Despite all the rhetoric about being the greatest country in the world, the United States has faced immense challenges in meeting the needs of its most vulnerable. the official poverty rate in the United States has persisted between 10 and 15 percent for decades, with little recent substantial change in this figure despite the creation of anti-poverty programs and reforms of existing social safety nets. In 2020, the poverty rate in the United States increased for the first time in five years, reaching 11.4%. While some may not see the situation as dire, it should be concerning that in a country where a select few individuals have more wealth than they know what to do with, 10.5% of US households were food insecure for part of 2020. Although some may argue this is an anomaly caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, rate of food insecurity in the past show that this number is largely consistent with previous years. Simply put, the United States has a problem with poverty – leaving members of American society eager to rationalize its existence.
What is more troubling, however, is the large number of people who are indifferent to the plight of these most marginalized groups. Years before his sexual assault allegations came to light, Bill Cosby made headlines with his Pound Cake speech, in which he criticized black Americans for focusing on racial discrimination and not lifting themselves out of poverty. In 2017, Ben Carson, former housing and urban development secretary – who himself grew up in poverty – went so far as to call poverty “state of mind.” By placing blame solely on the individual rather than structural conditions, opponents of anti-poverty initiatives shape the argument around personal failures, often using the term to implicitly refer to racial minorities like the black community.
This idea that the cycle of poverty can only be attributed to moral values is known as culture of poverty social theory. The culture of poverty describes a causal relationship between poverty and a fundamentally flawed culture, including claims that welfare recipients are inherently lazy and that people remain in poverty due to the lack of father figures and good role models in their upbringing. When viewed through this lens, the conversation shifts to one that revolves around merit. The question is no longer how society can help people in poverty, but rather whether society should help them.
It should be noted that these frequently quoted claims are largely unsubstantiated, distorted, or simply untrue. Criticisms of anti-poverty programs are far from a recent phenomenon, but the explicit antagonism of people experiencing poverty became particularly prominent in the 1970s and 1980s. Meanwhile, derogatory anecdotal figures such as the wellness queen were used to portray welfare recipients as irresponsible and dangerously immoral – characters who would act in bad faith at any given opportunity to deceive and exploit taxpayers. Generally speaking, people experiencing poverty are just as willing to work as anyone else, and empirical data and analysis over decades of research have even concluded that anti-poverty programs increase work participation rather than dissuade him.
All this to say that the culture of poverty is a myth that both excuses and conceals the injustices suffered by the poor. The implication of this myth – that people in poverty are inferior because of their culture – underlies much of the discourse surrounding wealth inequality today. This in turn perpetuates the belief that the struggles of impoverished communities are internal and not due to factors beyond their control and long-standing institutions.
The myth of the culture of poverty is convenient for dominant groups in our society because it allows them to avoid addressing the tangible causes of the suffering of black people and low-income people – institutional racism and other social barriers to climb the social ladder. Because the idea that society is exclusive is at odds with the ideals of American exceptionalism, there is an impulse in American culture to make excuses for things that don’t fit this worldview. This shifts the blame from the structural elements that cause oppression to the oppressed themselves. By placing the onus on individual responsibility, rhetoric that denigrates members of the lower class circumvents the confrontation with the systemic change needed to reduce economic disparities.
If, as a nation, we hope to improve the living conditions of all, we must abandon the culture of poverty, which has resurfaced in recent years under a new exam wave. By addressing poverty in a humanizing rather than hostile way, we can begin to critique the institutions that contribute to inequality in this country through a more holistic view of its root causes. Empathy is key – the lives and well-being of future generations will literally depend on it.
Samantha Cynn is Viewpoint’s editor for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at [email protected].
The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Cavalier Daily. The columns represent the opinions of the authors only.