Is the "Culture of Poverty" Functional?
By Bryan Caplan
At last, I’m starting my next major project: Poverty: Who To Blame. As usual, my first step is assembling and reading several tall stacks of research.
One of these stacks is the “cultural of poverty” literature, and one of the classics of this literature is Hyman Rodman’s Lower-Class Families: The Culture of Poverty in Negro Trinidad (Oxford University Press, 1971). Rodman provides a detailed ethnography of impoverished Coconut Village (location name changed to protect subjects’ anonymity). While Rodman runs through numerous social angles, the most glaring feature of this subculture is extremely short-sighted sexual behavior. Courtships are brief, marriage is rare, breakups are common, cheating is endemic, and contraception almost unknown. As a result, few children grow up in homes with a reliable provider and a reliable caretaker. Kids can really only count on their mother’s support – if that.
One way a mother has of signifying paternity is through the assignment of the father’s title, or surname, to the child…
The reaction of the reputed father, however, is the most important factor, for, in effect, he holds the power of veto. If he is living [cohabitating] or married he has come to know his wife well and is probably convinced of her fidelity. If he is friending [casually sleeping with] with the girl, he has visited her at irregular intervals to see whether he could “bounce up” somebody else that she was seeing. If he is satisfied that the woman has not been friending with anyone else, and that the child is his own, he will ordinarily acknowledge the child and contribute to its support, for “who disown it, and know the child is yours, is wrong, is bad.”
There will also be some social pressure upon the man to support the child, particularly if the girl is known as a quiet, respectable girl who does not run around. But if there is any element of doubt in the man’s mind, he can disown the child and not contribute to its support, and these social pressures will not usually be able to force him to own his child. Moreover, even if he believes that the child is his own, if he does not want to support the child he will disown it, and usually with impunity, unless the girl should bring him to court for the maintenance of the child. [which very rarely happens, and does little good in any case]
The most arresting claim in Rodman’s work, however, is that sexual behavior in Coconut Village (and, he claims, similar subcultures around the world) is in fact socially functional:
There are many observers who are quick to focus upon illegitimate births, non-legal marriages, female-headed households, and deserting fathers as the major problems of the lower class… My own intention is to avoid a moral stance and to describe the situation as objectively as possible… Others terms with pejorative connotations are avoided (and new terms such as “marital-shifting” and “child-shifting” have been used) in order to prevent middle-class moral judgments from creeping in. The result, as the reader will see in the theoretical chapters, is that family patterns which are frequently referred to as problems of the lower class are perhaps better seem as cultural solutions of the lower class to other, more basic problems.
This seems like an awfully tall order. How on Earth is impulsive sexual behavior supposed to be a “cultural solution” for anyone – much less people in dire poverty? Rodman’s response is underwhelming:
The man’s role as worker-earning lies at the center of an explanation of lower-class family relationships in Trinidad. The man is expected to work and to earn for his family… Unfortunately, the lower-class man is involved in much unemployment, underemployment, poorly paid employment, and unskilled employment. Because of these handicaps in his occupational role he is frequently unable to fulfill his provider role…
The consequences for the man are particularly far-reaching when damage is done to him in this crucial joint role. He loses status, esteem, and income power, and this influences his position in the community and the family. He is held in low esteem by the members of his own family when he is unable to fulfill their expectations of him as a provider. As a result, he often seeks gratification and relationships outside his family. This may be a factor in explaining the strong peer relations that develop within the lower-class community. Male peers who are in similar circumstances are able to develop relationships through which it is possible to gain gratification. Similarly, in extramarital relationships a man may have sufficient resources available in order to provide adequately for another woman, if even only for a short period of time.
And that’s pretty much it! You might think that the difficulty of supporting a family would be a good reason to delay fatherhood, but no. To Rodman’s mind, it’s a good reason to spend resources your kids desperately need drinking with your buddies and courting new girlfriends. While many men will see the appeal, this hardly shows their behavior is a “cultural solution to basic problems of the lower class.” Above all, how could anyone imagine that this is a “cultural solution” for mothers or children?
Rodman closes Lower-Class Families with scorn for the straightforward interpretation of his own research:
It must be remembered that words like “promiscuity,” “illegitimacy,” and “desertion” are not part of the lower-class vocabulary, and that it is misleading to describe lower-class behavior in this way. These words have middle-class meanings, imply middle-class judgments, and should not be used to describe lower-class behavior – unless, of course, our intention is to judge this behavior in a middle-class manner in order to bolster a sagging middle-class ego.
Reply: The absence of these terms from “lower-class vocabulary” credibly explains why the people of Coconut Village are lower-class in the first place. If they adopted middle-class norms, they wouldn’t become rich overnight. But over time, delayed gratification would sharply raise their standard of living – especially for mothers and children. While Rodman inveighs against the “middle-class ego,” the root cause of the misery he describes is rather the inflated lower-class ego. In any walk of life, it is wisdom for less successful people to emulate more successful people. This is true in sports, games, school, jobs, and life itself. Only foolish pride says otherwise.