Define culture of poverty

Written by james withers
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Define culture of poverty
(Trapped within poverty by systemic burdens, low income families struggle to survive. "Sugarcane", by timothy.aikman/

Author Oscar Lewis, a practitioner of cultural anthropology, contends that poverty is systemic in nature. Additionally, it bears certain identifiable cultural norms. Based on observations gathered from field research, Lewis advances a social theory known as the "culture of poverty." In his theory, Lewis speculates that members who function within poverty-striken communities express certain traits that bear value within such contexts, but which fail to benefit them in contexts extending beyond their own culture of poverty.

Oscar Lewis

American anthropologist Oscar Lewis pioneered the phrase "culture of poverty" in his book Five Families; Mexican Case Studies In The Culture Of Poverty, published in 1959. This book provides readers with a glimpse of a "day in the life" of five Mexican families, four of whom live in poor circumstances. In writing these family portraits, Lewis sought to determine commonalities experienced by all of the families. Thus, he established that certain characteristics typical of poor households and communities are not present in more affluent communities.


Six conditions, argues Lewis in A Study of Slum Culture, are typically present within a culture of poverty. Such a culture is prone to flourish in societies that operate with cash economies wherein production for profit is encouraged. Another factor predisposing such societies to the culture of poverty is a high rate of unemployment. Based on Lewis' social theory, four additional conditions can be correlated with a culture of poverty: low wages, insufficient remedies supplied to low-income individuals, the existence of a bilateral kinship system as opposed to a unilateral system and the existence a value system that applauds upward mobility while deeming low economic status to be a consequence of personal inadequacy.

Interrelated Traits

Traits that are commonly shared between members of a poverty community serve to reinforce the presence of these members within the community, while simultaneously discouraging their departure. Such traits number approximately 70, although numbers and types of traits vary from culture to culture. Examples of such traits are the frequenting of pawn shops, lack of reliance on banks, high rates of male unemployment and the existence of matriarchal families.

Chronic Subordination

Few opportunities to escape from a culture of poverty exist for subjects who live within the scope of such a culture. Lewis argues that poverty is generational in nature. Almost as soon as children are old enough to be enrolled in state school, they have already absorbed the basic values that undergird their culture of poverty. Consequently, as years pass, they may not deem themselves capable of taking advantage of critical opportunities for advancement.


According to critics of Lewis' social theory, an acceptance of its basic tents inclines one to believe that little social change can result from individual choice. Despite its value of being a seminal work of cultural anthropology, such critics dismiss Lewis' book as engendering a subpopulation of "victims" who challenge their governments to institute comprehensive welfare reform programs. Critics allege that these victims are led to believe that they deserve to be pampered by society, since they are unable to remedy their own situations. Rather than being incapable, such victims are merely subject to an "entitlement syndrome" that dismisses personal responsibility in favour of programs of assistance.

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