The Culture of Poverty
I am not an expert in poverty nor in economic culture. If there are any mistakes in this post, I likely understood it incorrectly. I hope that this post inspires you to go learn more about the social groups in our society and how we can all work more effectively together.
For individuals in poverty, values are centered around relationships. Titles are not important. Relationships you have with people are where you place your trust. Life is focused on the present and problems are all interlocking. Individuals in poverty spend time worrying about things like child care, housing, agencies and transportation.
An example Jodi gave of relationship based values was to take the situation where a little girl is starting school. Her older brother takes her around and introduces her to people. When he gets to the janitor, he says the janitor is good people. His sister listens and understands that the janitor is someone to be trusted. If that little girl is having trouble in school, who do you think will have more influence on getting her to do her homework, the principal or the janitor? The janitor, according to Jodi, because she’s trusted.
For individuals in the middle class, values are centered around achievement. Trust is placed with those with titles – they trust the principal, they trust the judge, they trust the police officer based on their position, not because they know them. Individuals in the middle class trust or at least respect and listen to people with the appropriate titles. Those are the people they go to for help. Life is achievement based, future focused and problems are contained. Their sister’s kid getting sick will not keep them from going to work. Middle class individuals spend time thinking about cost of childcare and education, retirement, credit card debt and careers.
Jodi also touched briefly on individuals living in wealth. Their values are centered around connections: political, financial and social. They are generational focused and problems are controlled. They spend time thinking about things like associations, travel, events and politics.
Understanding that people in different wealth brackets have different cultures, not just different problems, you can develop better systems that realize that these are systematic issues not individual choice. Jodi gave examples of how this understanding had greatly improved services for individuals in poverty. For example, a set of judges decided to try doing a first come, first serve system on Fridays. They reduced warrants by 70%! The theory was that individuals in poverty have difficulty with transportation and often have to adjust their schedule to help out others (or their own ride disappears). It’s easier for them to pick a day and show up when they can and wait as long as needed than it is for them to make it at 8:15 on a particular Wednesday. People in the middle class find that extremely inconvenient and often fail to understand why it works better for people in poverty. If we include representatives from all groups as we make policies and seek to understand and not judge, we can make systems that are much more effective.
The class was taught by Jodi Pfarr who did an excellent job of explaining both the culture and values of middle class versus poverty. The class was aimed at people who provide services for those in poverty, mostly non-profits and government agencies, and almost all middle class people. In Fort Collins, Colorado, this class is occasionally offered for free to the public by the Bohemian Foundation.
- Bridges out of Poverty. The class was based on this book.
- Trump: Tribune of Poor White People. A really interesting article about why people in poverty might support Trump. It’s an interview of the author of Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.
- Class by Paul Fussell. I read this book as part of one of my sociology classes in college. It’s very US focused and probably 30 years out of date. I found it very stereotypical but it was fascinating to me as it was my first experience with studying class as a culture.