Culture versus Structure: The Never Ending Debate About The Causes Of Black Poverty

Ever since the publication of then, assistant secretary of labor, Daniel Patrick Moynihan's report entitled, "The Negro Family: The Case for National Action," there has been a fierce debate in both popular and scholarly literature about the causes of black poverty and racial and ethnic inequality in American society more generally.

In what became known as "the Moynihan report," the future U.S. Senator from New York created a firestorm of controversy with his contention that cultural pathologies, including the breakdown of the black family, were the leading causes of black poverty. Many conservatives and some liberals praised Moynihan's work. Critics, on the other hand, responded that Moynihan did not focus enough on structural factors, such as discrimination in the labor market, to explain racial inequality and that his emphasis on cultural factors amounted to simply blaming the victim.

In the decades since the publication of Moynihan's study, the scholarship of Harvard Sociologist, William J. Wilson, has become the focal point of the popular and scholarly disputes about race and poverty. Like Moynihan, Wilson's work has been both widely praised and forcefully condemned in social science and policy circles.

In his most recent book, More Than Just Race: Being Black And Poor In The Inner City, Wilson once again tackles the culture versus structure debate raging about the causes of poverty in black inner-city communities.

For people who are familiar with Wilson's earlier work – see, for example, The Declining Significance of Race, When Work Disappears, and The Truly Disadvantaged – there are few surprises. Wilson has not deviated much from his core contention that in order to understand urban poverty and persistent racial and ethnic inequality, one must take seriously both culture and structure as explanatory factors.

In spite of the familiarity of the arguments, two things make More Than Just Race worth exploring. One is the clarity of Wilson's writing, especially, the way he lays out his theoretical framework. His review of literature on culture and social structure is as thorough as any you are likely to see in the academic literature on the subjects.

The other reason to read the book is because of the overall "accessibility" of the text. With this book, it is clear that Wilson is trying to reach a broader audience. Of course, and perhaps, unavoidably, there are some areas of the book loaded with your typical academic jargon, but, for the most part, More Than Just Race is quite readable.

For years, Wilson has criticized liberals for not taking cultural explanations of black poverty seriously. In More Than Just Race, Wilson focuses more explicitly on culture than he did in any of his previous works. Culture, Wilson writes, "refers to the sharing of outlooks and modes of behavior among individuals who face similar space-based circumstances … or have the same social networks." As such, people develop cultural repertoires (that is, values, belief systems, orientations, habits, particular skills, worldviews, linguistic patterns, and styles of acting and self-presentation) to make sense of and give meaning to the world they live in.

In other words, when someone acts "their culture," they are simply following "inclinations developed from their exposure to the particular traditions, practices, and beliefs among those who live and interact" in the same community. Importantly, once these repertoires of actions and beliefs are formed, they "display a degree of autonomy in the regulation of behavior."

Wilson suggests that while the cultural repertoires people adopt are imaginative and perhaps, even sensible given their live circumstances (such as living in a poor segregated neighborhood), they may also hinder social mobility, and thus reinforce structural conditions that produce racial and ethnic inequalities.

For conservatives, a deficient culture and individual character flaws that ensue (for example, aggressive and violent behavior, sexual promiscuity, indifference to educational opportunities, and a tendency to try to "get over" without working hard) are the driving forces behind persistent black poverty. This view that essentially blames the black poor for their own poverty shapes much of the discourse about the causes and solutions to racial inequality in America.

Wilson does not object to these kinds of characterizations of the black poor.

I do.

For example, one reason that I object to these characterizations is because many poor blacks have the same key problems that debt-ridden middle-class Americans have, the disease of materialism, an inability to defer gratification, and a tendency to live above one's means.

A 2009 report, The Plastic Safety Net, by Demos, a non-partisan public policy research and advocacy organization, sheds a light on just how deeply in debt Americans are:

During the height of the housing bubble, from 2001 to 2006, homeowners cashed out $1.2 trillion (2006 dollars) in home equity and households accumulated nearly $900 billion in credit card debt. As households tapped their savings and spent nearly all of their incomes, the nation's personal saving rate dropped to 0.4 percent of disposable income by 2006.

