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The Virus Of Poverty Culture

If you haven’t seen Brenda Ann Kenneally’s amazing photographs of poor young white people in Troy, New York, her hometown, please take a look at this Slate piece on them. [1] They’re striking — damn near unforgettable, I’d say.

I’ve been looking at them again and again for over a week now, trying to figure out what to say, and I’m nonplussed. They provoke feelings of both pity and fear, and guilt because I don’t know what I think, or am supposed to think. By now we are used to seeing poor black people in these settings, and even though there have always been poor white people with us, it’s still relatively unusual, and disconcerting, to see white faces in those scenarios. These photos make me aware of my own unconscious biases, which saw poverty in America as primarily a phenomenon of the black underclass. I mean, one knows that the white underclass is there, but one doesn’t often see their faces, at least not as often as the black underclass. I appreciate what Kenneally’s art — see more of the photos here [2] — has done toward making me conscious of what I didn’t know, or knew but had filed away where I didn’t have to see it. Kenneally, by the way, comes from the same class and cultural background as these kids. She was once one of them.

Here’s what stands out to me about the world of the young people in these pictures: the chaos. 

There is no physical order in their world. There is no evidence of sexual order (e.g., 14 year old girls pregnant). The boys look confused and kind of crazy. The girls look desperate. Everybody looks defeated. There are signs that childhood doesn’t exist, at least nor ordered as most of us know it (e.g., the little girls lighting their mother’s cigarette, the mom serving her 12-year-old coffee in a baby bottle, as he has been taking it since he was the right age to use a baby bottle). There is no sign of manhood, except as babydaddys; 70 percent of poor families in Troy are headed by a single mother.

Kenneally has said:

As a journalist and activist I have dedicated my life to exploring the how and why of class inequity in America. I am concerned with the internalized social messages that will live on for generations after our economic and social policies catch up with the reality of living on the bottom rung of America’s upwardly mobile society. My project explores the way that money is but a symptom of self-worth and a means by which humans separate from each other. Poverty is an emotional (rather than simply) physical state with layers of marginalization that cements those who live under them into place. The current and widespread worldwide economic crisis has taken some of the moral sting out of being poor, though the conversation remains centered on economic rather than social stimulus relief. The unspoken but salient truth is that its focus is honed on those who have recently joined the impoverished, rather than on the Americans whose ongoing struggles remain unaddressed and rendered invisible by the headlines.

She later told the NYTimes: [2]

While Ms. Kenneally hopes to help teenage girls in trouble, she has few illusions.

“I think breaking away is damn near impossible,” she said. “It’s the hardest thing I ever did.”

Her insights are hugely important here, I think. Notice how she said that poverty is not simply the lack of money. It is an “emotional state” too; it is a culture, a culture with its own gravity field that traps people inside it. Longtime readers may remember me writing years ago about a missionary working with teenagers in poor minority neighborhoods of Dallas. He said poverty is a big obstacle to these kids’ advancement in life, but the bigger obstacle is emotional, psychological and cultural: the belief they have that they are largely powerless over their fate. One can see why kids raised in the kind of chaos Kenneally documents would assume that they have little or no meaningful agency. This, I take it, is what she means by “breaking away is damn near impossible.” You first have to grasp that life does not have to be that way — and that is a very hard thing to do when all you have known, and all the adult world has taught you, is chaos, and the power it has to determine your life.

These Troy photographs are one reason why I get so angry and outdone with bourgeois liberals who favor a more libertine culture of sexual expression. As study after study has documented, educated liberals do pretty well with a more libertarian culture. They marry and stay married more than members of other demographic groups, and don’t have their personal and professional aspirations sidetracked by early, out of wedlock childbearing (though there’s an important caveat there, represented by what an administrator at a posh private school once told me: the girls in their school do get pregnant a lot more than people think, but they come from a social milieu in which “taking care of it” — abortion — is more accepted and practiced; I find that profoundly immoral, but I’m looking at this phenomenon sociologically, not morally). Put bluntly, the bourgeois can handle the sexual freedom better than poor and working-class people can. And the bourgeois think their cultural norms and attitudes are normative.

A middle or upper middle class girl who becomes pregnant as an unmarried teenager can even have the child, and have far more social and financial capital to fall back on to keep her from falling through the cracks than a poor or working-class girl has. That’s just a fact of life. On the other hand, I think it’s also true that some middle-class people, especially those who were raised in or near poverty, are acutely, sometimes obsessively, aware of how little separates them from that chaos. My theory is that they see the values of poverty culture, and its seep into working-class culture, as like a virus. They want to keep it far away so it doesn’t infect their children. It’s not only sexual morality — which, if you don’t think is a big deal, spend some time looking at those photos and imagining the life prospects of those teen moms and the children they’re raising — but it’s also things like the violence that’s more prevalent among the poor, the greater susceptibility to drug abuse, and the collapse of manhood as a social construct to civilize males. In other words, behind the prejudices many middle-class people have towards the poor is a sense, of which they are barely conscious, that civilization is fragile, and all the gains we’ve made as a family in keeping out the chaos could be lost in a single generation.

One problem with this is that without exposure to other possible lives, kids and young parents trapped inside poverty culture may never escape it, because they cannot conceive of living any other way. A friend of mine was not poor, but lived a fairly chaotic and self-destructive life until spending time with a sibling and his stable, middle-class, ordinary and joyful family revealed that this kind of thing is within the realm of possibility. She changed, and made a much happier and more nurturing life for herself and her kids. If her sibling had hived off away from her to escape the chaos of their lives, what would have become of her and her kids?

