Reconsidering Culture and Poverty: A Congressional Briefing
On May 13, 2010, a Congressional Briefing was held at the Capitol Visitor’s Center in Washington, DC, with the co-editors and contributor to The Annals volume on “Reconsidering Culture and Poverty.” The following is a transcript of the briefing, which was moderated by Michael Laracy, Director of Policy Reform and Advocacy for the Annie E. Casey Foundation, with David Harding, University of Michigan, Michèle Lamont, Harvard University, Mario Small, University of Chicago, and William Julius Wilson, Harvard University. You may also listen to or download a podcast of the briefing.
Michael Laracy: Good morning. I’m Mike Laracy; I’m Director of Policy Reform and Advocacy at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, where I coordinate our efforts to inform federal and state-level policy deliberations around improving the conditions and outcomes for America’s disadvantaged kids and families.
I’m also the newest member of the board of the American Academy of Political and Social Science.
So it’s a double pleasure to welcome you to this discussion of the latest volume of The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science on “Reconsidering Culture and Poverty.”
The American Academy and The Annals have a long history-dating back to 1890-of trying to apply rigorous empirical analysis and scholarship to important policy questions. That history includes often looking at topics that others have neglected-including questions such as whether or not-or to what extent-culture plays a role in keeping people in poverty – or helping them escape from it.
I truly believe that the next two years we are going to see a great deal of attention here in Washington to the dual issues of poverty and opportunity. For the last year the oxygen-sucking issues of healthcare and jobs have prevented the administration and the Congress from really focusing on poverty and opportunity. Those two issues shoved everything else aside. With healthcare reform largely behind us and with the economy improving and jobs coming back, I really think that poverty and opportunity will be looked at more closely, particularly since the poverty rate tends to lag behind in economic recovery. So the timing of this issue of The Annals could not be better. Too often, discussions here in Washington about the causes and consequences of poverty revert to sort of sterile, default positions with liberals wholly blaming structural issues such as the economy or racism while conservatives too quickly fault our culture and our poor families for counterproductive behaviors and attitudes. Typically, debates like that do not do much to enlighten public deliberations and did not get us very far in addressing the problem of poverty. So reconsidering culture and poverty is a powerful remedy to that tendency, shedding new light and insights on the issue and most importantly helping us think about policy implications. So let me very briefly introduce our first speaker, one of the co-editors. Michele Lamont is a Robert Goldman Professor of European Studies and Professor of Sociology and African and American Studies at Harvard University. She will take it from here and then introduce our other speakers.
Michèle Lamont: Thank you very much, Michael, and we are very appreciative that the Annie E. Casey Foundation is supporting the work of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, which is supporting our work, which we believe is important. And I want to tell you why we think it is important, basically, what was behind this project. We are a group of academics who have slightly different areas of expertise; I am primarily a cultural sociologist and both Mario [Small] and David [Harding] are experts of poverty who use cultural sociology, and we had become very aware of the tensions, or let us say that the lag between the work that is currently being done in the social sciences on culture, which really the concept of culture is used very differently than it was used thirty years ago and we feel that the way it is discussed in the media it is still very much connected to the culture of poverty approach which became infamous following The Moynihan Report. The basic idea is basically that the poor stay in poverty because they have the wrong values, they are stuck in a vicious circle which prevents them from doing the things that would help them improve their situation. And the main criticisms that have been addressed to this approach is first that it really has an overly homogenous view of the culture of the poor, and we have all been very concerned with showing the great diversity there is among poor people, just like there is a great diversity of views among African-Americans and any other groups. So we are really attacking this notion that to one culture corresponds one group or vice versa. And our goal was in part to bring to the attention of the policy world, which is why we are so pleased to be here today, those transformations in how social scientists understand culture and the host of questions that need to be asked in order to produce better policies and policies that would be better informed by knowledge about the world that is inhabited by the poor. We have the firm conviction that the poor are not a different human species, that like middle-class people they have moral values, like middle-class people they try to prepare their kids for kindergarten, and they also are asking themselves a lot of questions about am I treating my friends right, am I treating my wife right, so we are very much working against this view that they would be very different from the rest of the world.
So what are these different ways of thinking about culture that we are using? One is the concept of frames. Think about frames, think about lenses or glasses. The literature shows that there are competing frames to understand, for instance, the poor – are the poor poor because they are lazy or are the poor poor because they are a victim of the markets? These are two competing frames and one of the papers shows that those two frames, the poor victim of the market, was the predominant frame during the Great Society era and led to policies that are very different from those that were produced by Congress during the 1980s where the poor are taking advantage of welfare was the dominant frame. So this really demonstrates how those frames impact what kind of policy there are. Another important concept is the concept of toolkit, and this is the notion that there are ideas that are available out there that people use to make sense of their lives, instead of equating a culture focus with a conservative focus and an individual explanation, instead we think about what are the ideas that are made available to people around that they can use to make sense of their lives. To give only one example, the election of Obama made a huge difference in terms of recognition for African-Americans. His election transformed the frameworks through which many Americans thought about cultural membership and differentiation among African-Americans, because people became much more aware of differences among African-Americans, between the ghetto blacks, the middle-class blacks, etc. Then there is also the concept of boundaries where we have very different, various groups understand worth differently, what is the place of money versus relationship in understanding how to lead meaningful lives. So the various chapters in our issue put these concepts at work. We hope that by diffusing this knowledge we are going to help transform the ways in which social sciences influence policy-making. We are convinced that there is a little bit of tug-of-war in the public sphere that opposes people who promote the individualist explanation of social phenomenon versus an explanation that focuses on institutions and culture and we created have this issue with the hope to broaden the conversation and to make people much more aware of the difference that it makes to have cultural repertoires that are more inclusive, for instance, or institutions that are more inclusive as well.
