What Is the Culture of Poverty Argument, and How Does That Connect to Functionalist’s Emphasis on Merit?
The layers of society, conceptualized as a pyramid, are the inevitable sorting of unequal people. The layering is useful because it ensures that the best people are at the top and those who are less worthy are further down the pyramid, and therefore have less power and are given fewer rewards than the high quality people at the top.
Further scrutiny revealed that this particular theory was flawed. sociologists and anthropologists have determined that this theory suffers from methodological fallacies including a reliance on the assumption that behavior only comes from preferred cultural values.
Regarding the latter point, they note that poor employed adults work more hours per week than wealthier adults and that poor parents interviewed in surveys value education for their children at least as much as wealthier parents. These and other similarities in values and beliefs lead critics of the individualistic explanation to conclude that poor people’s poverty cannot reasonably be said to result from a culture of poverty.As Rank (Rank, 2011) summarizes this view, “American poverty is largely the result of failings at the economic and political levels, rather than at the individual level…In contrast to [the individualistic] perspective, the basic problem lies in a shortage of viable opportunities for all Americans.” Rank points out that the US economy during the past few decades has created more low-paying and part-time jobs and jobs without benefits, meaning that Americans increasingly find themselves in jobs that barely lift them out of poverty, if at all. Sociologist Fred Block and colleagues share this critique of the individualistic perspective: “Most of our policies incorrectly assume that people can avoid or overcome poverty through hard work alone.
If these effects lead to a culture of poverty, they add, poverty then becomes self-perpetuating. If poverty is both cultural and structural in origin, these scholars say, efforts to improve the lives of people in the “other America” must involve increased structural opportunities for the poor and changes in some of their values and practices.
Rank, M. R. (2011). Rethinking American poverty. Contexts, 10(Spring), 16–21.
Duncan, C. M. (2000). Worlds apart: Why poverty persists in rural America. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Ehrenreich, B. (2012, March 15). What “other America”? Salon.com. Retrieved from http://www.salon.com/2012/03/15/the_truth_about_the_poor/.