During our poverty debate, David Balan mentioned that a colleague of his was troubled by the very phrase “How Deserving Are the Poor?”  And she’s hardly alone.  Poverty analysts are far more likely to morally condemn the middle class for being judgmental than the lower class for being irresponsible.  Indeed, the more irresponsible behavior the analyst sees, the more sternly they rebuke judgmental outsiders.  Walter Miller’s 1959 article “Implications of Urban Lower-Class Culture for Social Work” (Social Service Review) is a fine example.

Emotional acceptance of culturally-derived behavior. — The principle, “Start where the client is,” implies, among other things, an initial emotional acceptance of certain attitudes and behaviors of clients which may appear distasteful to the worker because of values derived from his own social background. Any trained worker knows that such emotional acceptance is extremely hard to attain, that it frequently takes great effort to conceal personal reactions to conditions which may arouse shock or disgust, but that, despite this difficulty, effective practice depends on continued effort to handle these reactions. It should be apparent that such outward acceptance is especially important when dealing with lower-class clients, who are frequently hypersensitive to actions or attitudes which might indicate “snobbery” or feelings of disdain for those of “lower” status.


Those who wish to work effectively with cultural groups outside their own society must learn to deal with their emotional reactions to cultural practices such as polygamy, bride-price, or polytheism. This is not easy. But it is considerably easier to manifest “tolerance” for the ways of the Zulu, Navaho, or Burmese than to achieve emotional acceptance of features of lower-class culture in our own society; in the former case it is relatively easy to recognize that disapproved or exotic behavior is a direct product of the group’s culture and to accept such behavior on the grounds that it is “their way” of doing things, a way which is different from ours. In the case of lower-class culture, however, there is an almost automatic tendency to view certain customary behaviors in terms of right and wrong and to explain them as blameworthy deviations from accepted moral standards rather than as products of a deep-rooted cultural tradition. It is not too difficult to view the device of polygamous marriage and the mother-centered household among the Zulus as one alternative arrangement for meeting the problem of marriage and child-rearing; it is much harder to see the practice of serial mating and the female-based household in our own society as social forms which may constitute a practical or effective adaptation to the milieu in which they are found.

There is no attempt here to advocate a completely morality-free approach to such features; this is evidently neither possible nor desirable. What is suggested is a much more directed and conscientious effort to view the features of lower-class culture as interrelated aspects of an essentially adaptive way of life, deeply rooted in a persisting tradition. The corner boy does not persist in “delinquency” nor the mother in serial marriage out of stubborness or a wilful desire to violate known moral standards, but because the individual’s whole inner system of personal security is dependent on the maintenance of the life-pattern of which these features form an integral part. In dealing with behavioral areas which involve these cultural patterns, the worker must maintain an intelligent respect for their positive function for the individual and the extent to which they mutually support one another.

I’ll happily admit that “Start where the client is” can be strategically useful advice.  However, it’s most strategically useful precisely when your clients are “stubborn” and “willful”!  If your clients are mature adults, you can forthrightly describe the prudent course of action.  E.g., “Don’t have unprotected sex until you are in a stable, long-term relationship with a responsible adult.”  If your clients are stubborn and willful, in contrast, you might be more persuasive if you humor them.  E.g., “Have you talked to your boyfriend about using birth control?  Here’s a free three-month supply… if you feel like trying it.”

Why call this “humoring”?  Well, a social worker who sincerely “maintained an intelligent respect” for the “positive function of cultural patterns,” would keep his opinions – and his free contraceptives – to himself.  If you really believed that e.g. unprotected casual sex is “an essentially adaptive way of life” or “an integral part” of “the individual’s whole inner system of personal security,” why discourage it?

Miller continues:

Many terms commonly used to refer to prevalent features of lower-class culture contain a “built-in” cultural bias, which causes an observed feature or behavior pattern automatically to appear “deviant” or pathological as soon as it is described. For example, the female-based household is generally called a “broken home”; the serial monogamy marriage pattern is termed “desertion”; certain social arrangements of lower-class communities are called “community disorganization”; the widespread and highly functional adolescent street-corner group is termed the “delinquent gang”; aggressive and other forms of behavior in active conformity with standards of the individual’s most immediate and significant reference groups are called “antisocial.” In evaluating or diagnosing a given set of attitudes or behavior patterns, the question should first be asked, “To what extent does this pattern of behavior represent customary or expected behavior in the client’s home community?”

A bizarre claim.  The main goal of social work, you’d think, is to help fix dysfunctional communities.  And what is a dysfunctional community, but a community where “customary or expected behavior” is bad?   Again, I can see why you might not want to tell juvenile delinquents that they’re vicious predators.  But if you really see gangs as “highly functional adolescent street-corner groups,” why try to reform them?

What should Miller have said?  As long as he’s only addressing fellow reformers, he should have just bluntly endorsed the judgmental attitudes he condescendingly dismisses.  Then, he could have added, “Of course, since we need the poor’s cooperation, we should strive to be sympathetic.”  It’s bitter, but at least it’s honest.