So I am going to stop now and I am going to welcome Lynn Woolsey, who is one of the two congressional representatives who have agreed to prepare an essay for our issue [“Culture, Poverty and Effective Social Policy“] and she is going to say a few words before being followed by Mario Small.
Lynn Woolsey: I am Lynn Woolsey, congresswoman from Marin and Sonoma Counties in California, which means that I own half of the Golden Gate Bridge, so that makes me perfectly situated to talk about poor people, right? No, but I am perfectly prepared because I was one, a person in need of a lot of the discussion that you have in your volume that I am going to participate in and I was honored to be able to contribute to the volume about how culture shapes the way people in poverty live. I mean, we have to think about that, don’t we? What a concept. Values, norms, beliefs play very important roles in the way people meet the challenges of poverty, and as one of the essays in your volume illustrates, they also play important roles in shaping how lawmakers choose to address poverty issues. And it is a shame, a lot of people that make these decisions around here have never lived through anything but a really comfortable, easy life. But you know what? There are also a lot of members, even though they have not, that they get the picture. Our speaker [Nancy Pelosi] is one; I mean, she has had a very nice life. She understands and she cares very much about people who have less. So you do not have to have lived the life that I went through with my children at one point when we were on welfare to really get the picture. But, unfortunately, too many don’t and you can see it when all of a sudden the light goes on because they have got a grandchild with a disease, diabetes let us say, or something that they are facing – oh my goodness, this does happen. I am going on about my colleagues, but it is very important that even if they have not lived through something that you help them see and this volume that I participated in I hope they will read. The lesson I take from all of this is that those of us in Congress must constantly re-examine the way we frame problems on Capitol Hill. We have to see if we are keeping up with the changing reality on the ground.
In my commentary, I examined one area where lawmakers’ thinking and legislating has not kept pace at all, and that is the relationship between work and family. We are just starting to talk about that now, but it has been clear for many years now that the typical American family has changed. We used to be a nation of predominantly nuclear families, complete with one breadwinner, usually the male, and one at-home, full-time parent, 99.9 percent the female, home with the children, after school, what a nice way to live, Ozzie and Harriet. For the first time in history now women make up one-half of the workforce. Today four in five families with children still at home do not consist of the traditional male worker and the female homemaker. In addition, nearly four in ten mothers are primary breadwinners –primary breadwinners – for their families, while nearly two-thirds are breadwinners or co-breadwinners, bringing home at least a quarter of their family’s earnings. While there is a growing cultural awareness of this change, the laws governing work-life balance have not kept up. In fact, our country, the wealthiest country on this globe, ranks at the bottom of industrialized nations when it comes to such issues as paid sick and maternal and paternal leave, access to affordable childcare, policies that promote flexible workplaces. Lawmakers have been slow to recognize that the traditional distinctions between home and work and between sole breadwinner and stay-at-home mom have collapsed. The worlds of work and home have become interdependent and our legislation needs to reflect this. I mean, we have a society-and we are very responsible for that as legislators-we have a society where if a child is lucky enough to have two parents, both of those parents are in the workforce, not always but usually, and if the child has one parent, that parent certainly is in the workforce. So we need steps to integrate our laws in a more holistic way of seeing the relationship between family and work. Most notably, the Family Medical Leave Act [FMLA] with its provisions for unpaid, protected leave. A bill I have introduced and reintroduced and reintroduced, called The Balancing Act, will carry us much further in the direction we need to go. It is comprehensive legislation, it is a package that includes bills introduced by other members of Congress; it is an omnibus bill, it is huge. And when I talk in front of Kiwanis and Rotary Clubs I watch the women business people at it, I watch the older businessmen – this is a surprise – who have daughters and in the workforce now-get it, and then there is the group in between who say, “Well, Congresswoman, this is all very nice but we cannot afford it,” and all I say is we cannot afford not to do this. Figure it out. The Balancing Act would provide paid family medical leave for workers to care for family members – so that they can bond with new children at the birth, and then not just the mother, the father too – or for recovering from an illness or helping a parent, there is this sandwich generation, I am looking around at you, a lot of you in this room are going to be taking care of your parents as well as taking care of children. So we would expand FMLA to cover more workers, to provide leave for children’s extracurricular activities, to allow workers time to cope with the effects of domestic violence. I mean right now, domestic violence – you do not get paid time off or you do not get protected if you have to take time off from your job. So the package also provides grants to build childcare centers and for schools to offer hot breakfasts, as well as to expand before- and after-school activities, and for voluntary universal preschool – so you can see it is huge. It has provisions to give part-time workers benefits – what a concept – and the bill would also encourage employers to allow their employees to telecommute and it supports flexible work schedules. There are other bills that recognize the new reality for American families, including efforts to permit employees to request flexible hours, expand the Family Medical Leave Act to cover domestic partners, and allow breast-feeding in the workplace. The fact that these bills have been introduced shows that more and more lawmakers are recognizing the new reality of the American family. The fact that none of these bills has passed shows that we still have a very, very long way to go. So your efforts here are not wasted on most of us; it will be good I think to make sure that we get that out to all members of the House and the Senate so they cannot pretend like they have not seen it and it will not be the first time they have heard about these issues but maybe they can concentrate on one or two of them. And staff, staff are very important, so make sure that legislative staff know that you have put together this wonderful, wonderful piece of work. So, I thank you all. I do not know if you want questions and answers or for me to just go away, I will do whatever you want.