Due to the "Great Depression," current household debt is probably worse today than what Demos reported last year. Certainly, the explosion in credit card debt and cash-out financing is being fueled by the fact that millions of households experience trouble covering their day-to-day expenses due to declining and stagnant wages, job loss, and rising health care costs. But, the growing debt problem is also being fueled by the fact that Americans overstretch their household budgets with too much consumption.

Overconsumption is part of an addictive illness sometimes called Affluenza, "an epidemic of stress, overwork, waste and indebtedness caused by dogged pursuit of the American Dream."

For example, the homes we live in and the cars we drive are bigger, much more luxurious, and technologically advanced than the ones our parents and grandparents purchased. In fact, many three car garages that are attached to McMansions built during the housing bubble in developments in exurbia are larger than homes built during the 1950s. Of course, McMansions are not the norm, but homes built today dwarf ones built a century ago when families were typically larger and needed the space. Indeed, since 1970, the typical American house has doubled in size.

What do we do with all that unused space? We fill it up with "Stuff." Americans spend three to four times as many hours shopping as our counterparts in Europe do. If the rest of the world consumed at U.S. rates, we would need 3 to 5 planets.

Unfortunately, for the rest of the people we share this planet with, America's consumer culture is being exported around the globe.

To Wilson's credit, however, when it comes to delineating the main forces that shape black poverty, he is very clear: "structure trumps culture."

Wilson's discussion of the structural causes of poverty is enlightening and masterfully constructed, making a significant contribution to the literature on race and poverty.

According to Wilson, social structure "refers to the way social positions, social roles, and networks of social relationships are arranged in our institutions, such as the economy, polity, education, and organizations of the family." As an example, a social structure could be the criminal justice system that both threatens and utilizes sanctions in order to compel people to obey the law.

There are two types of structural forces that contribute directly to racial and ethnic inequality, especially in the areas of poverty and employment. One factor is social acts, "the behavior of individuals within society." Some examples of social acts that he gives include: stereo-typing; discrimination in hiring, job promotions, housing, and admission to educational institutions and; exclusion from unions, employers' associations, and clubs.

A second factor is social processes, which "refers to the 'machinery' of society that exists to promote ongoing relations among members of the larger group." Social processes include such things as laws, policies, and institutional practices that produce inequitable racial and ethnic outcomes (for example, Jim Crow segregation laws; voter suppression tactics; felon disenfranchisement laws; racial profiling by law enforcement officers and; redlining by banks and other lending institutions).

While much attention has been paid to the structural forces that directly contribute to racial and ethnic inequality, little attention has been paid to those political and economic forces that indirectly produce group disparities.

Wilson's discussion of how political actions and impersonal economic forces – which are not the result of actions, processes, or ideologies that reflect racial bias – affect life in urban America should be read by anyone seriously committed to combating the problems of racial and ethnic inequality.

Indirect structural forces that have profoundly affected the life choices and opportunities of poor blacks living in inner-city communities include: "the decreased relative demand for low-skilled labor caused by the technological revolution and the growing internationalization of economic activity; the relocation of urban industries first to suburbs and then to points overseas for a sharp decline in the central-city manufacturing sector; and urban sprawl that reduces inner-city residents access to economic opportunities and exacerbates the 'spatial mismatch' between poor black neighborhoods and jobs that pay well."

Significantly, blacks have been disproportionately impacted by the decline in manufacturing jobs, especially those related to the auto industry. Since World War II, the manufacturing sector, with its unionized and better-paying jobs, had been a significant source of employment opportunities for the black community. At the same time, the collapse of the low-skilled urban labor markets has created jobless black ghettos across America.

Wilson's book makes it very clear, policy-makers seriously committed to addressing the problems of race and poverty must confront structural forces that create and reinforce racial inequality.


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