How to Be Poor: The Culture of Poverty
You’re working a casual job, maybe in construction or at the gas station, paid a bit over the minimum wage with no benefits—one of those jobs that comes and goes. A buddy wakes you up with a desperate call: he needs a ride right now; you’re the only one; at least your car runs. He lent you $200 last Christmas when you were scuffling; he’s one of the old school crowd who party together and look out for each other. If you say yes, you will probably be late to work and might get fired. On the other hand, the boss is probably going to lay you off when things slow down in another month or two. What do you do?
The culture of poverty debate is back! Only this time, the colored folks get a pass.
This time it’s about “white trash”—a racial slur, Wikipedia tells us, which
“emphasizes … moral failings.” Charles Murray, of The Bell Curve fame, stirred up the argument anew when he dropped his latest look-how-outrageously-frank-I-can-be book, Coming Apart, into the media hot tub. This time around, however, we understand much better why, when, and how culture affects poverty.
Murray’s own cultural analysis is not serious. Working-class whites are trapped in the 1960s counter-culture of sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll, he says. While middle-class kids grew up, tossed away the love beads, and became solid citizens, the proles couldn’t get untangled and are now raising—as single parents—a third generation of wastrels. Let’s turn instead to the important issues.
That economic differences between less-educated and more-educated Americans have widened in the last four decades is no longer news. Neither is it news, at least to scholars, that gaps in lifestyle, such as marital status, child-rearing practices, and community involvement, have also widened. The classes have even grown more spatially apart. The controversy Murray unleashed concerns the role of culture in these differences; specifically, do the “white trash” bring misfortune on themselves by the bad values they hold and the bad choices they make?