We are followed by Mario Small, who is a Professor of Sociology at the University of Chicago.
Mario Small: What I am going to do is very briefly explain why we think this matters. In other words, why we think we ought to be worrying about culture if we care about poverty. And in that sense, we think there are three reasons why a scholar should care and three reasons why a policymaker should care as well. The first is that without understanding culture we cannot understand how people cope with poverty. One of the things we know, for example, is that many poor people, particularly immigrants, create rotating credit associations to deal with poverty. So inside a group of fifteen to twenty people, everybody puts money into a pool and they share the pool. This is extremely rare among native-born poor people, regardless of their race. How come? It seems to us that without taking culture seriously it is impossible to understand this pretty fundamental difference in how people are dealing with poverty. And there are many others like that.
Second, we think it is important to study culture to debunk many of the existing myths out there about what poor people believe they are to do. An easy example of this is a long-held belief that African-American children tended to value education a lot less than children of other races did, and children of other races and class backgrounds. We saw this on both sides of the aisle. On the liberal side, the idea was that they were rejecting to an oppressive system and their rejection was basically this idea that you do not move up through the system; on the right it was simply this idea that traditional educational values simply were not part of inner city culture. While recently people have studied this question pretty carefully using advanced statistical methods and large scale datasets, totally untrue. It turns out after you net out socioeconomic differences, black children actually tended to value education slightly more than comparable white children.
Third reason is really to clarify our thinking about what culture is. In the scholarship and culture, as Michele mentioned, over the last thirty years there has been quite a spurt of creativity. I think, unfortunately, that spurt of creativity has not been accompanied by an emphasis on clear thinking. We think one of the reasons to worry about culture from the scholarship perspective is to think more clearly about what it is we think culture is and in a sense our volume is an effort to do that. We also think there are three reasons why a policymaker, not just a scholar, should worry about this. First, we think pretty clearly that ignoring culture can lead to bad policy, regardless of whether one thinks culture actually shapes behavior. An easy example has to do with the recent debate over whether we should be emphasizing marriage or healthy marriage policies as opposed to fatherhood policies. A lot of this debate, at least in some circles, is based on the idea that among the poor, particularly poor mothers, marriage is not valued the way it was, say, a generation ago. In other words that young poor mothers of young children simply do not think that marriage is an important institution the way they did. Well, there has been quite a bit of research recently by people like Kathy Edin and Maria Kefalas who actually went out and interviewed poor mothers about what they thought about marriage. Well, it turns out that it is not so much that they do not value marriage, they value marriage actually quite highly, it is just that they do not see marriageable partners in their midst, either because there simply are not that many employable males or because they themselves have pretty high expectations about what it means to have a successful marriage. Well, if you design a policy aimed at trying to convince poor people that they ought to value marriage but, in fact, they already value marriage and the reason they are not married has to do with other aspects of their cultural surroundings, then you are going to essentially waste money and institute bad policy.
Second, I think policymakers should worry about culture because it also affects how policy elites, and in that I am pretty much including everybody in this room, think about poverty and think about poverty policy. We ourselves are also cultural animals in the sense that our own understandings of the poor’s behavior is shaped by our own cultural attitudes developed in sessions such as this one, in our educational and professional training, in our conversations with others and in our exposure to the media. One of the papers in the book actually makes a pretty compelling case that those cultural attitudes shape poverty policy way more than, for example, statistics or a reading of the evidence, which is in fact the way we ought to be doing it.
And finally, to wrap up, I think policymakers should worry about culture because in essence we already talk about culture often. It is just that we do so either selectively or very poorly. And what I mean by very poorly is that we do so without a very informed notion of what the last thirty years of cultural research have shown. I am just going to conclude by saying that if you think about it just as it is the case that economic evidence informs pretty seriously economic policy, cultural evidence ought to be influencing social and poverty policy as well. So I will wrap up with that and I will turn it over to my friend and colleague, David Harding, who is an Assistant, soon-to-be Associate Professor at the University of Michigan. Thank you.
David Harding: So, good morning. Not all of our authors from the volume could be here today, so my role is going to be just to give you some highlights from the volume, sort of focusing on some of the papers that really illustrate the benefits of incorporating cultural concepts into research on poverty and also thinking about policy. So I am just going to do three of those, though there are seven great papers in the volume.
