For a long time, says David Harding, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Michigan, culture was something nobody wanted to touch in talking about poverty, in part because of a kind of backlash against the idea of blaming the victim. In an interview with Stephanie Marudas on the new volume of The Annals he co-edited on Reconsidering Culture and Poverty, Harding talks about how important it can be to answer important questions about the causes and consequences of poverty, how people deal with poverty and what it is like as a poor person in this country.
Stephanie Marudas: Tell me what you think and hope that this volume represents.
David Harding: I guess I hope that it will get people reconsidering culture when they think about poverty. For a long time culture, just the word, was kind of a third rail. It was something that people did not want to touch, they did not want to think about, and that was in part because of kind of a backlash against the idea of blaming the victim that was associated with culture. But in the meantime, over the last thirty years, people who studied culture in and of itself—not necessarily in connection with poverty—have developed a whole new set of concepts and ideas and really the world of poverty research, because of this kind of third-rail aspect, have ignored a lot of that work. And I think it can be productive in answering important questions about the causes and the consequences of poverty and how people deal with poverty and what life is like as a poor person in this country.
SM: So why does culture matter for poverty?
DH: Certainly, at the most fundamental level, poverty is what you would call a structural problem. You are poor because you do not have money, right? But it can help us understand both the processes that lead to poverty and the consequences of poverty. So, for example, one of our big concerns is what are the future prospects of poor children and what is it about poverty that leads to the reproduction of poverty? Kids growing up in poor households being more likely to be poor themselves in the future. And certainly a big part of that is material resources, parents do not have the money to pay rent in more expensive neighborhoods, they do not have access to quite as good schools, and so on. But poverty affects people’s daily lives in a lot of ways and affects the way they think about things and the decisions that they are able to make. And as soon as we start talking about individual decision-making we need to understand the kind of cultural world in which people are making those decisions. We cannot just pretend that everybody is a rational actor and they see all the costs and benefits of everything and just weigh things out. In a sense they are looking at costs and benefits but that just begs the question of how do people see what the costs and the benefits of certain things are. The other thing that I think is important to keep in mind is that we see a great deal of variation in people who have the same sort of economic circumstances, and if we only focus on people’s “structural circumstances”—income, their type of job, and so on—then a lot of the variation gets left unexplained. And I think that cultural factors can help us explain some of that variation. Why do some kids who grow up in poor families, why are they able to escape poverty as adults, why are some not? And a lot of the things that we think of are important, this is sort of a third, if we think about things like neighborhoods or schools where in this country we sort people into schools and neighborhoods by their race and their income, and if we start to think of well why do those have effects on people’s subsequent life outcomes, we have to start thinking about what was the cultural context of those institutions and those environments and how does that affect people’s decision-making and how they see the opportunities.
SM: And you have been doing research, certainly, around these topics: what is it about disadvantaged youth, what consequences do they face? Could you walk us through some of the research you have done?
I have just published a book in the last few weeks called Living the Drama
, and it is based on interviews with adolescent boys in Boston, sixty boys, twenty in each of three neighborhoods. And the idea is to try to understand what is it about concentrated poverty neighborhoods that affects these boys’ outcomes in the long term. So we know from prior research that living in a poor neighborhood is associated with things like higher rates of teenage pregnancy, lower rates of high school graduation, lower rates of college-going, and so on. But what really is it about that? It is not simply living next door to somebody else who is poor that is going to affect you. It is not something in the soil or something about those places. And so there is kind of two pieces to the book. One set of arguments is about the effects of violence. Violence is one of the most spatially concentrated social phenomenon we know of, and so disadvantaged neighborhoods present kids with a much more violent environment. They spend a lot of time and a lot of energy worrying about being safe and develop strategies to become safe. So, for example, they tend to have very close relationships with their same-age peers, which can sort of magnify any peer effects. They may look to older peers in the neighborhood. This is something I found in my book where the boys in the disadvantaged neighborhoods look to the older guys in the neighborhood who are out there on the street, who have kind of survived this violent environment and have a lot of cultural authority. They look to them as a safety mechanism. Those guys can intervene, their sheer status and reputation provides a kind of umbrella of protection. But at the same time, those guys are not a random subset of that age group in the neighborhood. They are the ones who are not working, are not in school, they are out there on the street and available and they do not always have the best of cultural messages. And the parents of the boys really see themselves as locked in this sort of cultural battle with these older guys on the streets sending one set of messages, setting one set of examples, and the parents trying to push what we think of as a more conventional or mainstream path.
