Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Are Fear and Mistrust at the Root of the Culture of Poverty?

The New York Times has a fine article on the return of "the culture of poverty" as a concept in sociology. The very idea was suppressed by liberal academics who thought it meant blaming the victim of poverty. Yet culture matters for everyone, and eventually the empirical strikes back.

The article cites Robert Sampson's studies in various Chicago neighborhoods. He concluded that

Income levels did not necessarily explain the difference, Professor Sampson said, but rather the community’s cultural norms, the levels of moral cynicism and disorder.
Cynicism and disorder, fear and mistrust - these are the things that create the dysfunctions of the culture of poverty.

I think fear and mistrust are what creates dysfunctions in any culture. Promoting fear undermines the functional elements of the culture of any class. Fear and mistrust are endemic in some poor neighborhoods. They are also endemic in some non-poor subcultures, not quite so geographic. Fear-promoting ideological subcultures create social dysfunction on a larger level.

The culture of poverty may only be the most concentrated form of the culture of fear.


Michael Kruse said...

I know from studies of economic development that the ability to trust strangers is highly correlated with per capita GDP. In order to have an effective market economy you must be able to trust that distant strangers, who you will never meet, will behave justly in economic transactions. So does expanding markets generate greater trust or does greater trust lead to expanded markets? I think there are similar chicken or egg questions in the "Culture of Poverty" framework as well.

Pastor Dennis said...

In my remote rural town of under 300 people, the culture of poverty and the culture of affluence may live side by side. The school and some nieghbors try to reach out across the gulf, and sometimes help a difference.

Alex said...

Here's a link to a video that serves homage to the need for more trust in our society. The connection to poverty is tenuous as he is advocating changes to fix a broken legal system, but Howard notes that trust, and more specifically trust in authorities, is essential for freedom. The part I'm talking about starts at about 11 minutes, but the entire talk is worth a listen.