground in the study of poverty by essentially claiming that the cycle of poverty is maintained by an existing subculture among the poor. His idea was that poor people share certain cultural traits, termed the ‘culture of poverty', with a set of beliefs, values, and practices which served as guidelines for managing their state of poverty. Like other cultures, the culture of poverty, and consequently, poverty, were also passed from one generation to the other.
Lewis’ theory on the culture of poverty was groundbreaking and controversial. The ensuing controversy stemmed from the implication that poor people were both victims of, and perpetrators of, their poverty. Meanwhile, many scholars argued that the theory of a culture of poverty was at odds with numerous research findings from the field. And it didn’t end there. The most hotly contested debates were around the implications of the theory for policy. Unfortunately, the issue became so politically toxic that not enough further research has delved into the matter.
How Culture Perpetuates Poverty
In his outline of the culture of poverty, Lewis outlined about 70 distinguishing behavioural traits. He relied on these traits to gather information about the relationship between the subculture and the larger society; the nature of the slum community; the nature of the family, and the attitudes and character structure of the individual.
Based on these, Lewis ascertained that the poor were generally not integrated into major societal institutions as a result of fear, suspicion, and discrimination. He also deduced a general sense of despair and hopelessness, both of which arose from being placed at the bottom of a socioeconomic hierarchy. Crucially, Lewis postulated that the values, beliefs, and practices observed among the poor are developed as a coping mechanism in response to the aforementioned feelings, alongside the daily struggles of being poor. Together, these constituted the culture of poverty.
But if these traits were indeed elements of a culture of poverty, then they should not be observable in other income groups. To some extent, this seemed to be the case. For one, middle-class families tended to provide structure and encouragement for their children to succeed whereas, in poor households, parents were more permissive and less verbal with their children, while tending more towards authoritarianism.
Besides, Lewis noted that poor people did not want to be legally married, a logical stance considering the cost of being married and raising a family. While both genders avoided marriage, they did so for different reasons. Men sought to avoid the expenses of marriage and divorce, while women – though valuing marriage – turned down the offer of marriage for fear of being with unreliable men or of losing exclusive rights to their children, and what little property they owned. In the United States, this has resulted in higher births to unmarried mothers, giving the misleading impression that poor women did not value marriage as much as their middle-class counterparts.
As I earlier highlighted, considerable evidence can be used to debunk the theory. For example, studies in West Africa and South America showed that poor people were, in fact, integrated into major institutions within their communities, in spite of their poverty. In West Africa, the evidence indicates the presence of unions and associations within poor neighbourhoods which often serve to benefit members in one way or the other. In South America, Peru precisely, the dwellers of shantytowns known as barriadas, are described as “well organised, politically sophisticated”, educated, and not living in “squalor and hopelessness” as the culture of poverty would have us believe.
Even with this, the theory of the culture of poverty seems to be making a renaissance. This belated return to analysing culture and poverty, though still academic, has the potential to influence policies directed at dealing with poverty.
What The Culture of Poverty Really Teaches Us
Ultimately, although the theory fails to sufficiently explain why the poor are poor, it does show us how the poor cope with being poor. Perhaps without setting out to, the theory has provided an insight into the way poor live. Still, there is a need to establish more direct links between the culture of poverty and the socioeconomic status of the poor.
In terms of policy, the theory holds a lot of potential. It may not seem obvious, but understanding the cultural values of people for whom policies are made is quite important. For instance, in Nigeria, it may seem like a good idea to have a single national policy that addresses high fertility rates until one notices the significant gap in fertility rates between Northern and Southern women. A study of culture might become necessary in order to understand the difference in fertility rates between both regions. This, in turn, can lead to policies that directly target the problem of high fertility, if in fact, it is found to be a problem.
Whether it’s the values people adopt to deal with poverty or the values that have been handed down by their ancestors, it is important to understand peoples’ culture, especially if we are supposedly working to make their lives better. What the theory of the culture of poverty has shown is that people adopt values and beliefs that help them adapt to poverty. The question now becomes this: how can we translate this knowledge into actions and efforts that collectively reduce poverty and make life easier for the poor?