On the other hand, I heard recently of a predominantly black middle-class neighborhood in a major American city — I’m being obtuse on purpose — where the residents had banded together to fight both politically and legally the placement of Section 8 housing in their midst. They had done their best to get away from the poverty culture of the projects, and to create a place of order in which to raise their children. They weren’t about to see it imported into their part of town, not if they could help it. They won, too. So the Section 8 planners took their project to a white working-class part of that city, and found the same resistance. This time, though, they had civil rights law on their side, and filed suit. Turns out you can sue for racial discrimination in this country, but not for class discrimination. Black middle class folks can keep black poverty culture out of their neighborhoods, but it’s harder for whites to do so.

Thought experiment: if black Section 8 families moved into a black middle class neighborhood, would the middle-class families serve as examples to lift up the poor black kids, or would it be more likely that the poor black kids would draw the middle-class black kids into a mindset and into behaviors that could compromise their stability and futures? I don’t have an answer in mind, but that question is what those families and homeowners must face. Near the heart of the matter is the question of whether or not the poor aspire to be middle class, and whether the overculture expects them to behave according to middle class standards.

This, by the way, is a big part of Charles Murray’s point: that the overclass is failing to transmit middle-class culture (= practices, habits, ways of thinking) to the poor, which is worse, in a way, than material poverty. Murray wrote that in his book [3]about the growth of white poverty culture. My point is that a lot of middle class people think the poor are just like them, except they don’t have money. This is not really true. Though economics are, obviously, a part of the story, they are not the whole story, and might not be the most important part of the story. As Barbara Kenneally says, poverty is also a state of mind. And even among the poor, there are important cultural differences that matter for their future, and the prospects that the poor will endure poverty, and be ready to escape it should the opportunity arise. You’ve heard this from me before, but I think a lot in this regard of the difference that the journalist Robert D. Kaplan observed [4] two decades ago between the urban poor in West Africa, and the poor living in a slum on a garbage dump (The Golden Mountain) in Istanbul:

Slum quarters in Abidjan terrify and repel the outsider. In Turkey it is the opposite. The closer I got to Golden Mountain the better it looked, and the safer I felt. I had $1,500 worth of Turkish lira in one pocket and $1,000 in traveler’s checks in the other, yet I felt no fear. Golden Mountain was a real neighborhood. The inside of one house told the story: The architectural bedlam of cinder block and sheet metal and cardboard walls was deceiving. Inside was a home—order, that is, bespeaking dignity. I saw a working refrigerator, a television, a wall cabinet with a few books and lots of family pictures, a few plants by a window, and a stove. Though the streets become rivers of mud when it rains, the floors inside this house were spotless.

Other houses were like this too. Schoolchildren ran along with briefcases strapped to their backs, trucks delivered cooking gas, a few men sat inside a cafe sipping tea. One man sipped beer. Alcohol is easy to obtain in Turkey, a secular state where 99 percent of the population is Muslim. Yet there is little problem of alcoholism. Crime against persons is infinitesimal. Poverty and illiteracy are watered-down versions of what obtains in Algeria and Egypt (to say nothing of West Africa), making it that much harder for religious extremists to gain a foothold.

My point in bringing up a rather wholesome, crime-free slum is this: its existence demonstrates how formidable is the fabric of which Turkish Muslim culture is made. A culture this strong has the potential to dominate the Middle East once again. Slums are litmus tests for innate cultural strengths and weaknesses. Those peoples whose cultures can harbor extensive slum life without decomposing will be, relatively speaking, the future’s winners. Those whose cultures cannot will be the future’s victims. Slums—in the sociological sense—do not exist in Turkish cities. The mortar between people and family groups is stronger here than in Africa. Resurgent Islam and Turkic cultural identity have produced a civilization with natural muscle tone.

The loss of the practice of churchgoing [5] among the American poor and working classes is producing a civilization that has lost its natural muscle tone, and has something to do with the situation in Troy. Again, I’m making a sociological statement, not a theological one. I think it’s wrong to take religion instrumentally, but as Kaplan observes, the Turkish poor on the Golden Mountain really do lack only money and opportunity. They’ve kept internal chaos at bay in a way the poor of Abidjan have not. As an unidentified West African government minister told Kaplan:

“In the poor quarters of Arab North Africa,” he continued, “there is much less crime, because Islam provides a social anchor: of education and indoctrination. Here in West Africa we have a lot of superficial Islam and superficial Christianity. Western religion is undermined by animist beliefs not suitable to a moral society, because they are based on irrational spirit power. Here spirits are used to wreak vengeance by one person against another, or one group against another.”

Religion is culture, and culture has consequences. The answer to the question of poverty is hard, but it often seems like it’s easier to figure out how to transfer more financial capital to the poor than to figure out how to transmit more spiritual capital to them. This is not just a problem for the poor. It’s a problem for the Church. It’s a problem for America. It’s a problem for all of us.

141 Comments (Open | Close)

141 Comments To "The Virus Of Poverty Culture"

#1 Comment By RB On July 31, 2014 @ 12:40 am

Agathonika, thank you for your comment. Well said.

Re: affordable birth control.

I’ve mentioned before that my family’s on WIC (I have a former failure-to-thrive baby who needed a pediatric nutritionist; our town’s PN works at the local WIC office, ergo…).

