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Lewis: Destitution as the result of “The culture of poverty”



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2.2Lewis: Destitution as the result of “The culture of poverty”


This term is associated with Oscar Lewis, a well known anthropologist, and was first used by him in his book Five Families: Mexican Case Studies in the Culture of Poverty (1959). The basic thesis of the “culture of poverty” explanation holds that some people are poor because their culture or way of life is faulty. This “culture” is then passed down from generation to generation along family lines (Landon, 2006:11).
According to this theoretical perspective, people are poor because of certain personal or cultural defects. For example, blacks and the poor in general have been characterized as participating in a "culture of poverty" (Banfield 1970; Glazer and Moynihan 1970; Lewis 1959). People are poor because this is all that they know how to be. In his portrayal of the poor, Lewis (1959:2) writes that:

Poverty becomes a dynamic factor which affects participation in the national culture and creates a subculture of its own. One can speak of the culture of the poor; for it has its own modalities and distinctive social and psychological consequences for its members. It seems ... that the culture of poverty cuts across regional, rural-urban, and even national boundaries, the remarkable similarities in family structure, the nature of kinship ties, the quality of husband-wife and parent-child relations, time orientations, spending patterns, value systems, and the sense of community found in lower-class settlements in London, Puerto Rico, Mexico City slums and Mexican villages, and among lower-class (blacks) in the United States.


In another work, Lewis (1966:19) contends that the "culture of poverty" is a “subculture of Western society with its own structure and rationale, a way of life handed on from generation to generation along family lines ... a culture in the traditional and anthropological sense that it provides human beings a design for living”. Implicit in this statement is the view that a person in this subculture learns a coherent set of values, attitudes and beliefs (culture) which hinder participation in the larger society. Lewis feels that conditions of poverty generate a set of values and behaviour patterns that are unique to the poor and inclusive of such characteristics as fatalistic attitudes towards life, lack of initiative and deferred gratification, strong feelings of alienation, helplessness, dependence, and inferiority.
Lewis's theory is controversial and has been widely debated and adequately critiqued, most notably by Valentine (1968, 1971) and Leacock (1971). Critics claim that the behaviour associated with the poor is the result of poverty, not its cause. They maintain that the “culture of poverty” explanation is an example of "blaming the victims" for their condition (Valentine, 1968).
According to Valentine (1971:215), one of the serious shortcomings of this theory is its limited application. The culture-of-poverty theory also assumes an overly uniform view of culture and values in societies (Gang, 1972: 279). The poor may differ in some respects, but so do many groups in their society. Contrary to this theoretical view, the poor do not constitute a homogenous group because most of the poor are not poor for life nor stem from generations of poor ancestors (Easterlin, 1987: 199).
Valentine (1971:204-211), in criticizing Lewis, “reformed” the culture of poverty theory into five propositions: (1) lack of participation in the larger society by the poor; (2) different values; (3) no local organization among the poor beyond the family, unstable family life and weak identity; (4) weak character and (5) weak development of a worldview. His critique centres on the claim that these propositions are more the result of poverty than the cause of poverty.
In spite of the criticisms above, the said theory has been widely accepted, at least to some degree. As Landon (2006:19) puts it, “at least some of the conclusions reached in the culture of poverty theory about some poor people seem evident to even the casual observer of poverty”.

2.3Destitution as the result of a dysfunctional “economic ethos”


“Ethos” is defined here as society’s way of thinking, a general understanding of what is true and good in a society.
Harrison (1985:20-56) develops “economic ethos” as a theory where certain social attitudes would lead to economic development, and the lack of those attitudes would, then, obviously lead to a society where poverty develops easily. These attitudes are: (1) an expectation of fair play; (2) an educational system that provides basic skills, promotes problem solving and nurtures inquisitiveness, creativity and critical thinking; (3) a good health care system; (4) an environment that encourages experimentation and criticism; (5) freedom to match skills, desires and jobs; (6) rewards for merits and achievements; (7) political and social stability and continuity.
Nida (1974:9) discusses economic ethos in a much more individualized way, and almost blames personal inadequacies among poor people for economic failure that would perpetuate destitution and poverty. He first writes about poverty in Latin America, and subsequently states: “…traits like a sense of inferiority, opposition to manual labour, fatalism and irresponsibility (as exhibited by many poor people) describe the type of society that will not succeed economically”.
Another aspect of a dysfunctional economic ethos would be that of corruption, which would obviously undermine a healthy economic ethos. World Bank research has shown that corruption interferes with education, health care, co-operative markets and delivery systems (Narayan et al., 2002:22-41).
Various theologians have also blamed institutional factors such as a dysfunctional economic ethos for causing and contributing to destitution. This is termed “structural sin”. Many liberation theologians (Gutierrez, 1986:256; Pixley & Boff, 1986:21; Sobrino, 1982:155) are passionate in their repeated linking of poverty with injustice and varieties of oppression. The basic premise is that the poverty of the poor is caused by oppression by rich countries, or structures (socio-political systems) of injustice.

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