Thursday, October 21, 2010

The culture of poverty

The film "Trading Places" (1983) presents us with the amusing and comforting notion that street smarts can be an asset in the business world.  Eddie Murphy's character, a panhandler from a broken home, when given a modicum of training and a chance to lead an investment firm, thrives.  His understanding of the concerns of common people gives him insights that blue blood investors miss.

Of course, the real world doesn't work that way, and few have better explained why this is so than Ta-Nehisi Coates (h/t Yglesias).  As Coates explains, the skills you need for surviving poverty are frequently at odds with the skills you need to succeed in the professional world:
It defies logic to think that any group, in a generationaly entrenched position, would not develop codes and mores for how to survive in that position. African-Americans, themselves, from poor to bourgeois, are the harshest critics of the street mentality. Of course, most white people only pay attention when Bill Cosby or Barack Obama are making that criticism. The problem is that rarely do such critiques ask why anyone would embrace such values. Moreover, they tend to assume that there's something uniquely "black" about those values, and their the embrace.
If you are a young person living in an environment where violence is frequent and random, the willingness to meet any hint of violence with yet more violence is a shield. Some people take to this lesson easier than others. As a kid, I hated fighting--not simply the incurring of pain, but the actual dishing it out. (If you follow my style of argument, you can actually see that that's still true.) But once I learned the lesson, once I was acculturated to the notion that often the quickest way to forestall more fighting, is to fight, I was a believer. And maybe it's wrong to say this, but it made my the rest of my time in Baltimore a lot easier, because the willingness to fight isn't just about yourself, it's a signal to your peer group.
And yet a willingness to use violence is obviously shunned in the professional world and can easily lead to one losing one's job.  So to leave the street and get a real job involves an ability to change languages and demeanor in a very stark way.  But it's more than that.  To succeed, one must abandon the language, demeanor, and sometimes the friends of one's youth -- an act that is often defined in terms associated either with prostitution or treason.  In a real sense, succeeding in one realm almost requires failing in the other.

Please read the whole thing.

1 comment:

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

The argument that a "culture of poverty" is adaptive is one that makes sense as a heuristic explanation, but I'm not sure that it is well supported empirically.

For example, marriage rates are much lower for the poor and divorce rates are much higher for the poor, but those who do stay married reap great socio-economic dividends.

The rewards of violence and dropping out of school are extremely short term. Even for those who aren't good in school and will stay in the neighborhood, those who reject both have far better success in their own milieu.

I think that the hypothesis that inability to confirm behavior to middle class values, rather a lack of desire to do so due to adherence to different culturae of poverty norms due to the adapative value of this alternative set of values (or in the alternative, the motion that values are a cultural legacy almost as hard to break as a genetic one and that they are vestigal while not being adapative now), may be better supported by the evidence.

For example, the academic outcome improvements for the poor when tranplanted to middle class environments in youth when learned culture has room to be unlearned and becomes non-adaptive, are surprisingly modest. Kids who ultimately drop out of school have already fallen far behind academically at intermediate elementary grades. Kids who will go on to show a lifetime of violent behavior are starting to separate out from their peers behaviorally in late pre-school/kindergarten and aren't making the kind of rational calculus about the benefits of violent behavior suggested in the article at that age. Poor credit performance has much more to do with irregularity of income than lack of willingness to pay. Marriage works less well when the husband is a high school dropout who is in and out of prison who can't hold onto a good job.