I wandered around the office at my last appointment. There were posters and brochures everywhere. Roughly a third of them addressed domestic violence and the the other two-thirds addressed family planning (plus one poster touting the local farmer’s markets).

In the “Pregnant? We can help!” section, there were brochures with full columns of numbers for “Pregnancy Support”, “Contraceptives” and “Family Planning”. There were abortion clinics listed and at least four options for free birth control–which isn’t just limited to free condoms or the pill. They offer Depo-Provera shots in some areas too.

I don’t know what Troy, NY is like and how it compares to rural WA, but cheap/free contraception is not what the struggling poor lack.

I have family who came from poverty, and family that came from reduced circumstances (different mindsets). Seeing them makes me think of how someone once defined codependency to me, that it’s a normal human reaction to an abnormal situation.

I don’t have sweeping policy recommendations; I’m a political naif and I usually just fall back on some Mormon variation of WWJD? With a soupcon of 12-step. I might be compassionate to struggling folks, but not “nice”, if you see the distinction.

But I suspect any approach based in contempt for poor humans (and both political sides are guilty if this) will fail, because contempt is like an invisible hand, pressing people back down into their familar dysfunction. Contempt is inherently dehumanizing.

#2 Comment By Scott Nunn On July 31, 2014 @ 1:15 am

Causes of todays poverty?
1. Globalization, offshoring manufacturing and union busting
2. The evolution of the stock market into a vehicle to change money, not a place to invest money for longterm gains. This means workers become more expendable if the investors want a 16 percent return and you are returning only 15 percent
3. TV, which provides a massively unrealistic view of the world that people construct lives on
4. The evolution of medicine and pharmaceuticals, the pursuit of which has left us spending a huge portion of our income on health care leaving little to invest elsewhere.

#3 Comment By Tom On July 31, 2014 @ 4:32 am

Some thoughts:
– I was born in Troy in the early 1960s, but only lived there three months, then my family moved to the Washington, D.C., suburbs.
In retrospect, I believe my father correctly saw that Troy’s best days were not ahead of it.
– Peg’s comments about culture are good: Some of that, I think, comes from the dark side of the Irish-American ethos: Don’t forget (or perhaps even leave) where you came from. Don’t get above yourself and yours. Stick with your own (tribalism).
– Both the-truth-is-ugly aesthetic of the Slate photographs, and the discussion of how to best inculcate middle-class values in those photographed, miss the mark.

#4 Comment By M_Young On July 31, 2014 @ 4:41 am

“To be completely honest, I have never seen much difference in culture between the entrenched poverty of the white and black lower classes. The only real differences I have seen are location (rural vs urban), music, and clothing.”

Violence. As the portrait of ‘America’s poorest county’ — Owsley painted by the dude from National Review notice

“There’s not much violent crime here. “

#5 Comment By Sam M On July 31, 2014 @ 6:48 am

Elite Comic:

“Laughing. And laughing very hard. I don’t think these youngsters are devoid of birth prevention methods, drugs and devices.

How about we teach them some self control, at the very least until they have the money to deal with consequences of relational behavior.”

I am not disagreeing with you, but you have to realize that to an objective observer, our solution seems even more far-fetched, perhaps.

How are you going to teach these people self-control? Upper middle class people go to church and they screw like bunnies. So church doesn’t work.

So let’s get punitive. Let’s make a law that says if you get pregnant before marriage, you are sentenced to a life of crushing poverty, ostracism and degradation, and we will sentence the children of such people to the same humiliating fate.

But wait! That’s already happening to them. And they don’t care.

We talk all the time about using culture to tip the scale in favor of virtue. It’s hard because people are not nearly as willing as they were in the past to police the borders of the culture. But in this case, the culture DOES do that policing. It absolutely crushes people who have babies out of wedlock, making them poor, ugly outcasts a la this photo series.

They simply don’t care. It’s not that they don’t know. They don’t care.

So no. Better access to more birth control might not work. But it’s no more ridiculous than the idea that moral suasion has a chance.

People are screwing, as they always have. The key is get people to clean up their own mess and raise the kids regardless. That’s one thing when your shotgun-father-in-law gets you a union job at the sheet metal plant that pays 30 percent more per year than your entire mortgage will run you. It’s quite another when your only option is $7.50 an hour at the chicken processing plant, no benefits.

#6 Comment By Zzzzz On July 31, 2014 @ 9:24 am

‘Violence. As the portrait of ‘America’s poorest county’ — Owsley painted by the dude from National Review notice’
“There’s not much violent crime here. “’

Much of the violence in urban areas is due to the drug culture. As meth has invaded rural areas, violence has come with it. The disfunction and the capacity for violence is the same. In urban areas, people also live much more in each other’s space. There is more opportunity for violence, especially the accidental kind. If you shoot at someone in the country and you miss, you will probably not hit another human. It isn’t that way in urban areas.

#7 Comment By Taody On July 31, 2014 @ 9:34 am

The high illegitimacy rates are a modern phenomenon. Widespread and extreme poverty existed in the recent past during the Great Depression but bastardy did not skyrocket. First, it was intensely condemned by the vast majority of society, and secondly it was not subsidized in the form of generous government assistant. Poor Americans, on average, have the same number of kids as everyone else. Inability to get and use birth control is not the issue. The problem relates to self-defeating values and the out society’s financing of those values.

