Claude Fischer on the culture of poverty: adaptation or pathology?

The Berkeley sociologist Claude S. Fischer writes about the culture of poverty in the latest issue of the Boston Review. He is writing about Charles Murray‘s book “Coming Apart” though also references a story I wrote in 2010 on the comeback of the idea. Fischer makes the point that culture is essentially a “toolkit” of  “understandings, guidelines, and interpersonal skills that we use to pursue our values.” For the poorest of the poor, the guidelines and assumptions that middle-class people use are not necessarily the best to use in the context of a dangerous, unstable ghetto.

“In their worlds, staying humble is usually the best way to keep their jobs or their kids in school. Sharing what money they have rather than saving it, or risking a job to drive a friend, increases the odds that they will be helped when the inevitable crisis hits. And where there are many predators, it makes sense to be distrustful or even predatory in turn.

Sociologist Martín Sánchez-Jankowski describes two sorts of lifestyles to deal with scarcity. One is to hunker down, hoard what you have, and take no risks, because tomorrow is unpredictable. The other is to step out, spend what you have, and live for today, because tomorrow is unpredictable. Neither adaptation is a script for middle-class success, but a middle-class script would usually fail in conditions of insecure jobs, needy relatives, and chaotic neighborhoods. These adaptations allow the poor to make a life….

“People, in sum, learn life habits suited to conditions of scarcity, but those habits can keep them in those conditions. Where might we break that cycle?

The American impulse is to target the culture—teach abstinence, discipline kids, lecture parents, preach punctuality, provide moral training—so that the chronically poor will be ready when opportunity knocks. The alternative, more European, is to target the opportunity structure—provide jobs and practical training, guarantee health benefits and housing—so that tomorrow is more predictable and middle-class scripts are more practical.

Most social scientists, especially those who know “white trash” the best, would say that our chances of long-term success are much greater with the second approach. Habits are hard to change; absent an environment that rewards new habits, why take the risk? Since the mid-nineteenth century, most Americans adopted historically new industrial and bourgeois habits, not just because ministers, teachers, and settlement workers pushed those habits—although they did—but mainly because those habits worked in a new economy.”




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