The first paper I want to talk about is by Maureen Waller of Cornell University, that is the one entitled Viewing Low Income Fathers’ Ties to Family Through a Cultural Lens: Insights For Research and Policy. The domain that Waller is focusing on is financial and caregiving involvement of low-income fathers and their role in the lives of their children, and that has been a persistent concern of policymakers recently, in particular with regard to child support policy. So she analyzed this based on interviews low-income mothers and low-income fathers, she analyzes how those individuals view father involvement and view the child support system itself. And she finds that among low-income parents, a father’s caregiving involvement and time spent with children are important indicators of paternal responsibility, just as important as financial contributions. So, when they think about what is a good father, the buzzword is being there, is spending time and doing the caregiving tasks as well as the financial contributions. So why is this important? It is important because low-income mothers and fathers view financial support that comes through the formal child support system as coercive, as adversarial, and really as indicative of a lack of a commitment on the part of the father. So if the family is at a point where the formal child support system is involved then that is sort of an indication of lack of father involvement. And so they tend to resist involvement in the formal child support system for that reason and view it as unnecessarily invasive and the system itself is potentially weakening the father’s commitment to children by having this sort of outside intervention into their family. And so the punchline is that efforts to improve child support enforcement need to take these views, this sort of cultural lens through which low-income mothers and fathers view the child support system, need to take these views into account, for example by privileging or acknowledging direct contributions and caregiving arrangements by low-income fathers, and this might actually increase the legitimacy of the child support system and increase compliance.
The second paper I want to talk about is by Sandra Smith of UC, Berkeley. This is the one titled A Test of Sincerity: How Black and Latino Service Workers Make Decisions about Making Referrals. So the domain that Smith is tackling is unemployment and underemployment among low-skill workers, and that has also been a persistent policy concern and this is particularly a problem among African-Americans. And so she is investigating how do job holders make decisions about helping others to find jobs; their neighbors, their family, their friends. And this is important because we know from a long line of social science research that many people find jobs through their social networks rather than through just sort of applying cold off the street. And so what Smith finds is that blacks are much less likely to refer their friends, their family members, and their neighbors for jobs than Latinos. So that is sort of an interesting puzzle, even though they are holding the same types of jobs. And so she looks to sort of understand the cultural lens of these job holders as they view unemployment and what she finds is that African-American and Latinos have different thresholds for judging whether those who are asking them for help are serious about getting a job and will work hard in the job, because as the job holder if you recommend somebody that could potentially backfire on you. And African-Americans, in part because of their community context, are much less likely to trust the sincerity of their friends, families, and neighbors. And so this is important because it may help us to explain why there are higher unemployment and underemployment rates among African-Americans and points to kind of a catch-22 in the way the job market works for hiring; if you have never worked before then you might be viewed as uninterested in work, but those are exactly the people that we need to move into the labor market.
The third paper I am going to talk about has been mentioned a couple times already; I think it deserves mentioning again. This is by Josh Guetzkow of the University of Arizona. It is called Beyond Deservingness: Congressional Discourse on Poverty, 1964 to 1996. This paper really turns the lens on policymakers themselves right here on Capitol Hill, asking why very different policy regimes around welfare were put into place during the 1960s compared to the 1980s and the 1990s, which culminated in welfare reform. The 1960s were kind of the final era of reforms to AFDC [Aid to Families with Dependent Children], while the latter period was a kind of new welfare reform that much more focused on sanctions and requirements. And so what Guetzkow argues is that a key difference is how policy elites understand the problem of poverty; so what are the causes of poverty. What he does is he analyzes carefully congressional hearing transcripts to understand how policy elites are thinking about things. And so during the 1960s, poverty was believed to be the result of what was referred to as community breakdown, so lack of job opportunities, discrimination, low levels of education and then gradually over time the kind of lens through which policymakers viewed poverty switched to one that both blamed the poor for things like out of wedlock childbearing, teenage childbearing – which were sort of grossly exaggerated in their prevalence – and things like laziness and also started to blame the welfare system itself, the idea was that it created dependency. Now which of these two frames and lenses has been much debated but the paper reminds us that the lens through which we view problems is itself culturally determined and we need to examine our own cultural assumptions as we make policy choices or recommendations.
So I will stop there and it is my pleasure to introduce William Julius Wilson, who is the Lewis P. and Linda L. Geyser University Professor at Harvard University.
William Julius Wilson: Thank you, David. The studies in this volume clearly reveal that culture is, indeed, back on the poverty research agenda and, I must say, it’s about time. And when I think about this I am reminded that it was not until I attended a panel discussion at the University of Chicago in 1995 on Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray’s controversial book The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life that I saw the most compelling reason for combining structural forces ranging from those that are racial such as segregation and discrimination to those that are non-racial such as impersonal changes in the economy. So at that debate I saw the most compelling reason for combining structural forces with cultural forces to explain the social and economic outcomes of poor blacks. And when I speak of cultural forces I refer to shared outlooks, belief systems, values, skills, styles of presentation, and linguistic patterns that emerge in settings created by discrimination and segregation. The cultural forces also include meaning-making and decision-making, that is, how individuals in particular groups develop an understanding of how the world works and make decisions based on that understanding. Now in The Bell Curve Herrnstein and Murray found differences in the test scores of blacks and whites even after they included social and environmental factors such family education, father’s occupation, and household income in their analyses. And they use this difference in test scores to support the argument that the social and economic outcomes of blacks and whites differ, at least in part, because of genetic endowment, a position that suggests that African-Americans are innately inferior.
Now, to my mind, none of the panelists gathered that day at the University of Chicago provided a satisfactory rebuttal to this thesis. And I left the discussion thinking that Herrnstein and Murray’s argument for the importance of group differences in cognitive ability was based on an incredibly weak measure of the social environment. In other words simply controlling for differences in family education, father’s occupation, and household income hardly captures differences in cumulative social environmental experiences. Herrnstein and Murray did not provide measures of the cumulative effects of race, including the effects of prolonged residence in racially segregated neighborhoods.
