Ideal Types of the 'culture of poverty' and its implicit alternative





Culture of Poverty             

Dominant, or Idealized Culture

Time Horizon:



Investment strategy

Do not save or invest (welfare recipients are prevented from saving)

Save for children's educations, Invest in property to pass on to future generations


Family unit


(Think of the Rivers family in There Are No Children Here as one example).

unstable families, unwed mothers, teen parents, extended families raise the kids when mom proves unable. Cohabitation replaces marriage, and divorce is common. (Marriage may disqualify single women from receiving welfare).


According to one view, parents in unstable relationships cannot invest sufficiently in their children’s futures, so the children grow up without the skills to succeed in society, and they recreate the same pattern of teen pregnancy and unstable relationships.


In addition, poor people have more children than they can afford. The more children they have, the less money and time they can spend on each one.

Stable, monogamous, nuclear family. Children are produced only within long term stable and committed families.


In the conservative version of the idealized family, the father works and the mother remains home to tend to the children. This division of labor is supposed to provide benefits to both spouses (a division of labor which maximizes trade between them, see Gary Becker’s Treatise on the Family). This model only works if the wife can be sure that the husband will not abandon her, because specializing in domestic skills does not leave the wife with sufficient labor market skills.


The idealized mainstream family has a small number of children, and invests heavily in their future. This is Gary Becker’s trade-off between ‘quality’ and ‘quantity’ of children.

Orientation to work

Unreliable, poor work ethic.

Diligent, works hard for future rewards, dependable, believes that the system will eventually reward loyal service

View of Pleasure

Pleasure should be taken when available

Rather than spending time and money on vacations or luxuries, save for the future.


Key Figures:

Oscar Lewis

Charles Murray



Adaptive Culture


Where does the culture of poverty come from?


Is it culturally transmitted? What about familial, intergenerational transmission?


What are the structural determinants?


Dual Labor Market (Michael Piore)


The relevance of family and family structure:

            * Key historical figure: Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and his report on the black family, "The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” first written as background for a speech by LBJ in 1964, updated and published in 1965. Moynihan viewed single motherhood, i.e. the matrifocal family of inner city blacks as a fundamental limit to black social and economic progress. See Rainwater and Yancy’s 1967 book, The Moynihan Report and the Politics of Controversy, for a review of criticisms of Moynihan.

            Modern research substantiates the idea that children raised by single parents do worse (are more likely to drop out of high school, more likely to get pregnant in their teen years, etc.) Why?

            According to McLanahan and Sandefur (1994) Growing up with a Single Parent,

      * Single parents have much lower income than two-parent couples. This means worse housing, worse neighborhoods, and worse schools. Most single parents are mothers, whose incomes are already substantially lower than men’s incomes.

      * A single parent simply cannot have as much time to spend with and supervise the children as two parents can.

      * For a variety of reasons that are not quite so clear, step parents and grand parents turn out to be not a fully satisfactory substitutes for the original bio-parents.