#8 Comment By Reinhold On July 31, 2014 @ 9:39 am

“[NFR: There was a time when I would have made fun of that sentiment too. It sounds like something Flannery O’Connor’s Mrs. Turpin would say. But what’s behind it may be something worthwhile: self-respect, and knowing that it’s not something that you can buy, or that someone can take away from you. — RD]”
Whoa, I would never laugh at that sentiment; I think it’s absolutely important to maintain dignity in poverty. What’s hard for me to take seriously is the idea that the good values will do anything to get you out of poverty.

#9 Comment By Rob G On July 31, 2014 @ 9:49 am

With the entire culture being biased against delayed gratification and towards narcissism and self-fulfillment it does not seem realistic to expect the poor to embrace it, whether in re: to sex or to anything else. It certainly isn’t being modeled to them — by either party.

Christopher Lasch probably saw this more clearly than anyone. Despite his being a man of the Left himself, the Left largely rejected his critique, not willing to entertain any limits to the SexRev, while the Right co-opted his moral criticism but left his economic criticism to one side, refusing to engage it.

#10 Comment By Sean Scallon On July 31, 2014 @ 9:50 am

“that the overclass is failing to transmit middle-class culture (= practices, habits, ways of thinking) to the poor, which is worse, in a way, than material poverty.”

You mean the same overclass culture that made “50 Shades of Gray” a best-seller and a major motion picture?

The poor didn’t just “discover” libertine behavior, it has always been a part of poverty. The prostitues Jack the Ripper slaughtered didn’t ply their trade in the wealthier sections of London, did they? So why do you and others assume that if Google workers go to church more often, those living in Appalachia or on the South Side of Chicago are going to start to act more morally appropriate? Really? Heck, there are lots of churches in Appalachia and on the South Side already! Ask yourself are they having any affect?

It is true the rich can handle their disfunction with money but it doesn’t make them less disfunctional as the Holywood celebrity mags demonstrate weekly. The difference is in poverty, when one feels not much is at stake, one’s disfunction becomes more natural. Ultimately a wealthier person will sober up (or die) because they know deep down they’ll lose what they’ve got and they don’t want that to happen. The poor have very little or believe they will never have very much. So what’s to stop their disfunction?

#11 Comment By Sean Scallon On July 31, 2014 @ 9:53 am

“That’s one thing when your shotgun-father-in-law gets you a union job at the sheet metal plant that pays 30 percent more per year than your entire mortgage will run you. It’s quite another when your only option is $7.50 an hour at the chicken processing plant, no benefits.”

Amen to that. And when Rod and other conservatives finally figure this out, then perhaps our daily “sex” discussions can finally change for the better and maybe even make some impact.

#12 Comment By Megan McArdle On July 31, 2014 @ 10:34 am

Andy and Andrea Jones: I would have assumed the same thing, but if you read good ethnographies, like those by Kathryn Edin, you’ll find that in fact, these couples (most of them not very religious), do go on birth control early, but a few months into the relationship, they just . . . stop. It’s not the money–I interviewed her and asked her specifically about this–it’s something about trust or signalling. They say they’re not trying to get pregnant, but of course if you’re in your late teens or early twenties, and you have sex without birth control, that’s what a middle class couple would call “trying to get pregnant”, which they mostly do. Providing free birth control can make some dent in the pregnancy rate, but really surprisingly small. Or maybe not-surprisingly, because most of the women we’re talking about could get free or nearly-free birth control through Planned Parenthood’s sliding scale program.

Most of the evidence seems to indicate that as Rod says, this is cultural; it seems to be a value in many communities that once you’re in an exclusive relationship, you stop using birth control.

#13 Comment By Uh oh… On July 31, 2014 @ 10:34 am

This isn’t the first time a western society faced a social breakdown among its poorer members A similar situation occurred in Georgian Britain during the 18th and early 19th centuries. Industrialization and the enclosure movement caused countless numbers of British peasants to move to the cities, with the resulting problems this caused. There were slums in London that were every bit as dangerous (if not more so) than the ghetto’s of today, where illegitimate births were common place along with family breakdown. Gin was the drug of choice (‘drunk for a penny, blind drunk for tuppence.”)

Consider also the situation among the Irish in New York during the mid-19th century. ens of thousands of landless peasants fleeing the Famine, washing up on these shores and packed shoulder to shoulder into slums where life was disorderly, to say the least:

The immigrants crowded into neighborhoods like Sweeney’s Shambles in the city’s fourth ward and Five Points in the sixth ward (called the “bloody sixth” for its violence), which Charles Dickens toured in the forties and pronounced “loathsome, drooping, and decayed.” In The New York Irish, Ronald Bayor and Timothy Meagher report that besides rampant alcoholism, addiction to opium and laudanum was epidemic in these neighborhoods in the 1840s and 1850s. Many Irish immigrants communicated in their own profanity-filled street slang called “flash talk”: a multi-day drinking spree was “going on a bender,” “cracking a can” was robbing a house. Literate English practically disappeared from ordinary conversation.

An estimated 50,000 Irish prostitutes, known in flash talk as “nymphs of the pave,” worked the city in 1850, and Five Points alone had as many as 17 brothels. Illegitimacy reached strato-spheric heights—and tens of thousands of abandoned Irish kids roamed, or prowled, the city’s streets. Violent Irish gangs, with names like the Forty Thieves, the B’boys, the Roach Guards, and the Chichesters, brought havoc to their neighborhoods. The gangs fought one another and the nativists—but primarily they robbed houses and small businesses, and trafficked in stolen property. Over half the people arrested in New York in the 1840s and 1850s were Irish, so that police vans were dubbed “paddy wagons” and episodes of mob violence in the streets were called “donnybrooks,” after a town in Ireland.</cite

So what changed? In England a serious social reform movement began. Methodists, Anglican "slum priests" and other Protestant groups moved in to re-evangelize the poor. In New York, Bishop "Dagger" John Hughes essentially re-taught Catholicism to the Irish. Both groups emphasized a strict religion of personal responsibility and stern sexual morality. People today would look upon those teachings and protest them as being outmoded, but the proof is in the pudding – they helped pull the poor in both countries out of the mire of social breakdown they were caught in.