Now in my article in this volume I discussed two recent groundbreaking longitudinal studies that reveal that neighborhood effects are not solely structural. Among the effects of living in segregated neighborhoods over extended periods is repeated exposure to cultural traits, and this would include linguistic patterns that emanate from race, or I should say that emanate from or are the products of racial exclusion, traits such as verbal skills that may impede successful maneuvering in the larger society. Unfortunately, such studies were not available at the time of the contentious debate over The Bell Curve. Thus, in addition to structural influences, exposure to different cultural influences in the neighborhood environment over time has to be taken into account if one is to really appreciate and explain the divergent social outcomes of human groups. And it is incumbent upon social scientists to examine cultural responses to chronic racial and economic subordination with the same seriousness and dedication that they have examined the social responses. And I am reminded of a recent article by Bob Herbert, the thoughtful columnist of the New York Times, on the frightening, murderous violence that is plaguing many poor inner-city neighborhoods across the country. It is frightening because as Herbert pointed out there is a widespread notion among some young people that it is normal to kill someone who ticks you off. I mean, how many of you people have watched HBO’s The Wire? Come on, you have got to watch this program. HBO’s The Wire, you really get an idea of this idea, that killing someone has, for some young people, become normative. Believe me, you have got to watch this program if you are interested in the experiences of people in the inner city and systemic urban inequality. And when I was watching this program I came to appreciate how important it is to look at the cultural aspects of violence, because David Simon brilliantly captured it. And, as I pointed out, it is frightening because there is a widespread notion, as Herbert points out, among some young people that it is normal to kill someone who ticks you off, and Herbert stated that for some young people, if someone from a rival group or a stranger steps on your clean, white sneakers or laughs at you or questions your manhood, putting a bullet in his head or heart is seen by many young people as an appropriate response. This behavior is learned and represents cultural responses that emerge over time under conditions of chronic racial and economic subordination. And as social scientists we can no longer afford to keep our heads in the sand by ignoring these patterns of cultural behavior. We have to describe them and explain them based on careful research and systematic theory so that we can provide policymakers and others with the tools of understanding that would help to shape responsible public and social policy responses. Hopefully this volume will help to jumpstart such studies. Thanks.
Michele Lamont: So we have maybe a few minutes for questions and answers.
Audience Member: I am Bob Lerman from Urban Institute and American University. I just wanted to take up, I mean otherwise I appreciate all the presentations, including Mario’s, but I do want to raise one point about what Mario said relating to the marriage policy issue, and that is that I think it is incorrect to say that policymakers viewed the need to teach people that they need to place a higher value on marriage. The main person that pushed for the policy, Wade Horn, argued that it is mainly an issue of skills; it is actually the understanding that people do say that they are interested in marriage, especially at the point when their children are born and they are living together or are in a close relationship, the belief that they do think that they value marriage highly and that motivates a more skill-building approach and an emphasis on “trying to help people through” in a variety of ways, including relationship skills but other things as well. So I think it is a little unfair to the marriage agenda as at least done through actual policies and the way the programs are operating on the ground to say that it is mainly an issue of, “Well, we have to motivate them to want marriage.”
Mario Small: So, thank you Bob, and as you know this is something we have talked about in the past. I just want to be clear; so I am sure you are right about that particular initiative. I think, however, my broader point still stands. When I was talking about the policy elites I am speaking not merely about the particular individual making a particular sort of policy but really about a broader conversation among policymakers, staff people in Congress, journalists, and educated people in general about what it is that the precursors of marriage are. I think in that broader world you would actually see quite a bit of variety about what it is that is causing the low marriage rates among the low-income population, including the idea that many people simply do not value marriage the way others have. I think, for example, this idea is very easily defined and some of the political commentary, and some of the political magazines on the right. So I am sure you are right about your particular instance. My point was really about the broader political elite conversation, in which I think it absolutely is true the idea that certain people do not value marriage the way we all used to thirty years ago; I think it is pretty alive and well still today.
Audience Member: My question was about education reform which I think is the one area where we are getting a lot of innovative policy that affects families in concentrated poverty, and I was wondering if you could talk about how your research has sort of seized this debate in education reform and the sort of, what I see, as competing arguments around the inherent potential of poor children. And obviously if poor children are incapable of learning then there is very little responsibility on the part of adults to change the circumstances, whereas if children in poverty have the same potential as any other child then there is a lot more responsibility on the part of adults to create the circumstances for those children to learn more. So I was wondering if you could speak to that.
