Is there a “culture of poverty”

A PHS 795 student links to a thoughtful piece by Paul Gorski challenging the concept that there is a “culture of poverty.” As we know from class, poverty is a powerful predictor of health outcomes — one that goes beyond simple correlation, with plausible physiological mechanisms drawing causal links. We also know that culture is a powerful influence on behavior and can serve as a positive or negative catalyst for change. But does poverty create its own culture? Our student writes:

This was an interesting write by Paul Gorski who basically debunks myths associates with the idea of “culture of poverty”; a term coined by Oscar Lewis. This gives the perception that children who grow up in poor families, become accustomed to the values and norms that perpetuate poverty. Also the idea that all poor people some how share the same mentality and circumstances. He addresses what he thinks to be behind the achievement gap that is between high and low income students. The term he used to describe this is culture of classism.



5 thoughts on “Is there a “culture of poverty”

  1. “If we convince ourselves that poverty results not from gross inequities (in which we might be complicit) but from poor people’s own deficiencies, we are much less likely to support authentic antipoverty policy and programs.”
    This comment in the article hit home the most for me. There is a common perception that people remain poor because they are “lazy.” But this is clearly not the case, and while I had never considered the implication of that stereotype into the school system, it appears it is translated into how students are treated. It’s made me ask myself, in my clinical work down the road, will I be able to address stereotypes I have around race and class? I’m hopeful that the more engaged I am in conversations like this, I can increase my awareness and reduce personal exhibitions of racism and classism.


  2. I think this is a well-written article. It does pointed out the most common assumptions about poor people including “laziness” and “drug-abuser” are mostly wrongly created and placed. It provides a logical and different perspectives regarding the phenomenons of “non-motivated”, “not engaged” and ” laziness” among poor people by pointing out that many of them works multiples jobs at the same times and do not have time to take care of the children. It makes me think about a similar situation in Vietnam where I was born. In Vietnam, we have a lot of poor community, especially in rural areas. When I went there on my mission trips, meeting those poor children, I can see that many of them have the will and a the motivation to learn even more than a star student that I can find in big city. In fact, some of them did overcome their situation and become excellent students. However, for most of them, their situation robs them their opportunities of learning. Many of them have to help their parent to meet end meet. Observing those, I would say that this article hit home with me and it is valuable in spreading the true “assumption” about the poor communities.


  3. This was an excellent article, and while it focused on poverty and misconceptions in terms of education, the authors recommendations for closing the socioeconomic gap and eliminating inequities can clearly be applied to more than just education. My mother is a middle school teacher and I often hear how she becomes discouraged and frustrated when many parents of her students don’t seem appear to be involved or invested in their education (not sure what here attitudes are beyond this, though I’ll definitely pass along this article). I feel like it would also be easy to experience similar frustrations working in the public health field witnessing unhealthy behaviors, etc. which is why I think it is especially important to not only educate ourselves about class and poverty but understanding what common misconceptions are and why they are not true. As a future public health professional, so many of the author’s insights will be beneficial in work towards eliminating health inequities and improving population health.


  4. I think it’s important to note, that not only do people outside of poverty believe these negative stereotypes surrounding the poor, but so do the poor themselves. I’ve performed research to demonstrate that those with low income start internalizing these stereotypes. Unconsciously or consciously, they distance themselves from these stereotypes explaining that most of the poor fit these stereotypes but they somehow they don’t. After we surveyed these individuals, we gave them an opportunity to engage civically in an issue that would undoubtedly effect them directly. Those who believed these stereotypes were less likely to engage on their own behalf. So although the “culture of poverty” doesn’t exist, their situation persists because even those in this situation don’t believe themselves worthy of basic human rights, let alone those who have more means to act for them. I wish I had a link to the article, but our paper was just accepted. These stereotypes have detrimental effects, and perhaps the best way to stop this internalization and perpetuation is by setting the standard in early education to derail these stereotypes.


  5. The myths that are associated with the culture of poverty are stereotypes that many people directly connect with poverty. I have heard these myths with my conversations with other people who have never really been exposed to the topic. One person told me that people in poverty sit on their couches all day and eat pizza–this really bothered me. As stated in the article, we need to challenge these myths. We have learned how complex poverty is in this class, and I wish that the topic was brought up more in school so people would have a better idea of how to think about the issue. The article states that the one thing that people in poverty have in common is inequitable access to basic human rights. This is what needs to be brought up in conversations or in professional trainings, so people stop stereotyping and creating myths about people who they do not even know.


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