Monday, August 27, 2012

Why the Poor are Poor: Muticaualist Theory Needed

The Role of General Theory

Economic conditions and cultural patterns* tend to have persisting effects on individuals.  Change may be produced by a transformation of values that  have economic effects. This I take to be the import of Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. 1904-5. Changes in material and technological conditions--the production and distribution of  goods and services --have political, social, and cultural consequences. This I take to be the import  of  the work of  Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and their followers. This ancient debate takes new forms but continues old themes on the causes and cures of poverty.

*For immediate working purposes, let culture mean what humans add to nature, including language, meanings, values, norms, and symbols.

Contemporary theorists bring into play both the values and behavior of the poor and the structural economic forces that shape their lives. The debatable questions have to do with the priority, sequence, and causal relations between them. The players have changed since I investigated the discussion in my The Passion for Equality, 1987, but I am not aware that the terms of the argument are substantially different. The nature, extent, and causes of the "underclass" have received a lot of attention since then.

A good summary of recent  research theory can be found in the Godkin Lecture at Harvard by William Julius Wilson,"The American Underclass: Inner-City Ghettos and the Norms of Citizenship" 

More recent research is cited by Thomas Edsall in

I have been impressed with Wilson's work:
The Declining Significance of Race: Blacks and Changing American Institutions (1978). 
The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy (1987), 
More Than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City (2009),

He has argued that  class is more useful than race in explaining black urban poverty today. He does not deny the destructive behavioral patterns in the ghetto but believes that the primary source lies in the underlying economic structures (loss of good-paying industrial jobs in black neighborhoods, e. g.) that resulted in a high rates of unemployment among black men, which makes them undesirable mates for black women. Today we would need to add the facts about the   incarceration of young black males related to our misguided, abhorrent drug policies that magnify the problem. This compounded with the lack of political commitment by either party to sufficiently robust structural changes that would benefit the poor and middles classes across racial lines makes for a discouraging situation with no end in sight.

It is difficult to know much to stress economic and structural factors as determinants of cultural practices and values.  In my opinion, it works both ways in a complex dynamic of interactive influences mutually reinforcing, limiting, or taking precedence over each other in ways that no single theory is likely to get just right. I hold all theories tentatively, skeptical of all claims that "at last we've got it." It is not easy to get  the full reality of things in a general theory, no matter how sophisticated and nuanced it is.

Urban poverty, specifically that of the black ghetto in the old industrial cities gets the most attention, but I have always been equally interested in rural poverty, among both blacks and whites, especially in the South, including Appalachia.

Liberals generally favor basic structural economic factors and social causes. Conservatives tend to

(1) have an excessive individualism that minimizes the general  socio-economic  conditions--lack of opportunity, and high rates of unemployment, etc.--where the poor reside. They ignore the destructive effects of familial, social, and cultural conditions on children growing up that work against the development of  the personal responsibility that is  their overarching moral principle or

(2) fall into  a defeatist, despairing cultural theory. This approach stresses how behavior, attitudes, and values trap the poor into  economic failure over generations.  They follow this theme regardless of and independently of how appalling structural economic factors may be productive of the cultural framework thus generated. (See the lecture by William Julius Wilson previously mentioned for an excellent summary of the trajectory of the "culture of poverty" thesis.)

In short, they may ignore the social conditions that work against the development of individual responsibility, or they may proffer a "culture of poverty" thesis that makes the situation so hopeless that no government action will be effective enough to matter much. A variant is Lawrence Mead who thinks that the poor  value work but are defeated and discouraged by their situation. He argues that personal responsibility should be enforced by requiring recipients to work in order to receive benefits  ("the new paternalism"). See The New Politics of Poverty: The Nonworking Poor in America (1993). His work is behind the reform of welfare in the Clinton administration.

Conservatives and liberals, like Heinz products, come in 57 varieties. Many of all persuasions ignore the role of luck or the absence thereof in individual success or failure.

The Importance of Individual Stories
Stories are concrete and may  capture more of the full reality than abstract theories, although stories can leave out much as well, i. e., not tell the whole story. Here are a few samples:

From  Joseph Loconte:
Consider a homeless man named Walter. . . .  who had just received a supply of new needles, courtesy of the taxpayers of New York.

Walter admitted to me that he wasn't using the needles himself; he was selling them on the street for bags of heroin. (Lots of other addicts at needle-exchange programs do the same.) I asked him if he could picture his life without drugs. Could he imagine himself clean, employed, married, maybe a homeowner? I'll never forget his answer: "I'm way past that," he said. "The best thing I do is getting high ... Just put me on an island and don't mess with me."

From William Julius Wilson:
Godkin Lecture, loc. cit.
Curtis .. . . has been working for several years as a dishwasher for different employers. He now cooks, mops, and washes dishes for $4.85 an hour. He has held this job since February of 1985 without taking a single day of vacation. His supervisor has made it crystal clear to him that he is expendable and that if he takes too much, that is, any vacation, they will not keep him. On the day of the interview, he had had a molar pulled and was in great pain, partly due to the fact that not having any money and having already borrowed cash to pay for the extraction, he could not buy the prescribed pain-killers. Yet he was extremely reluctant to call his boss and ask for an evening off. . . .
He has not taken any steps to get further education or training, mainly because his work schedule and lack of resources make such planning quasi-impossible. . . . (H)e frequently finds himself without any money: 'Yeah, like today. I had to get my tooth pulled and I had to go out and rent money.' When this happens, he borrows small sums, about $20 from friends and associates: 'I just try to hang in there, whatever I do.' People in the neighborhood often find themselves out of cash too, and the result is that illegal activities are fairly routine in this section of Grand Boulevard: 'Oh, man some of them steal, some of them, uh … It's hard to say, man, they probably do anything; they can to get a dollar in their pocket. Robbing, prostitution, drug sale, anything. Oh boy.'. . .  Curtis's life as he described it to me was a real wreck, and he was evidently quite desperate, with no perspective of improvement in sight.
 ABC News report on Appalachian poverty:
At the start of his senior year,  Shawn Grim, 18, led the state of Kentucky in touchdowns. The star of his high school football team, the Johnson Central Golden Eagles, hoped to use his football prowess to win a scholarship to college.
Grim's family lives in a hollow in Flat Gap, Ky., where thievery and alcoholism are rampant. He was so eager to break away that he moved out of the family's trailer.
"The whole entire hollow is nothing but family, and all of them hate each other, so it's all fighting," he said.
He wanted to be the first in his family to graduate from high school.
"I want to go out here and I want to make everybody proud of me," he said. "And I want to make everybody happy that I'm actually trying something and doing something with my life, and I don't want to mess up."
See Wes Moore, The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates (2010). This is the story of two young black urban men who turned out quite differently though sharing many similar personal and social circumstances.

Such is the complexity of life with its interweaving of heredity, physical and social environment, personal life history, and personal choice along the way. There is usually more in reality than in any of our interpretations of it.

I am guided by Alfred  North  Whitehead:
 "Seek simplicity and mistrust it."
"Philosophy may not ignore the multifariousness of the world--the fairies dance, and Christ is nailed to a cross."

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