The term “Culture of Poverty” was created by Oscar Lewis, referring to a type of subculture connected to economic poverty and defined by four dimensions of traits. These dimensions are “the relationship [with] the larger society; the nature of the slum community; the nature of the family; and the attitudes, values, and character of the individual” (Lewis 1966:21). Although the culture of poverty and economic poverty are linked, Lewis noted that one does not necessarily beget one another, pointing to some impoverished subcultures that do not exhibit the cultural traits mentioned above. He also explained that, although the subculture has positive characteristics, it ultimately entails “much pathos, suffering, and emptiness” (Lewis 1966:25). Lewis stated that a culture of poverty is characterized by a low level of organization despite high gregariousness and a potential sense of community. As a consequence of this characteristic, he pointed out that racial segregation and discrimination might be a factor that prevents a culture of poverty from forming in a particular group. Those discriminated groups, as he pointed to the African-American minority and lower Indian castes tend to have a stronger sense of group identity and organization.
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The term has been used in broader policy-making discussions over the years. For example, the politician Michael Harrington was heavily inspired by Lewis’ work and referred to the culture of poverty widely in his book The Other America, bringing it into the broader discourse and political process. However, his understanding of the concept was more focused on wealth, describing a vicious cycle that had little relationship to culture. In his assessment of this vicious cycle, no cultural factors were mentioned; in essence, the culture and economic parts of the issue were disconnected from one another. He also claimed that racial and ethnic divides perpetuated the subculture, that one can become part of it by “being born … in the wrong racial or ethnic group” (Harrington 1962:21). This statement directly contradicts Lewis, who, as mentioned above, observed segregation as a detriment to the formation of a culture of poverty. He also attributes the poor’s attitude towards the larger society, exemplified by the policeman, to wealth and connections, contrasting them to “a well-dressed … man who might have political connections” (Harrington 1962:23). Overall, he seemed to be focusing on the wealth aspect, using it to justify any cultural effects.
Harrington, Michael. The Other America: Poverty in the United States. Penguin Books, 1962.
Lewis, Oscar. “The Culture of Poverty: Does Membership in a Group That Has Been Poor for Generations Constitute Belonging to a Separate Culture? A Study of Puerto Ricans in Both Puerto Rico and New Your Indicates That It Does.” Scientific American, vol. 215, no. 4, 1966, pp. 19-25.
Shein, Ed. Organizational Culture and Leadership. 3rd ed., Jossey-Bass, 2004.