William Julius Wilson: In my article [“Why Both Social Structure and Culture Matter in a Holistic Analysis of Inner-City Poverty“] I talked about the Harlem Children’s Zone and in the Harlem Children’s Zone there are two public charter schools called Promise Academies. And there was a recent evaluation of the Harlem Children’s Zone focusing mainly on these academies, and you should understand that the children in these schools were selected by lottery and the lottery winners come from homes that are overwhelmingly impoverished. These are poor black homes, mainly with single-parent families. And the results of the statewide cognitive, verbal, and math tests are absolutely spectacular. Here we have kids from some of the most impoverished neighborhoods with scores on the cognitive tests that matched those of kids of upper-middle-class white suburbia you see. Now this is a program that excited Barack Obama and that is one of the reasons why he talked about creating a program of Promise neighborhoods that would be modeled or patterned after the Harlem Children’s Zone. Now I might mention for example two other studies that reveal spectacular results when you open up opportunities for kids. I am referring to the recent rigorous studies in Boston and in New York regarding the public charter schools. The public charter schools in these two cities are populated with students who are overwhelmingly black and poor, or I should say students of color who tend to be poor. In New York City, for example, only four percent of the students in the public charter schools in New York are white. These schools have several things in common, and that is a longer school day, a shorter school week, teachers who are selected on the basis of their ability, not by union seniority, and extended school day, I think I have already mentioned, summer vacation, for example, is very short. You know, during the summer months the gap between the haves and have-nots widens dramatically because privileged kids go on to camp and other enrichment programs. Poor kids go home and watch TV. But the kids in these charter schools and in the Harlem schools have a short summer vacation so they are in school a lot, have extended school days and, therefore, the gap does not widen. In fact, it perhaps closes, I do not know, during the summer months. The New York public charter schools and the Boston public charter schools also have results that are spectacular. The results on the cognitive statewide tests in both Massachusetts and New York reveal this because the scores matched those of kids in what we might call upper-middle-class white suburbia. They have closed the black-white gap in math and significantly reduced it in English. And I mentioned in my paper for the volume that it is much more difficult to overcome the effects of long residence in poor neighborhoods on English, and that is why it is so important to begin kids, to pick up these kids, early on and if you just isolate elementary school … the kids in the Harlem Children’s Zone public charter schools, the scores on the verbal tests match those of kids in upper-middle-class white suburbia. That is because these kids are picked up very early and now the director of the Harlem Children’s Zone,Geoffrey Canada, will be selecting kids when they come out of the womb, picking them out very early, not waiting until they enter middle school or high school. But even if you focus on middle school, the gap has closed significantly but not as much, that is to say the verbal score gap has closed significantly, but not as much as it has in the elementary schools. So I think it is important to highlight these examples to overcome the stereotypes and myths that you pointed to.
Audience Member: Thank you very much. I am Jodie Levin-Epstein at the Center for Law and Social Policy and Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity, where I had the opportunity to work with Mike Laracy a lot. This is a question for you and an observation for you, Professor…
William Julius Wilson: Who? We are all professors…
Jodi Levin Epstein: Yes, of course. Professor Wilson, you make the, I think, astute point that policymakers, Lynn Woolsey aside, are more prone to hearing the cultural arguments over the structural arguments. And I am wondering if sociologists can feel comfortable playing in the sandbox built by biologists, which are focusing currently on a different kind of structure, the structure of the brain and the research coming out of Cornell University and other places that indicate that the stress of poverty, the stress of the experience of poverty, results in changes and not full and appropriate development to the synapses in the brain, having the consequent impact on learning. And I wonder if that can help us leapfrog into many more policymakers minds, so to speak, and whether or not we can see a universe of sociologists combining their efforts with these biologists to play out the implications on a straightforward structural, brain structural argument. I would like your take.
William Julius Wilson: Well, I think there are beginning conversations with geneticists, sociologists, and others, talking about coming up with a holistic explanation of the effects of chronic subordination over time. The impact that poverty has on stress is something that we have to take very, very seriously. And so I am aware in the past several years of conferences that have brought together social scientists and biological scientists talking about these issues. But it is a very careful, comprehensive analysis that shows powerful impact of chronic racial and economic subordination, not only on social and cultural outcomes but also on biological or physical outcomes.
Michele Lamont: And if I may add something, the question of the impact … epidemiologists talk about the wear and tear of everyday life and how it gets under the skin, which translates into patterns of health disparity that have been extremely well documented. I think that one of the interventions that sociologists can make is really to talk about how institutions and cultural repertoire can act as buffers to lower the impact. The problem is when if you focus on the genetic dimension you end up in situations where it is very difficult to understand how to create change. And in passing I want to mention that today I am involved in the launch of another book at the World Bank at twelve-thirty, a book that I just published titled Successful Societies: How Institutions and Culture Affect Health, and that is precisely the point of the book, and that is where I think sociologists truly have something important to contribute because that is what we study. We are the experts of institutions and culture. To only look at the individual and the ability of the individual to pull themselves up by the bootstraps will not help us address the questions of the buffers for the wear and tear of everyday life, which is crucial I think today.
Mario Small: If I could add one final point to that, to the extent that the question was about spaces for interaction between people in biology and people in sociology, I think another side of the genetics issue has to do with the fact that we are finally breaking through the old dichotomy of heredity versus environment, at least in some circles. Specifically what I am talking about is research that is looking at the interaction between gene and environment and the effect this has on behavior. An easy example, a sociologist at North Carolina, Guang Guo, has studied how much genetic markers are associated with aggressiveness. Whether the marker is actually realized in behavior depends a lot on the social environment in which the individual is participating. So I think that rapid advances were seen in genetic technology in the last ten or fifteen years, coupled with within the last two, three, four years of researchers in the social sciences finally taking this evidence seriously and getting beyond the idea that genetics are destiny as opposed to the idea that genetics interact with environment just like everything else interacts with environment, I think is, in my judgment, a pretty fruitful area for doing that kind of collaboration that I think I hear you talking about, that pushes us beyond the old sort of ways of thinking about this as “Well, there is not a lot we can do, if it is genetic forget it,” or on the other side look for…ignore the biological side of things because that is not really something that is worth, from a sociological or social science perspective, paying much attention to.
