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

In April, the Oklahoma legislature passed a constitutional amendment that would do away with affirmative action policies in the Sooner State. Sally Kern, a state rep vying for the coveted title of Most Extreme Lawmaker in America, explained her rationale for supporting the amendment, saying (among a slew of nutty things) that “it's character that ought to count, not whether you're white or black... it should be your willingness to say, 'I'm going to become everything I can become.'"

Kern suggested that blacks simply don't work as hard as whites. “I’ve taught school,” she said, “and I saw a lot of people of color who didn’t study hard because they said the government would take care of them.”

Kern was simply advancing one of the most enduring and pernicious untruths in America's political economy. It holds that poverty – in general, but especially within communities of color – doesn't result from purely economic factors. Rather, the poor are where they find themselves as a consequence of some deep-seated cultural flaws that keep them from achieving success. They're held back, the story goes, by what is known alternatively as a “culture of poverty,” or a “culture of dependence.” It's a popular fable for the right, as it absolves the political establishment for public policies that harm the working class and the poor. 

It's also thoroughly and demonstrably untrue, flying in the face of decades of serious research findings.

It's a myth that should be put to rest by the economic experience of the African American community over the past 20 years. Because what Kern and other adherents of the “culture of poverty” thesis can't explain is why blacks' economic fortunes advanced so dramatically during the 1990s, retreated again during the Bush years and then were completely devastated in the financial crash of 2008.

In order to buy the cultural story, one would have to believe that African Americans adopted a “culture of success” during the Clinton years, mysteriously abandoned it for a “culture of failure” under Bush and finally settled on a “culture of poverty” shortly after Lehman Brothers crashed.

That's obviously nonsense. It was exogenous economic factors and changes in public policies, not manifestations of “black culture,” that resulted in those widely varied outcomes.

The Clinton Boom, the Bush Bust and the Great Black Depression

During the Clinton years, African Americans saw the greatest economic advances in memory. Over the course of the 1990s, millions of black families joined the middle class. With a booming economy and Clintonian policies like the Earned Income Tax Credit, which pulled millions of low-income families out of desperation, the poverty rate among African Americans hit its lowest point in U.S. history in 2000. Black poverty fell by more than 10 percentage points between 1993 and 2000, and poverty among African American children dropped by an unprecedented 10.7 percentage points in five years (from 41.9 percent in 1995 to 31.2 percent in 2000).

But a little-known fact is that even before the recession hit in 2008, blacks had already taken a huge step back economically during the 2000s. By 2007, African Americans had already lost all of those gains from the 1990s. That year, sociologist Algernon Austin wrote, “On all major economic indicators—income, wages, employment, and poverty—African Americans were worse off in 2007 than they were in 2000.”

Although the Great Recession obviously hit everyone hard, it didn’t cause everyone equal pain. In 2007, the difference between white and black unemployment rates fell to the lowest point in years: just 3 percentage points. Yet as the economy fell into recession, that gap quickly grew again, and by April 2009 it had doubled, reaching a 13-year high. As the economy began to turn around in 2009, African Americans didn’t see much recovery; median household income rose 7 percent for white families and only 1 percent for blacks.

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.

Just as people with little money hold the same attitudes about education as those with big bucks do, Jean Hardisty, the author of Marriage as a Cure for Poverty: A Bogus Formula for Women, cites a number of studies showing that “a large percentage of single low-income mothers would like to be married at some time. They seek marriages that are financially stable, with a loving, supportive husband.” Poor women have the same dreams as everyone else: they “often aspire to a romantic notion of marriage and family that features a white picket fence in the suburbs.” Low economic status leads to fewer marriages, not the other way around.

In 1998, the Fragile Families Study looked at 3,700 low-income unmarried couples in 20 U.S. cities. The authors found that nine in 10 of the couples living together wanted to tie the knot, but only 15 percent had actually done so by the end of the one-year study period.

And here’s a key finding: for every dollar that a man’s hourly wages increased, the odds that he’d get hitched by the end of the year rose by 5 percent. Men earning more than $25,000 during the year had twice the marriage rates of those making less than $25,000.

Writing up the findings for the Nation, Sharon Lerner noted that poverty “also seems to make people feel less entitled to marry.” As one father in the survey put it, marriage means “not living from check to check.” Thus, since he was still scraping bottom, he wasn’t ready for it. “There’s an identity associated with marriage that they don’t feel they can achieve,” [Princeton sociology professor Sara] McLanahan, one of the study's authors, says of her interviewees. (Ironically, romantic ideas about weddings—the limos, cakes and gowns of bridal magazines—seem to stand in the way of marriage in this context – many couples in the study said they were holding off until they could afford a lavish wedding bash.)

The Great Black Depression

Earlier this week, I wrote about the crushing economic depression now afflicting the African American community. Those who buy into the culture of poverty mythology would no doubt explain that reality away as a manifestation of blacks' supposedly flawed work ethic. When jobs are hard to come by, only the most persistent people – those willing to acquire new skills or knock on door after door and face rejection after rejection – are going to wind up being employed.

So let's look again at the evidence. AARP did a study of working people over 45 years of age (PDF), and found that “African Americans surveyed were more likely than the general population to be proactive about jobs and career training.”

They took steps such as training to keep skills up-to-date (30% versus 25%), attending a job fair (18% versus 7%), and looked for a new job (24% versus 17%) in the past year at rates higher than the general sample. A sizeable share also indicated that they plan to engage in these behaviors. More African Americans relative to the general population plan to take training (38% versus 33%), look for a new job (27% versus 24%), attend a job fair (26% versus 11%), use the internet for job-related activities (30% versus 23%), and start their own business (13% versus 7%).

The unemployment rate for African Americans between 45-64 years of age stands at 10.8 percent; the rate for whites of the same age is just 6.4 percent. Older black workers have the drive, and report putting in more effort to land jobs or start businesses than their white counterparts – they embrace a “culture of success” -- yet their unemployment rate remains 40 percent higher.

That's because the “culture” provides a very poor explanation for economic outcomes – especially compared with real-world, social and economic factors like the fact that predominantly black schools get 18 percent less funding per student than white schools, black families have just one-twentieth of the accumulated wealth to pay for college or start a new business than whites making the same income and the impact of a large chunk of the black population getting caught up in a racist drug war and carrying a prison record as a result. And, yes, it's still also in part a result of good, old-fashioned racial discrimination.


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