Do Culture and Poverty move hand in hand?


A friend working in an NGO “Teach for Pakistan” told me “I love these kids and they have so much potential, but sometimes I think I am not getting anywhere with them”

“What do you mean” I asked.

“They don’t care about school, they lack motivation and are so careless; it’s difficult to change their behaviour and it’s not their fault, it’s the place they come from” he replied.

“Where do they come from?” I asked.

“From slums” he replied. 

About a year before this conversation, I collected data for a research project “The Political Economy of Public Goods Provision in Slums” by my University professor. I met several slum dwellers in 5 different slums of Lahore to take their interviews and fill the questionnaires. My experience during this study and my conversation with my friend made me think if there was a connection between behaviour of slum dwellers and the poverty they face. I searched on Google “behaviour of slum dwellers” and found the concept “culture of poverty”, a controversial idea but very interesting as well.

Culture of Poverty explained:

The concept of “Culture of Poverty” was put forward by Oscar Lewis in his 1961 book “The Children of Sanchez”. He studied small ethnographic Mexican communities to identify attributes common in these communities: low aspirations, helplessness, no sense of history, lack of future planning, frequent violence .etc. (Gorski, 2008). He insisted that poor developed this behavior to deal with their low status; this culture emerges due to marginalization of poor from capitalist society. Sustained poverty results in attitudes, values and practices in children of poor families, which they replicate in their own lives, creating this culture of poverty (Lamont et al., 2008). In the words of Lewis “By the time slum children are age six or seven they have usually absorbed the basic values and attitudes of their subculture and are not psychologically geared to take full advantage of changing conditions or increased opportunities which may occur in their lifetime” (Iceland, 2006).

This theory was the subject of passionate debates because it placed itself in the heart of poverty related political dialogue. It created a firestorm when Daniel Patrick Moynihan study The Moynihan Reporton black American family used the “culture of poverty” to explain black poverty. He proposed that black poverty was due to their culture, characterized by decline of traditional male-headed household and dependence on welfare. He received criticism from every corner; the heated political environment made many young social scientists to skip cultural factors when studying poverty (Suh et al., 2014).

Is there something wrong with the behavior of poor people?

This theory by Lewis encouraged many social scientists to test its theoretical and empirical validity. The critics have pointed out that the theory shifts the blame for poverty from social and economic policies to the poor themselves. This means that once a section of population exists in this culture of poverty, no intervention by government or non-government sector would alleviate poverty. So public assistance in the form of donations, cash transfers, or other welfare support would have no effect because poverty is inherent in the culture of poor (Gale, 2008).

In reality, a number of smaller stereotypes and myths about poor people’s behaviour have been used to construct this concept. The proponents say that poor parents do not value their children education and are not involved with them. Lareau et al. found no difference in attitude of black parents and white parents, and Leichter (1978) in his book found similar results in the case of rich and poor parents. Another myth is that poor people have weak work ethics and are not motivated enough. However, poor adults spend more time working than their rich counterparts (Boushey, 2002). Others also say that poor people more often get involved in drugs and alcohol. On the contrary, multiple studies show that wealthy people abuse substances more than their poor counterparts (Gorski, 2008).

Researchers have also tested the theory empirically. According to prevalent explanations, it was believed that poverty in Appalachia was due to incompatibility of that region’s culture with the modern world. But empirical study by Billings (1974) raised doubts on this explanation and suggested that attitudinal factors were not responsible for poverty. Carmon (1985) instead provided the situational explanation, where poor were part of a general culture, and if they adopt certain behaviour while in poverty, they abandon it when the situation improves. Similarly, the idea of a coherent “black culture” is also a myth, which leads to improper association of being black and being poor (Jones et al., 1999).

If this analysis makes sense, then the policymakers should not focus on blaming poor for their poverty but should create opportunities for them to succeed. A dynamic plan would be needed to facilitate their success in school, which would enable them to find a job and support their family with dignity.


Works Cited

Billings, Dwight. “Culture and Poverty in Appalachia: A Theoretical Discussion and Empirical Analysis.” Social Forces, vol. 53, no. 2, 1 Dec. 1974, pp. 315–323., doi:

Boushey, Heather, et al. The State of Working America 2002-03. Economic Policy Institute, 2002,

Carmon, Naomi. “Poverty and Culture Empirical Evidence and Implications for Public Policy.” 1 Oct. 1985, doi:

Gale, Thomson. “Culture Of Poverty.” International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences , 2008,

Gorski, Paul. “The Myth of the Culture of Poverty.” ASCD, vol. 65, no. 7, Apr. 2008,

Jones, Rachel K, and Ye Luo. “The Culture of Poverty and African-American Culture: An Empirical Assessment.” Vol. 42, no. 3, 1 Sept. 1999, pp. 439–458., doi:

Lamont , Michèle, and Mario Luis Small . “How Culture Matters: Enriching Our Understandings of Poverty.” 2008,

Lareau, Annette, and Erin McNamara Horvat. “Moments of Social Inclusion and Exclusion Race, Class, and Cultural Capital in Family-School Relationships.” Vol. 72, no. 1, Jan. 1991, doi: 10.2307/2673185.

Suh , Stephen, and Kia Heise. “Re-Evaluating the ‘Culture of Poverty’ – The Society Pages.” The Society Pages The Social Functions of Religion in American Political Culture Comments, 14 Oct. 2014,



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