Audience Member: I am Joseph Mais from Congressman Grijalva’s office [author of “From Culture of Poverty to Lasting Stability and Security“] I just wanted to follow up on sort of Liz’s comments about education issues and I guess Professor Small mentioned I believe at the beginning one of the sort of, on the liberal side of the error, the idea of sort of blaming sort of sociological constraints for keeping people from progressing economically and etc. One of the issues in Ed. policy, I think, comes down the same error here in Washington when we discuss Ed. policy is the acknowledgment that culturally bound inequities that have been around a long time create a heavier burden for certain communities and the struggle coming to the idea that this somehow excuses a lack of success in education for these communities, that it in some ways, because that extra burden is not acknowledged economically and not fixed, that in some way it excuses the fact that we continue to underserve through an economic and through education, even if we kept the system the same, that it is okay to underserve. And I was just wondering if you could comment at all on that.
Michele Lamont: We should take the opportunity to thank the office of Representative Grijalva for sponsoring this event and sending invitations encouraging people to join us. Who would like to respond?
Mario Small: Sure, I will just say a couple things. I mean, I think you are hitting spot on, if I am hearing your question correctly, in one of the dangers of invoking culture but not really thinking about it clearly, one of the sort of big ideas out there that you sort of hear floating in the public discourse is the notion that culture is not only important, fair enough, but also static. In other words it really is remarkable the extent to which culture is almost thought of as not quite genetically but sort of once it is in your head, that is it. Not only does it not change over your own lifetime, but it is not plausible for policy to intervene and to work with culture or even effect some certain kinds of cultural change. So if I am hearing your question correctly, I think what I would say is I think the first place to start is breaking down that assumption. I mean, the amount of evidence in cultural sociology about change in cultural beliefs and practices over time is pretty significant at this point. The ability, for example, of large exogenous shocks, large external shocks in neighborhoods, for example, to alter how people conceive of themselves and their circumstances is quite remarkable. In my first book Villa Victoria, which is a study of a public housing complex in Boston, one of the things we found was this is a community of poor Puerto Rican, uneducated, we are talking three to six years of education on average among the migrants, experiencing … politically apathetic in the way we typically associate, we typically think about… it was a classic case, people you would not expect… well, you know, they are adults… culturally they are just not going to get politically involved, they are not going to get involved in their community activities, they are not going to create the kind of community that is livable. The threat that they were going to be displaced emerged and with a little bit of mobilization a complete 180-degree turnaround in their cultural perceptions of what it was that they could do in their neighborhood. That is only one instance, but there are lots of examples of cases in education but also in community participation, in many aspects of poverty in which cultural expectations and cultural attitudes and cultural orientations have significantly shifted, and I would say that understanding that, the fact that culture is dynamic, not static, would be a first step towards overcoming some of the obstacles that you are pointing out.
William Julius Wilson: I would like to reinforce that point. You know, the term used to describe a position that was quite popular back in the 1960s is “cultural deprivation,” that these kids are so deprived that they will not respond to improvements, attempts to improve their environment or their conditions. And one of the problems with the concept “culture of poverty”, as used by many people especially in the conservative camp, is that the conditions have been internalized so deeply that there is very little you can do, that people will not respond to improved opportunities. And that is why I think it is so important to highlight studies like the Harlem Children’s Zone, which shows what can happen when you improve conditions for even the most impoverished minority kids.
David Harding: One quick point which sort of harkens back, this whole discussion, to what Michele started with, which is if we think about the concepts we are using to understand the social world, what the discussion, what you pointed to, is sort of this idea of agency. And those old cultural ideas, those old cultural poverty ideas, left very little agency for people. They were sort of cultural dopes, just following what their culture does, and part of the kind of larger point we are trying to make is that we need to think about culture with these new concepts, lenses, toolkits, where people are much more agentic. They are choosing from a menu of things, right? They are not just sort of taking what comes at them and it is really about shifting the kind of meta-level thinking about what the cultural context of poverty is.
Michele Lamont: Just one more comment, I was teaching a junior tutorial on race and racism the fall that Obama was elected and granted my students were basically all people of color, different racial mixtures, and it was really palpable in the room throughout the semester. Those are, of course, highly, very capable, students – but their ability to project on the future different possible selves was unfolding in front of me throughout the semester, the horizon of possibility was totally transformed. This is a phenomenon that applies throughout the population, the ability for people to imagine possible selves against a horizon of possibilities that is fed by different ways of understanding the society we live in. So to think of low-income population as static really totally misunderstands the process by which people develop identity. And that is where I think as sociologists we have a role to play in explaining what studies are showing and how this process unfolds. So for me to hear that we think they are stuck because they were born that way is so … it is very deeply bizarre to think that this notion is still present among educated people. But this shows that maybe we spend … one of the reasons we did this project is we thought we were spending too much time talking to each other and that is why we are so pleased to be here. What is the point of talking to each other, we are already convinced. The point is precisely to engage with people who create change and be in dialogue with them, not in a chastising way but really to try to make things move forward.
