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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. 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 […]

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. 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 — 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:

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 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 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 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.