The second piece is really trying to understand what is the cultural context of poor neighborhoods. And the story before was that poor neighborhoods are socially isolated so that their connections to people in other neighborhoods or mainstream institutions like the workplace or labor markets in general and so on is very limited. So it is kind of an insular social world in terms of people’s networks. And the idea was that that would lead to some sort of cultural isolation as well, where that combined with lack of opportunity then creates like an oppositional culture where people start to define things like violence or school dropout as not just okay but the way things are done. And my book is really an attempt to bring us back in a different direction and say if we really spend some time in these neighborhoods- talk to people in these neighborhoods. We even look at survey data that has these types of neighborhoods in it, we see that most people in the poorest of neighborhoods have very conventional ideas about marriage, about whether it is a good idea to have a teenage pregnancy, about the importance of schooling. But of course, there is media and local institutions like churches and schools that are providing very good middle-class ideas that we all subscribe to. So there is the social isolation but that does not necessarily lead to this extreme form of cultural isolation where there is this sort of separate culture that is totally different from the rest of us in America. What you have instead is a culture that is very heterogeneous and it goes back to that kind of cultural battle that the parents talk about fighting. So there is a wide set of available lenses through which to view opportunities or schools or school experiences, there is a wide set of what we might call scripts, different ways of doing things. And so what is really different is not the ends towards which people are trying to achieve, but the wide set of means that are available to them. There is a different set of models about how to be successful in poor neighborhoods, in part offered by these older guys, for example. Just as an empirical fact, really to understand what is the cultural context of poor neighborhoods, it is not one of this sort of separate, deviant subculture that is different from everybody else, it is one that is culturally heterogeneous. Then if you start to think of that from a perspective of an adolescent boy, in this case boys in particular, think of your average adolescent, how much trouble they have making decisions, making sense of the world, finding their identities, very responsive to peers, you put a kid in a cultural environment where there are many, many, many more options and they have trouble constructing strategies that will actually get them to the goals that they want to reach. So it is not that the ends are different, it is that the means are in a sense more diverse and in some ways less available. So knowledge about how colleges work, for example, because there are some people in these poorest neighborhoods who have been to college and have done that, but there are also a whole lot of other people who have not and that kind of information gets diluted and hard to find.
SM: In putting together The Annals, there are various articles and they do come at culture and poverty from different angles. What are some key highlights that you would say stick out?
We tried quite hard to present a diversity of perspectives and a diversity of questions. So one thing is to avoid falling into the trap of saying, well, culture matters for poverty only because of the way that it affects poor people themselves or the poor people’s own culture. So trying to understand the way that culture affects elites’ behavior, who are of course making all sorts of policy decisions and business decisions that are affecting the lives of the poor, so that is where Josh Guetzkow’s paper
comes in where he looks at how are policy elites thinking about welfare and really thinking about the causes of poverty. So what is the cultural lens through which policy elites are looking at the causes of poverty and then how is that then translating to a certain set of policies that then have a certain set of effects. So sort of turning the cultural lens on the elites on Capitol Hill and journalists and other policymakers. We also tried to have a diversity of national and international- it is much more U.S. focused- but there is a paper about democratic practice in India by Vijayendra Rao and Paromita Sanyal
. They study transcripts from these village democracy meetings where there is this very local democracy and the way that people’s cultural styles and dominant cultural behaviors influence how those meetings go and what decisions get made out of those meetings, even though formally the poor are supposed to have a place in those meetings, the way the meetings can be run- that voice is then sort of diluted away from the democratic ideal under which they were set up. Most of the papers in the volume try to help the reader understand what the cultural perspective of the poor is, or cultural perspectives, because they are multiple and they are diverse. Sandra Smith’s article
about how people who hold jobs make decisions about who to help find a job at their workplace. So we know that a lot of people get jobs through their social networks but if there is a whole group of people who hold jobs and are not willing to help others find jobs, that can disadvantage a whole community and set in motion almost a vicious spiral or a catch-22 where fewer people are able to find jobs and then people start to get the wrong impression and say, oh, well these people, they do not have a job because they do not want a job. And she connects that back to the environment of the community and of the neighborhood and the way that concentrated poverty creates distrust.
SM: The policy briefing around this issue of The Annals was on Capitol Hill, certainly a symbolic gesture to policymakers. What do you hope that policymakers will take away from this volume? But also just thinking about how perhaps they need to change their framework around culture and poverty?
DH: I guess I hope two things. Specifically I hope that people change the way they think about the poor and the cultural ideals and attitudes and values of the poor. I think we have an incorrect stereotype that people in this country are poor because they are lazy, they do not put in effort, they do not value education or schooling. The message we are trying to send is that: A) There is a huge diversity of cultural attitudes among the poor and, B) a lot of our stereotypes just are not correct and they are based on an old notion of the culture of poverty that assumes that people are enmeshed in a culture, that culture provides them with their values. And so we really need to be thinking less about the differences in ends—the goals that people are trying to achieve—and more about the differences in the means that are available to people to achieve them. So that is the first part. The second part is really just to get people to think about what their own cultural lens is and to really be willing to evaluate their own assumptions that they bring to the table when they are looking at information, trying to make decisions; that is why I think this paper that looks at the congressional discourse is so important. That you basically have a lot of the same things happening out there in the real world but the lens through which people are looking at them has changed and so the policies have changed and so we have to always keep in mind that there are going to be other lenses, that our lens is determined by our own biography, our own history, our own social position and we need to really keep challenging ourselves to make sure that we are looking at things from the right perspective.
SM: And lastly, what got you interested to do research on these topics?
I always joke that my mother is a social worker, my father is a biologist. So you put the two together and you get a social scientist. That is a little bit too simple of an explanation I guess. But I think I, like many young people in college figuring out what they want to do, concerned about social justice and also kind of had an interest in just the analytical process of social research. The thing that convinced me to go to graduate school actually was reading William Julius Wilson’s work in college and really sort of being struck by the sophistication of the explanations and really getting interested in that process. And so I from there went on to graduate school. So that is why it is especially interesting to be here participating in this event with him [William Julius Wilson] and have him involved in the volume [through his paper “Why Both Social Structure and Culture Matter in a Holistic Analysis of Inner-City Poverty.
SM: Thank you for your time.
DH: Okay, thank you.
Disclaimer: The views expressed herein are solely the opinions of the individuals and not those of the Academy.