So it is possible to change the culture poverty. It has been done before. It can be done again. But it requires time, effort and patience…and today, a willingness to ignore bourgeois snobbery. Where are the Dagger John's of today?

For an article on Bishop Hughes, see this link: [6]

#14 Comment By JonF On July 31, 2014 @ 11:54 am

Re: The high illegitimacy rates are a modern phenomenon.

Don’t be too sure about that. Our statistics from past (pre 20th century) eras are weighted toward the wealthier classes as they were at greater pains to record their family histories. A lot of births to the poor were never recorded at all. A couple of years ago Rod posted about a French reform at the time of Louis XVI he had learned of — the French government decreed that abandoned infants should be rescued and delivered to the care of nuns– before this such babies were left to die. And Megan McArdle (who I see has visited us here) had a piece on Bloomberg a few months back noting that in New York City c 1900 (!) unwanted, often illegitimate, babies were still be abandoned by poor women– and were likely as not fated to early death. Consider in fact the obvious etymology of the old term “foundling”.

#15 Comment By Amy Albright On July 31, 2014 @ 12:16 pm

Regarding your thought experiment – A book entitled Black Picket Fences by Mary Patillo -McCoy addresses a similar theme. This book was assigned to me years ago for an undergrad sociology class, “Ethnic and Race Relations.” The University of Chicago Press provides an online excerpt:


#16 Comment By WillW On July 31, 2014 @ 1:30 pm

What @Zzzzz said. Watch “Winter’s Bone” an Indy film with Jennifer Lawerence before “Hunger Games” fame. I watched it because the reviews on NPR made it sound like it took place almost on another planet. Nope. Could have happened in the single wide (that’s a type of house trailer, if you don’t know) next door to me. There’s horrible violence, but it is directed at specific people. Those not involved in the “meth cooking” culture aren’t as affected. This is accurate as to what living in the poor regions of flyover country is like.

#17 Comment By Tyro On July 31, 2014 @ 1:37 pm

Black middle class folks can keep black poverty culture out of their neighborhoods, but it’s harder for whites to do so.

“Middle class” black areas are substantially more impoverished than middle class white areas. In fact, I would venture to guess that in this community, even the most well off group of blacks in the neighborhood was likely worse off than the median or even lower end of whites. Almost a century of laws revolves around keeping blacks with even a small foothold in the middle class from moving into white areas, while whites are allowed to accumulate assets and move into comparably better off neighborhoods. The assets of the black middle class are miniscule compared to the white working classes, who have had many more generations and legal opportunities to accumulate property and assets that serves as a safety net.

Also, I’ve been in slums in Turkey, though further away from the center of things in Istanbul– it was the first place I genuinely felt worried for my own safety in the country.

#18 Comment By Rusty On July 31, 2014 @ 1:40 pm

Well if the photos broke my heart, Lisa’s posts broke the pieces.

#19 Comment By Tyro On July 31, 2014 @ 1:43 pm

Rod, if they were able to thoughtfully consider the long term impact of their choices, they wouldn’t be poor.

More relevant– would it even make a difference? I am willing to believe that there is a greater probability of making it out of poverty without a child born out of wedlock. But that’s all it is– a probability. Maybe the gamble will pay off, but more likely is that it won’t pay off, and you’ll be just as poor as you were before, but this time without a child and a family of your own.

Much of conservative social policy revolves around telling people, effectively, “do this thing that exacts a personal cost. Not because it will help you or make a difference in your own life, but because in the aggregate, it sets a good example and might benefit someone else.” Well and good, because that’s ultimately what citizenship is about, but then don’t blame the individual for their own predicament, because their individual choices don’t make much of a difference to their own lives, anyway.

#20 Comment By Joan On July 31, 2014 @ 2:24 pm

Whenever I hear “What shall we do about the poor?” talk, what I can’t help hearing between the lines is “How do we make the poor fewer?” There’s talk about upward mobility, but what’s behind it all is an idea that a life of poverty is worse than no life at all, so the poor, if they cannot escape poverty (and most cannot) should do us all a favor by not having kids and allowing their families to die out. In fact, the poor need kids in a cold-blooded practical way that the rest of us no longer do. So the reproduction of the poor is not going to stop.

A better question would be “Why is life in the slums so awful?” We know that living on very little isn’t inevitably hell on Earth. As an interviewee who escaped from an immigrant slum in Boston said, “It wasn’t not having things that was hard, it was that people who had nothing treated each other like animals.” (That’s from Sennet and Cobb’s 1972 book The Hidden Injuries of Class.) Some of the commenters here have alluded to it, although none has targeted it. What makes a slum a slum is lack of law enforcement. Cops typically don’t care about crimes with poor victims. They might possibly come into the slums to investigate crimes against those who live in better neighborhoods, but they tend to regard everyone who lives in a slum as a criminal, despite the statistics out there documenting that, even in the most crime-riddled areas, the vast majority of the population is law-abiding.