Audience Member: Hi, my name is Indi Dutta-Gupta, I work for the Democratic Committee on Ways and Means, and thank you all for coming. I have two hopefully quick questions. One is a lot of the research that you all have been describing is based on sort of in-depth, ideally I guess illustrative examples, but how do you make the case that these are not exceptions, that this community, Puerto Rican community turning around is not an exception, and that the Harlem Children’s Zone can be replicated? That is the first question. The second question is sometimes when I read a bit, and I have to admit I have not read through the book yet, but when I read this sort of research, it sometimes becomes hard to see what the appropriate federal role is for policy that seems to need to respond to such different circumstances across space throughout the country, in different communities. Is it financing, is it technical assistance, or is there some way that the federal policy can respond without being too blunt?
Mario Small: A quick answer to the first question, I think it is important to point out that while it is certainly the case that some of the evidence for some of the things we have talked about is based on case studies or it is qualitative, in many respects because it has to be, that at some point you have to go into a neighborhood and you have to spend two years or you have to talk to people and you have to understand how people are really changing themselves, it is also the case that quite a bit of the evidence out there is based on nationally representative data. So, for example, I mentioned the debunking of the myth that African-American children tended to undervalue education, that is based on nationally representative data from the Add Health study and another study, in which we found that in the national population of African-American children and white children and children of all races, once you net out socioeconomic differences, it is simply not the case that African-American children undervalue education. David has actually also done some work on nationally representative data and I am going to let him speak about it in a second. So I think it is important to be clear that not all… there is qualitative evidence and there is also statistically representative national evidence for many of the things that we are making a case for today.
William Julius Wilson: Let me just say that, you mentioned the Harlem Children’s Zone, the arguments I just made about the Harlem Children’s Zone are based on a very rigorous study of the Harlem Children’s Zone, a random assignment design where they focus on all the kids who entered the lottery, and they compared the lottery winners with the lottery losers, random assignment, and the differences were huge. Now some people would say, “Well, you know, the lottery losers, there is a selection effect.” Well, the selection effect is ruled away, ruled out when you make such systematic comparisons. I mentioned the charter school studies in New York, also based on very rigorous research comparing the lottery losers with the lottery winners, and also the lottery winners with kids in the traditional public schools. Very rigorous, goal-standard research.
David Harding: I guess I would just make two quick points, Mario sort of summarized this finding about the importance of education is replicated across many studies, qualitative and quantitative. I think the other way to think about what we might call anecdotal evidence, we would prefer to call it qualitative evidence, is that that also accumulates across multiple studies as well. You can only talk about one at a time, but that sort of builds a whole research trajectory, those sort of things have been seen again and again by researchers. It does not always get reported that way, because everybody sort of highlights what they are doing in their own situation.
Michele Lamont: And one I would think, qualitative data is particularly well-suited to study social processes, quantitative data allows you to describe patterns of distribution. So, for instance, Mario’s case of participation in Villa Victoria in Boston is about a process of mobilization, looking at your case allows you to understand the process and the process is not exceptional, you know, I mean it is illustrative of something much broader. We ask the question, what is this a case of? So in this particular instance you look at something that you will find in many other cases. So, you know, different data are good for different things, but it is not anecdote. The point is, it is not just so storied, it is about, you know, think about the society as a body that has features, that you can make predictions about. And that is one of the methods that we use to understand it.
So I do not know if there are other questions? One more question and then I think we will have to stop.
Audience Member: I just had a quick question about the implementation of policy. We have talked a lot today about racialized poverty and I get concerned when gender gets dropped, especially when we are talking about poverty, and part of the problem with implementing social policy is it is often based on the assumption of the masculine individual. We look at the way welfare and unemployment, you know, in Nancy Fraser’s work, looking at welfare as a very female-centric program and unemployment as very male-centric. So how do you account for that when you are dealing with policies aimed at poverty, to account for the gendered and racialized aspect?
Mario Small: I think it is a great question. There are quite a few different ways of… if I am understanding your question properly it seems like there are two questions there. One is how do we make sure that we do not fall into easy traps when we think about poverty, particularly in thinking about unemployment policy as a male set of issues, and then second are there areas in which we ought to be thinking particularly about different gender groups? And in the case of a family it actually seems like an easy one for me. One of the areas in which I found this to matter, your second point, the idea that you worry about poverty policy with a gendered lens, so to speak, has to do with mothers of young children. I have just written a book Unanticipated Gains in which I looked at mothers of young children, many of whom worked, and the impact of childcare choices on their social networks and greater wellbeing. And this was – to speak to the earlier question – based on both qualitative data, so we interviewed a bunch of mothers, but also a large-scale, nationally representative statistical data. And one of the things we found is that, first, childcare is an extremely gendered institution but second that childcare is an institution through which a lot of policy and a lot of nonprofits can easily reach mothers. So, in other words, this is a clear case where you can target poverty policy to people in one particular gender pretty effectively. So, for example, people who are seeking to find low-income mothers dealing with domestic violence often work through childcare centers, because given that many times it was the mother who was the primary caregiver, it was easy to find a population of high-poverty mothers by looking, for example, at Head Start and other high-poverty childcare centers. So I guess I would just echo your point and use that as an illustrative example of one way I think you could pretty easily – provided you had the right set of lenses, which I think is your point – mobilize anti-poverty or poverty-related policy more effectively.
Michele Lamont: Okay, well we want to thank you for coming to join us today and again we thank the people who helped organize this.
Reconsidering Culture and Poverty: A Congressional Briefing, Policy Briefing Part 1
Reconsidering Culture and Poverty: A Congressional Briefing, Policy Briefing Part 2
Reconsidering Culture and Poverty: A Congressional Briefing, Policy Briefing Part 3