The culture of poverty theory states that living in conditions of pervasive poverty will lead to the development of a culture or subculture adapted to those conditions. This culture is characterized by pervasive feelings of helplessness, dependency, marginality, and powerlessness. Furthermore, Lewis described individuals living within a culture of poverty as having little or no sense of history and therefore lacking the knowledge to alleviate their own conditions through collective action, instead focusing solely on their own troubles. Thus, for Lewis, the imposition of poverty on a population was the structural cause of the development of a culture of poverty, which then becomes autonomous, as behaviors and attitudes developed within a culture of poverty get passed down to subsequent generations through socialization processes.
Critics of the culture of poverty theory have pointed out several flaws within both the theory itself and the ways in which it has been interpreted and applied to society. The culture of poverty assumes that culture itself is relatively fixed and unchanging—that once a population exists within the culture of poverty, no amount of intervention in terms of the alleviation of poverty will change the cultural attitudes and behaviors held by members of that population. Thus public assistance to the poor, in the form of welfare or other direct assistance, cannot eliminate poverty, since poverty is inherent in the culture of the poor. Following this reasoning, the culture of poverty theory shifts the blame for poverty from social and economic conditions to the poor themselves. The theory acknowledges past factors that led to the initial condition of poverty, such as substandard housing and education, lack of sufficient social services, lack of job opportunities, and persistent racial segregation and discrimination, but focuses on the cause of present poverty as the behaviors and attitudes of the poor.
Much of the evidence presented in support of the culture of poverty suffers from methodological fallacies, particularly a reliance on the assumption that behavior derives solely from preferred cultural values. That is, evidence of poverty itself, including rates of unemployment, crime, school dropout rates, and drug use, are assumed to be the result of behavior preferred by individuals living within conditions of poverty. The culture of poverty theory presumes the development of a set of deviant norms, whereby behaviors like drug use and gang participation are viewed as the standard (normative) and even desired behaviors of those living in the ghetto. An alternative explanation is that individuals behave in ways that are nominally illegal, like participation in the underground economy or participation in gangs, not because they wish to do so or are following cultural norms, but because they have no choice, given the lack of educational and job opportunities available in their neighborhoods. In other words, individuals living in the ghetto may see themselves as forced to turn to illegal methods of getting money, for example by selling drugs, simply to survive within the conditions of poverty. Thus so-called “ghetto behaviors” are adaptive, not normative, and given sufficient opportunities, individuals within the ghetto would eagerly turn to conventional means of earning a living.
The culture of poverty theory has had a tremendous impact on U.S. public policy, forming the basis for public policy toward the poor since the early to mid-1960s and strongly influencing President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. In 1965 Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan authored a report entitled “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.” In the report Moynihan stated that poor blacks in the United States were caught in a “tangle of pathology,” the core reason for which was the breakdown of the black family—specifically the decline of the traditional male-headed household, resulting in a deviant matriarchal family structure. In Moynihan’s conception, this family breakdown was responsible for the failure of black males to succeed, both in school and later in jobs, and that this failure was transmitted down generations. Moynihan argued that the origins of this deviant family structure lay in slavery, where the destruction of the “traditional” family “broke the will of the Negro people,” particularly black males. This sense of powerlessness led to, in essence, a culture of dependency.
The related notions of a culture of poverty and a culture of dependency have become the foundations for antipoverty legislation, such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, enacted in 1997 and reauthorized in 2005 as a part of welfare reform. This and other programs rely on the assumption that behavior generates poverty, citing the need to end the dependence of the poor on government benefits and promote work and marriage as social norms. Among scholars, sociologists in the field, and government policy makers, the debate as to whether poverty stems from social, political, and economic conditions or from entrenched behaviors on the part of the poor themselves, continues.