Once there’s no police protection, people quit saving money because the money may be stolen at any time. Legitimate businesses don’t get started. Life is full of arbitrary shocks and losses, making any sort of planning an invitation to disappointment or worse. A live-for-today party subculture rises to dominance. Those few who still feel ambition pin their hopes on rising through talent, in sports or music or some other branch of the entertainment field, because talent can’t be stolen. As violence increases, as Rebecca Trotter noted, so does PTSD with all its associated dysfunction. One day the last grocery store folds, creating a food desert situation in which residents have to depend on fast food outlets and convenience stores. Nutritional status suffers, worsening both mental and physical functioning. Other government services, from park maintenance to schools to garbage collection, suffer correspondingly.

Expecting the police to change is also unrealistic. In Stephen Steinberg’s cynical phrase, it is in the interests of every group as it rises to break down barriers ahead of it and put up barriers behind it. If cops work to make poor neighborhoods safe, they risk allowing the children of the poor to do well enough to compete for jobs against the cops’ children. Better lives for the poor cost something, and that something is usually taken out of the hides of the next class or two up the scale, the classes that include cops. I have also heard that there are antipoverty bureaucrats actively working to prevent the lives of the poor from improving to the point where they no longer need government aid because that could harm the bureaurcrats’ careers, but that could be an urban legend.

#21 Comment By Tyro On July 31, 2014 @ 2:54 pm

Cops typically don’t care about crimes with poor victims.

This is why there are so many complaints about gentrification. Neighborhoods that cities couldn’t be bothered to pick up the garbage or prosecute theft in suddenly get attention and support of public services once middle class professionals move in.

One of the insightful things I read about the proliferation of check cashing outlets over banks in poor neighborhoods is that the check cashing places treat their customers like actual human beings rather than burdens or anonymous numbers. Yes, that comes at a price, but it is a price that many people are willing to pay in the absence of a viable alternative.

#22 Comment By JonF On July 31, 2014 @ 3:07 pm

Joan, if the police don’t bother with crime in poor neighborhoods, how are all those low income black men ending up in jail?

#23 Comment By JMC On July 31, 2014 @ 3:17 pm

What a joke.

Sex? Religion?

How about the damn inability of any of these folks to find meaningful work? How about kicking to the curb all forms of economic support or job opportunities that 40 years of conservative economic policy has meant?

Guess what, this is what happens when mass poverty descends upon a people. Just look at your uber Catholic 1950’s Ireland and Southern Italy to see a situation just as bad and arguably much, much worse due to the cultural oppression attached that comes with Catholic dogma.

I came from one of these towns and guess what, Catholic faith and Catholic priests didn’t do jack for ANY the people like this. All they got were sermons from protectors of child rapists that abortion was evil and masturbation was a sin.

#24 Comment By Rob G On July 31, 2014 @ 6:19 pm

~~Those not involved in the “meth cooking” culture aren’t as affected. This is accurate as to what living in the poor regions of flyover country is like.~~

Yes, indeed watch Winter’s Bone (or read the novel) and also take a look at Nick Reding’s excellent book Methland.

#25 Comment By Taody On July 31, 2014 @ 6:26 pm


“How about kicking to the curb all forms of economic support or job opportunities that 40 years of conservative economic policy has meant?”

Government assistance since the 1960s has gotten more generous, not less, concurrent with rising illegitimacy and more access to more types of birth control than ever before. What we see is a poverty of values, not poverty in absolute terms. I have visited a few third world countries and the American poor are rich by comparison.

#26 Comment By Peg On July 31, 2014 @ 6:44 pm


Troy is in some ways a lovely place to live–but, no, it has never really made the transition from Industrial Revolution boom-town to college town and satellite of the state capital. It doesn’t help that, like many IR boom-towns, it attracted hordes of displaced, often traumatized people who’d lost too much already, and who were likely as not to never win it back.

It’s not just Irish cultural tribalism, though God knows the Scots Irish came with a collection of pre-existing attitudes that do not help much at all. I really recommend reading Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America, by David Hackett Fisher, not only for an explanation of what the Irish and Scots Irish brought into the culture, but of the “norms” of stressed and violently threatened communities.

That second is really vital here, as it addresses some of the elements held in common by poor blacks, poor whites, poor Latinos, and other demographic groups. In the process it has a lot to say about why it’s so hard to break through the “bad habits” of poverty.

Behaviors that are rewarding in the long term, that reward the patient (don’t get in violent fights, get an education, don’t spend your capital, save for the future) are actually reliably disadvantageous in the short-term. They involve investing present-day resources, giving up present-day bonds, refusing present-day rewards for some distant future pay-back. The more disadvantaged the individual, the less likely such investments are to pay off…and the more critically those denials of present-day pleasures and resources damages the individual.

To get out of poverty, you have to resist the short-term pleasures that frequently bind the family and community together. You have to resist unprotected sex, even when it’s seen as snooty personal rejection by everyone around you–whether you choose the obvious physical rejection implied by “traditional Christian” chastity or the equally biting denial of trust and genetic exchange implied by liberal-style use of contraception: you shame your lover by not trusting him to stay (even though he won’t) and by rejecting his sperm (which you would be much better off doing) and by putting yourself above him and your community (who consider the long-term planning of family a snooty preoccupation of brown-nose traitors to their class). You put yourself above your mother and your sister and your best friend, who don’t take the same precautions.

