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Debunking the Big Lie Right-Wingers Use to Justify Black Poverty and Unemployment

Economic factors and changes in public policies, not manifestations of "black culture," explain African Americans' relatively poorer economic outcomes.

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Today, with the national unemployment rate at around 9 percent, black joblessness stands at over 16 percent. This week, the New York Times reported that in 2009, the “median wealth of whites [was] 20 times that of black households,” a difference that represents “the largest [racial] wealth disparities in the 25 years that the [Census] bureau has been collecting the data.”

Again, while economic swings this significant can be explained by economic changes and different public policies, it's simply impossible to fit them into a cultural narrative.

The Culture of Poverty: Nonsense Since the Beginning

In my book, The Fifteen Biggest Lies About the Economy, I look at the origins of the “culture of poverty,” as well as the large body of data refuting its existence. The term was first coined in sociologist Oscar Lewis’s 1961 book, The Children of Sanchez. Lewis, who had studied poverty in small Mexican communities, asserted that they shared a set of common cultural attributes. Although he had only studied small samples, he concluded that the same attributes were universal among poor people.

Education scholar Paul Gorski noted that after the publication of Oscar Lewis’ book, “Researchers around the world tested the culture of poverty concept empirically.” Fifty years of studies have revealed a number of observations about the causes of poverty, but, as Gorski noted, “On this they all agree: There is no such thing as a culture of poverty. Differences in values and behaviors among poor people are just as great as those between” the rich and poor. “The culture of poverty concept,” he added, “is constructed from a collection of smaller stereotypes which, however false, seem to have crept into mainstream thinking as unquestioned fact.”

Gorski did an exhaustive literature review on the culture of poverty meme. Are poor people lazier than their wealthier counterparts? Do they have a poor work ethic that keeps them from pulling themselves up by their bootstraps? Quite the opposite is true. A 2002 study by the Economic Policy Institute found that among working adults, poorer people actually put in more hours than wealthier ones did. As Gorski noted, “The severe shortage of living-wage jobs means that many poor adults must work two, three, or four jobs.”

There are quite a bit of data suggesting that kids whose parents are heavily involved in their schooling do better than those whose parents aren’t. But are poor people less interested in participating in their kids’ schooling, as the culture of poverty myth suggests? No. Several studies have found that rich and poor parents have the same attitudes about education. Poor parents do in fact spend less time going to school events and volunteering in their children’s classrooms, but that’s not a matter of culture. As Gorski wrote, it’s because “they are more likely to work multiple jobs, to work evenings, to have jobs without paid leave, and to be unable to afford child care and public transportation.”

Are poor people more likely to use drugs and alcohol? Gorski noted that the research shows that drug use in the United States “is equally distributed across poor, middle class, and wealthy communities,” but that “alcohol abuse is far more prevalent among wealthy people than among poor people.”

Perhaps the most pervasive narrative is that poor people, and black people especially, don’t cherish traditional institutions like marriage. It’s self-evident that having one breadwinner instead of two (or one breadwinner and one parent to raise the kids) is an economic disadvantage, and any number of studies have found that single-parent households (especially single-mother families) are more likely to be poor. But the culture of poverty narrative confuses correlation with causation.