Culture of poverty

I’ve been reading Oscar Lewis’ The Children of Sanchez (Secker and Warburg 1961), a study of a poor family in Mexico City made in the 40s and 50s and consisting of hundreds of interviews with a man and his four children which Lewis has translated and turned into a narrative. It is one of the classics of anthropology, and unlike most books in that category is a very moving experience to read. I had previously read and been impressed with Pedro Martinez (Secker 1964) about a Mexican peasant, and especially with La Vida (Panther 1968) a study of a Puerto Rican family. Of Lewis’ eight books, most were about poverty in Mexico. He had made friends with people who were normally not responsive to outsiders, and drawn a powerful and affecting picture of poverty.

1 mexico city slum

1 Poverty

Lewis’ books are often considered classics of English literature as well as anthropology textbooks, and they have important things to say about poverty. The three I read revealed what Lewis called ‘the culture of poverty’, a way of adaptation to intolerable living conditions, that makes his subject much more than a way of measuring lack of material wealth in the third world.

For a start, ‘poverty’ is not the same as lack of wealth. You don’t abolish it by giving poor people more money. Poverty is much more like a disease, and it undermines the constitution as chronic illness does. Lack of expectation, crime, hard labour, promiscuity, irreligion, abusive family relationships, unsanitary living conditions, poor education, all this and many other factors mark the culture of poverty, and it is these factors which must first be eradicated before any mere wealth redistribution. And poverty exists in every country (but not in universities offering anthropology).

Poverty is ill defined because nobody can deal with it.There are several kinds of poverty, and the one that receives most attention is ‘absolute’ poverty, a life threatening situation. Organisations like the World Bank (which makes money by loaning money to third world countries) say that absolute poverty has declined recently from 40 percent of the world’s population to only 10 per cent. Many disagree with this estimate. As there are other estimates, of rising food prices, coming world food shortages, spread of epidemics, and breakdowns in first world government infrastructures and economic networks, the figure, if accepted, is likely to be accurate only for a short while.

2 Starvation

But poverty should not be subdivided and minimalised. Poverty, wherever it is found, is lack of freedom. It means lack of opportunity, lack of choice, humiliation and loss of power, wasted lives. Poverty is slavery.

There are many types of poverty, which varies according to the type of economy it occurs in. In the first world it appears as the apparently rich, those people with an affluent life style supported (for a while) entirely on credit. In what might be described as the second world economies it appears as the marginally poor, people who aspire to an upper class lifestyle but who descend to lower economic stature (and financial ruin) when their plans are thwarted by a slight change in bank lending rates. These two economies also have state supported poor who live ‘on benefits’ and are minimalised, marginalised and usually kept out of sight on housing estates. These are the groups governments are responsible for and gain credit about by reducing their support. The third world has urban poor who compete for work at below subsistence wages, and rural poor, often exploited by their governments and third world companies for their agricultural products. Again in the third world are victims of ill health and malnutrition unable to survive without outside help (‘absolute’ poor).

If you add up all these different types of poverty it would be fair to say that about eighty percent of the world’s population suffer lack of freedom because of economic factors. It seems likely that this is a by product, or even the outright cause, of what we call ‘civilisation’, and has existed for about 3,000 years. It has existed in an extreme form since the Industrial Revolution 200 years ago. Despite what economists say with their micro view of economic cycles, wealth only exists for manipulation in an economy because it is taken from the poor. Every rich man is the product of wealth taken from 100 poor men. All our culture, science, technology, social problems, neurosis and economic waste stem from this exploitation. Most of our taxes come from the marginally poor. And it is a situation that cannot be undone without resort to anarchy.

Governments around the world cannot deal with the situation of poverty. Governments cannot even deal with major epidemics or natural disasters. The US Government did little better after hurricane Katrina in 2005 than the Indian Government after the Odisha cyclone in 1999.

3 population graph

The situation is not static. The world population reached seven billion in 2011, and is forecast to reach 10 billion by 2050 and 12 billion by 2100. Current economic conditions favour the rich. This might mean that poverty in the broadest sense will increase, and might lead to a breakdown in economic infrastructures vey similar to that which destroyed the Roman Empire from 200 AD. In other words world poverty exists in a context which is unlikely to do more than offer partial remedies.

2 and its culture

Lewis (or his subjects) talks mainly about the culture of poverty. How people survive in conditions under which they shouldn’t be able to survive. We usually hear about the culture of poverty through stories of outbreaks of violence and their containment. Riots on a housing estate in Brixton England; drug wars in Ecuador; establishment of American monopolies in Chile disguised as a war against socialism and so on. Always it’s an isolated event, never is it shown as the normal state of affairs for the people affected. In fact violence is the currency of the culture of poverty, but it is always presented as isolated outbreaks contained by the ‘authorities’, just to reassure the rest of us.

The culture of poverty is neither about why people are without wealth nor how they can be helped to become better off. These are typically materialistic interpretations by social scientists obsessed by demographics.  Culture of poverty is about how people are poor.