The immediate rewards offered in any poor community are a sense of shared threats and dangers, shared pleasures (often drink, drugs, betting, and sex, all of which are easily accessed and which carry high risks of destroying any attempt you make to get out of hell). The rewards include being knit into the ONLY social group that appears open to you: family, friends, gangs. To attempt to change is to commit to loneliness and lack of support–often it’s to commit to direct attack from your former peers with no promise that there will ever be future peers with different standards.

Rod has one thing right: a church can provide that peer set, and an orderly, organized life and tribe. The trouble is, most churches are not set up to make that offer work all that well for people who join. Churches look like potentially great engines to change the world, but they’re actually pretty iffy, if not least because at core they are aimed not at this life, but the next, and preach virtues presumed to benefit members in the afterlife, rather than in the present life. Churches are intended as engines to get you to heaven, not to a nice residential community and a good job in Poughkeepsie.

Worse, those churches that do aim at “decenct living” in the here and now work regardless of what religion you choose. Godly, orderly communities in Buddist countries, in Islamic countries, in Catholic or Orthodox or Protestant or Hindu communities–they share the same virtues. Appreciation for hard work and for education. Respect for long-term social bonds: of family, of friendship, of business. Respect for lawful behavior and ethical commitment. The same is true, for that matter, for atheist communities that honor order and “decency.”

The point is that high-stress changes what best serves the individuals and the group. (grimace) There is, for example, a reason that over and over again poverty and stress generate gangs and violence and male pride and territorialism and obsessive fascination with stoical responses to hardship. In the long term those traits destroy the greater social order, but preserve small, aggressive tribal units under high stress. But if you internalize those ideals, you never leave the high-stress situations, becuase your behaviors not only succeed there, but perpetuate the violence and stress.

A lot of poverty behaviors are like taht. They reward short-term behaviors that actually serve to keep the poor in poverty, and the threatened trapped in the heart of trouble. But the rewards are real.

As the child of “order,” it’s been fascinating to sit on a city tenement stoop and drink from a shared bottle with strange women with whom I held nothing in common but the stoop, and the bottle, and womanhood, and poverty. As a child of “order,” that wasn’t enough to make me want to keep doing it. But it was enough to let me understand at least a bit that the stoop and the bottle and the poverty can be as powerful a rite of communion and community as the goblet and the patten. Sometimes a more tempting and binding rite, because it promises less, but can be relied on more, at least in the short term.

#27 Comment By mvh On July 31, 2014 @ 6:52 pm

“How did so many poor Americans join the middle class in the 1900 to 1970 period? Was it religion? Sexual morality? No, it was factory work. Work that you could get without a lot of education but that was stable enough to change those awful attitudes that make people poor.”

Before that, they either enlisted or waited for THE DRAFT, struggled through boot camp, learned to work as a team towards an objective, sowed some wild oats (and when they came home, bragged to their brothers and lied to their mothers), learned to keep their area clean, iron their own uniforms, take correction without resistance, address superiors respectfully, eat whatever is served, and to take pride in their cohort as well as themselves. Without all that many of them would not have been fit for factory work. I don’t want to see the return of the draft leading to more unnecessary wars, but something is needed to take its place.

#28 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On July 31, 2014 @ 7:00 pm

How did so many poor Americans join the middle class in the 1900 to 1970 period? Was it religion? Sexual morality? No, it was factory work. … and powerful unions. Workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but the subculture of poverty, and a nice house with a bit of a yard to gain.

#29 Comment By Christopher Larsen On July 31, 2014 @ 7:41 pm

“Religion is culture, and culture has con.sequences.”

One point Rod. Religion is not culture. Religion is a subset of a culture’s more general cosmology. Religion is a reflection of a cultural matrix and helps form that cultural matrix. Religions typically evolve as cultures evolve and change but the two are not synonymous. Culture consists of (among other things)those patterns of behavior, information in the form of various media, and processes of socialization which persist across generations within a population. To conflate religion with culture is a fundamental intellectual error. This is why using religion as a lens to understand socio-cultural phenomena is deeply flawed as a methodology and the results obtained by such an endeavor are often inaccurate. What religion can provide is limited information about the embedded systems of meaning operating within a culture. But at best the use of religion in this manner is to see through a glass darkly. We have much better lenses than that.

#30 Comment By stephen mcclellan On July 31, 2014 @ 9:02 pm

As someone who has moved towards the left of center on economics due to rigged stock markets and wealth concentrations not seen since the gilded age I will concede that the loosening of sexual mores and drug acceptance has contributed to this situation. However, the standard blame it on the liberals thing is a terrible cop out. The truth is the prevailing neocon elite both democrat and republican that run this country couldn’t give a damn about these people or this issue. These people are only important if they can result in a profit to the present elite. I think back to the early progressive thinkers and doers like Eleanor Roosevelt who genuinely cared about these issues due to their profound following of Jesus Christ and the absolute Christian duty to minister to and help the poor. This informed their views of personal duty and good government. I also remember, though the memory is becoming more distant, the thriving American middle class society they helped to create. The Clintons and Obamas could take some lessons from them. TR or Lafollette might be good example for the republicans. Lip service about going to church, avoiding pregnancy and behaving does not make up for commitment of resources and passionate commitment of leadership from elites on the ground.

#31 Comment By Gil Smart On August 1, 2014 @ 1:50 pm

Fascinating post and discussion, Rod. As a “good liberal” I suppose I’m supposed to get angry at the suggestion that there could be such a thing as a “culture of poverty” (and the usual trope of calling such an assertion “racist” doesn’t apply here for obvious reasons), but there do indeed seem to be reasons that the poor remain poor beyond the lack of well-paid jobs.

