In her “‘Culture of Poverty’ Makes a Comeback” for The New York Times (17 October 2010), Patricia Cohen declared: “Now, after decades of silence, these scholars are speaking openly about you-know-what [the ‘culture of poverty’], conceding that culture and persistent poverty are enmeshed.”
While Cohen’s article accurately reflects a scholarly re-examination of claims that a culture of poverty exists (and renewed support for the 1965 Moynihan report), assuming that the U.S. public’s faith in a “culture of poverty” is somehow making a comeback masks that it never left.
Nowhere is popular faith in a culture of poverty more evident than powerful and disturbing trends in education that began mid-decade under President Bush, and have received unprecedented support under President Obama—deficit approaches to poverty as embodied in the work of Ruby Payne and the rise of “no excuses” charter schools such as Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) and Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ).
Since 2005, Ruby Payne’s workbook- and workshop-focused “framework” has spread throughout U.S. public schools scrambling to address the achievement gap as mandated by No Child Left Behind. A rising voice among scholars has detailed not only the amount of Payne’s influence but also that her deficit perspective of impoverished students resonates with popular assumptions concerning people and children living and learning in poverty:
“Arguably, one of today’s most conspicuous speakers on issues of poverty and education is Dr. Ruby Payne, president of a company called ‘Aha Process, Inc.’ and author of a self-published book titled A Framework for Understanding Poverty, currently in its fourth revised edition (2005). Payne has sold more than half a million copies of her book since 1996 as well as related workbook materials, and her organization conducts workshops and training sessions for tens of thousands of educators, administrators, and other human-service professionals across the country and abroad. A principal thrust of these activities is teaching people about poverty and working with poor children in school settings.”
U.S. popular narratives have established and reinforced middle class norms as the bare minimum requirements for being fully American (or even fully human). Within those middle class norms is a powerful embracing of societal myths—rugged individualism, upward mobility, and an idealizing of wealth and material possessions. Implicit in those myths is defining people living in poverty by negation (that who they are and what they have or own lack what the middle class norm includes).
Payne’s work speaks to social assumptions about a “culture of poverty,” and as a result, people and children living in poverty become the subject of deficit perspectives—and the implications are overwhelming. The “culture of poverty” narrative Payne promotes and reinforces implies this: People and children living in poverty are missing the rugged individualism needed to be upwardly mobile into the essential middle class and especially the cherished upper class.
And into that deficit perspective stepped a rise in “no excuses” charter schools. Corporate charter schools promote a “new paternalism,” championed by Whitman in Education Next in 2008 and flaunted in a Los Angeles Times article in 2009, “Spitting in the Eye of Mainstream Education”: “Conservatives, including columnist George Will, adore the American Indian schools, which they see as models of a ‘new paternalism’ that could close the gap between the haves and have-nots in American education. . . . There is no secret to any of this. Portions of the American Indian model resemble methods used by the KIPP charter schools or, for that matter, urban parochial schools.”
Throughout 2010, the policies and speeches of President Barack Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, the media blitz surrounding Waiting for Superman (NBC specials, Oprah, John Legend on Bill Maher’s Real Time), and the continuing social narrative about failing public education, all shifted toward the new savior—”no excuses” charter schools that embody American rugged individualism.
“No excuses” charter schools impose contractual demands on parents and students. When either parents or students fail to fulfill the contracts, the norm of rugged individualism, the students are dismissed, thus ostensibly denied access to upward mobility, to conforming to the middle-class minimum or the upper-class ideal:
“Importantly, Miron is also not saying that the KIPP schools do poorly. Those schools provide about 50% more instructional time and place rigorous demands on students and their families. ‘We have every reason to believe that KIPP likely does a great job with the low-income students of color who wish to attend and who have relatively supportive parents who can do things like drive them to Saturday school,’ Miron says. But he does question whether this is a viable model for larger numbers of students, and he also wonders whether the different departure and receiving policies may make matters worse for students who are left behind or who later leave KIPP schools. How would the KIPP model work if students who cannot handle the rigorous KIPP demands could not move to conventional public schools?”
The claimed “comeback” of embracing the “culture of poverty,” then, is not something new or renewed, but something dark and sinister at the core of the social narratives driving the U.S. and many of its central institutions. We regard people living in poverty as the Other, and we define people living in poverty by the negatives, by those material goods they do not have (or apparently are unwilling to work hard enough to attain, the narrative implies).
Those defined as Others are essentially ignored and silenced.
“The myth of a ‘culture of poverty’ distracts us from a dangerous culture that does exist—the culture of classism,” argues Gorski, but our commitment to deficit views of people living in poverty allows us to mask the failures of our class structures—and the dynamics that maintain economic stratification.
We now proclaim from the White House to the cinema to the TV and all across the country that our public schools are failing and that they are bloated with bad teachers. Yet, teachers and school quality account for no more than a third of student achievement, and the remaining majority of influence lies outside of school.
Children living and learning in poverty are overwhelmed by the conditions of their lives, but we ignore these facts just as we ignore that the U.S. tolerates over 20% of children living in poverty while many other nations have single digit poverty rates for children (and schools we praise as superior to our own).
To argue about what constitutes a “culture of poverty,” or whether or not that culture exists, is precious time wasted. Instead, we should be concerned about the systemic failures of our economic and political system, our culture of classism, that marginalizes and demonizes any and all people, including children, who find themselves living in poverty.