4 La Haine hub-saud-vinz-cave

Characteristics include: as mentioned above, recourse to violence. Criminals tend to have high status, as in 1930s America or 19th century Sicily. Machismo is a value that means not so much abuse of women as ability to kill. In Lewis’ Puerto Rican family mentioned in La Vida the women are the violent ones, carrying razor blades in their mouths and cutting non paying customers of their prostitution.

Display is another value. The (often ill gained) wealth must be flaunted and squandered. Poor relations are helped, those with money often give it away. The peasants save to buy land, but elsewhere in urban groups many go from affluence to starvation in a single day. A man without a home might wear a Rolex.

Lack of education helps to keep the poor poor. They have low expectations, of unemployment, of disease, of ever being able to change their situation. The poor leave school to get jobs so their families don’t starve. They are starved of ideas, and carry about simple ideas of the status quo all their lives. They know of no other way of life.

Poor health is common, based on malnutrition, fear of medicine, distrust of hygiene and inability to obtain medical aid after epidemics.

Strength and ability to work is important to the poor. It is their only asset. But it ensures they work hard for an unfairly low wage below subsistence value. Working life is often curtailed by ill health.

Family relations are often abusive. While the family unit is extensive and highly thought of, it reflects economic pressures. Children are abused because they don’t earn money, because they have illegitimate children, because they take to a life of crime. In the Mexican families studied by Lewis the contrast between generations is extreme. The fathers have lived through the Mexican Revolution, have seen worse days and have had hopes for the future. Inevitably they are disappointed their children don’t do better for themselves. Family love is strong but never expressed.

GUATEMALA GANGS -- Gang members hang out at the courtyard inside El Hoyon prison, in Escuintla, Guatemala. A string of violent and mysterious killings targeting gang members and criminals in Guatemala has prompted rumors of a "social cleansing," an effort to weed out undesirable members of society. Some blame police, others point a finger at vigilante groups sick of rising crime. Police say rival gangs are responsible.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the culture of poverty is the gang. This is a type of group behaviour mimicked in middle class society by young people, and familiar from the opposition it evoked from parents of the 1950s. Distinctive dress, haircuts, language and music styles are common to gangs, poor or middle class, from rebetis (associated with rebetiko) to Goth.

A stream of popular music styles ultimately derive from poor cultures, often in the West Indies or Africa, and exploited in the more affluent USA: highlife, juju, makossa and soukous from Africa; the bhangra of British Indians; the blues; reggae, ska and soca from the West Indies; hip-hop and jazz from North America; salsa, son and samba from South America; and folk music wherever it is played. This is all the music of the poor and deprived.

Another aspect of the culture of poverty is creation of a mythology which turns prominent members into heroes, whether political figures such as Pancho Villa or criminal ones like Al Capone. These, originally significant because they were actual members of the poor who successfully rebelled against their situation, have migrated to other cultures, where they became ‘rebels without a cause’. As Brando says in The Wild Ones when asked what he’s rebelling against: “Whadya got?” American middle classes were shocked by Elvis Presley because he performed his songs like a negro; and they were shocked by Paul Robeson because he acted like a white man. Rebellion then dared to cross the still important race line. That’s how myths are formed.

And this brings the definition of groups like the poor to attention. We have the poor because some make a profit from their existence, just as we have war because some profit from it, and personal firearms likewise. Corrupt police forces, politicians trying to avoid blame, foreign governments after super profits all collude in maintaining poverty. The profit motive keeps things the way they are, and only when the profit motive vanishes will things change. Probably when just one person owns all the money.

3 the Sanchez family

Of course Oscar Lewis influenced the material he studied by his recording of it, as always happens. Yet the immediacy of life as experienced by the poor (as distinct from its characteristics as imagined by social scientists) can best be seen through quotation. In The Children of Sanchez Lewis talks with Jesús Sánchez, age about 50 and born about the turn of the 20th century, and his children Manuel, Roberto, Consuelo and Marta. The names are pseudonyms.

6 Mexico-poverty

Jesús begins: “I can say I had no childhood. I was born in a poor little village in the state of Veracruz. Very lonely and sad was what it was. In the provinces a child does not have the same opportunities children have in the capital. My father did not allow us to play with anybody, he never bought us toys, we were always alone. I went to school for only one year when I was about eight or nine years old. We always lived in one room. We all slept there, each on his little bed made of boards and boxes. In the morning I would get up and make the sign of the cross. I washed my face and my mouth and went to haul the water…I knew nothing of games”. Jesús sets the scene and his children tell the story of their lives in a housing estate in Mexico City. The only comparable experience I’ve had was through watching Mathieu Kassovitz’ 1995 film La Haine (Hatred). My own experience was little better, as my mother, a single parent, kept me out of ‘homes’ and orphanages only most of the time and I know most of the deprivations Jesús talks of in a modified form. Perhaps that’s why I have written this essay.

©2016 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


2 thoughts on “Culture of poverty

    1. I should thank you, JV. It’s always nice to know someone is reading these essays. I recommend the books of Oscar Lewis I mention. They are long, and very detailed, but they give poor people a voice to tell their story, and it’s a moving one.

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