But that raises the question of whether it’s even possible to “end” poverty.

#32 Comment By Andrea Jones On August 1, 2014 @ 8:37 pm

Megan McArdle

I see your point on how many use bc then stop, which could mean for some that it’s not a high priority to maintain using it. The trust and signalling explanation rings true. The hope for the longevity of the relationship is what seems to matter. So even though they don’t want to get pregnant, if it happens it wouldn’t be the end of the world.
But, many married and cohabiting middle class couples do the same. The fact that the middle class couple is better positioned economically to care for another child is what separates the two.

still, there are many that stay on bc and would benefit from it being free or heavily subsidized. Helping those that do use bc shouldn’t be based on the behaviors of those that stop.

#33 Comment By The Anti-Gnostic On August 1, 2014 @ 9:01 pm

I think it’s wrong to take religion instrumentally,

What do you mean by this?

[NFR: To approach religion on a “what works for me” basis, as distinct from “what’s true”. — RD]

#34 Comment By JonF On August 1, 2014 @ 10:02 pm

Re: Without all that many of them would not have been fit for factory work.

Military service was hardly universal, except maybe during WWII (for the able bodied). And in Michigan a lot of high school kids with no other plans went right from the graduation line to the employment line at the auto factories. GM was jokingly referred to as the 13th grade.

#35 Comment By M_Young On August 2, 2014 @ 2:47 am

” Almost a century of laws revolves around keeping blacks with even a small foothold in the middle class from moving into white areas, while whites are allowed to accumulate assets and move into comparably better off neighborhoods.”

No. The Supreme Court ruled — in 1917 — that states or cities couldn’t pass laws preventing blacks from contracting to buy or rent property in certain areas.

The ‘laws’ you are referring to were simply private agreements among whites that they wouldn’t sell or rent to blacks, and decisions by private banks not to finance in certain areas.

It is kinda funny though that the whole housing segregation –> low to negative black wealth basically boils down to ‘blacks were forced to live around other blacks’ and so got screwed on real estate values. That’s pretty much the same argument that ‘ethnic’ whites made against housing integration, except that the gored ox is black instead of white.

#36 Comment By The Anti-Gnostic On August 2, 2014 @ 2:06 pm

To approach religion on a “what works for me” basis, as distinct from “what’s true”.

Would you agree with me that for a lot of people on the left-side IQ distribution, “truth” is never going to be more than what their betters tell them it is?

I think a big problem with the “truest truth” approach is it results in a Church that’s just a redoubt of higher-g converts who enjoy arcane theology and elaborate liturgics, rather than a Church that is actually wedded to her people. Spiritual tourism.

But that bespeaks another problem: Americans have rejected the notion of “a people.”

#37 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On August 3, 2014 @ 2:49 pm

I think it’s wrong to take religion instrumentally,

What do you mean by this?

[NFR: To approach religion on a “what works for me” basis, as distinct from “what’s true”. — RD]

I approach religion as “what helps me try to understand what is true, including trying to learn something from what my neighbor at another church may glimpse of the truth.” What is true is true, but no religion or denomination can tell us reliably what IS true.

#38 Comment By Winston On August 3, 2014 @ 2:50 pm

There are more white who are poor than blacks;though in terms of the rate within own group more blacks are poor. The reason you associate more poverty with blacks is because you have fallen for the stereotype created by the media.
I have come to realize most media pieces are biased one way or another.The more you know about a subject the more you realize it.
Hey, Media: White People Are Poor, Too
Despite routine portrayals of poor people as black and Latino, most poor people in America are actually white.
Why “Can’t Make Ends Meet” Trumps “Poverty”

#39 Comment By Winston On August 3, 2014 @ 3:14 pm

Rod, You point out that the missionary ” said poverty is a big obstacle to these kids’ advancement in life, but the bigger obstacle is emotional, psychological and cultural: the belief they have that they are largely powerless over their fate.”

What said he may also explain attraction for Jihadism among certain people. Its stupid and nihilistic;but it may make them feel empowered. After all the elite won’t do it (even when they fund them in Gulf states-they just take advantage of the poor.)

It also explains this wickedness, awareness if the vulnerability of these people:

From Prison to Jihad: Islamists Seek Supporters among German Inmates

#40 Comment By Winston On August 3, 2014 @ 4:22 pm

Church going didn’t help blacks. Their culture was destroyed by slavery. There’s a reason why African immigrants behave differently than black Americans.Adding insult to injury they are the one’s who are the beneficiaries of the quota system in colleges and universities far more than black Americans. White Americans should dwell on that.
Also, some people can lift themselves up;most others need help.
Meet 3 Young Entrepreneurs Who Put Wall Street to Shame
Why the All-Ivy League Story Stirs Up Tensions Between African Immigrants and Black Americans
African-Americans vs. black immigrants: Do institutions of higher learning give preference to foreign blacks?
How African-Americans and African Immigrants Differ
The rift between African-Americans and recent African immigrants to the United States.
America still is the land of opportunities for black immigrants—but not their kids
The changing face of citizenship
Black, but not like me: African-Americans and African immigrants often have uneasy bond

#41 Comment By Taody On August 4, 2014 @ 9:45 am


Black immigrants from the Caribbean (who also have a history of slavery) are prospering in the US. They know the importance of education, a two-parent family, and working steadily toward success without blaming every challenge in life on racism or enslaved ancestors. Sadly, these ideas are rejected by the greater segment of the American Black community.