On cultures of poverty and social scaffolding

The idea of a “culture of poverty” has been going around my various social media feeds lately. The idea is simple enough. Individual behavior is one cause of poverty, and culture influences the behaviors people adopt. Thus, a culture of poverty obtains when behaviors that lead to poverty are supported by the beliefs, attitudes, rhetoric, art, etc that people engage with. A sense of entitlement supported by rhetoric that one’s poverty is someone else’s fault, might, for example, prevent one from finding productive work and applying oneself with gusto. I get it. It happens. I’ve seen it in my own anecdotal experience of growing up with a poor extended family. And yet I grab for my blog when I read some conservative leaning too heavily on a culture of poverty when discussing what to do about the poor.

Ross Douthat waxes nostalgic about the poor of the past, who, while poorer than the current generation, at least didn’t have to contend with bad cultural influences:

In a substantially poorer American past with a much thinner safety net, lower-income Americans found a way to cultivate monogamy, fidelity, sobriety and thrift to an extent that they have not in our richer, higher-spending present.

So despite economic redistribution and other progressive policies, the poor are with us still, and some social indicators for some populations are bleak indeed. Marriage, for example, is widely held to be a powerful social support, and there is a widening gap between marriage rates among the upper classes and those among the lower classes. And racial gaps exist for the rates of births to unwed mothers, with a roughly 40 point difference between blacks and whites. Douthat goes on,

So however much money matters, something else is clearly going on.

The post-1960s cultural revolution isn’t the only possible “something else.” But when you have a cultural earthquake that makes society dramatically more permissive and you subsequently get dramatic social fragmentation among vulnerable populations, denying that there is any connection looks a lot like denying the nose in front of your face.

Douthat here hints at that favorite rhetorical tool of conservatives since Burke (though read Douthat here too), the idea that our social norms contain within them the accumulated wisdom of the ancients that enabled our societies to prosper in the first place, and beware the consequences of changing them. I’m a little flippant here, but I acknowledge the concern as valid and valuable. In a discussion of this piece, Adam gave me some homework on a related idea. Joseph Heath and Joel Anderson, in a paper [pdf] specifically about procrastination but easily generalizable to other forms of weakness of will (this is left as an exercise for the reader), discuss the “social scaffolding” that we use to make our struggles of the will just a little bit easier. We work with colleagues and set deadlines to hold ourselves accountable, for instance. Or, in the aim of getting to bed on time, in many places bars and entertainment venues close at a certain time, not too late. Importantly, much social scaffolding is unchosen, instead being inherited (italics in orginal).

[T]o the extent to which we can assume (1) that certain social and economic developments in modern societies place increasingly high demands on the capacities comprising our ability to avoid procrastination, (2) that current trends toward individualization and liberalization involve the dismantling or abandonment of traditional forms of unchosen scaffolding, and (3) that the impact of the two preceding effects will be especially devastating for those who are already most vulnerable (think of the difficulties that the homeless have taking advantage of environmental supports) – then procrastination becomes, not just an issue of individual psychology, but also an issue of social justice. If people’s life-chances are significantly shaped (perhaps along lines of class, race, degrees of disability, etc.) by their access to scaffolding, and if many forms of scaffolding are being dismantled or rendered inadequate as the result of social processes that could be addressed (to some extent, at least) by public policy, then the negative consequences of procrastination are not just the result of people failing to cognize appropriately as individuals; for these bad outcomes are partly the result of decisions and dynamics over which individuals have little control.

We can easily apply this same idea to something like the Sexual Revolution. (Fidelity, sobriety, and thrift, by the way, are fine qualities worthy of their own treatment. I’ll spend the rest of this post focusing on the change in sexual culture and its consequences.) Just as some of the most vulnerable people may be adversely impacted by the liberalization (legal or cultural) of bar closing times, perhaps some of the most vulnerable people are also adversely impacted by a culture that is radically more permissive of all things sexual. And so Douthat seems to be on firm ground when he wrings his hands over the destabilization of marriage in the lower classes. And as proof of good faith, he directs his rebuke not primarily at the poor, but at those comfortably middle class people who have not only created a culture hostile to the traditional values that might glue less advantaged communities and families together, but have also proselytized this culture.

I basically grant Douthat and other clever social conservatives the points that the culture is changing, that these changes can have differential impacts by socioeconomic class, and that some of the destabilizing cultural shifts are those treasured by liberals, like greater sexual freedom and radical independence for women. The last sixty years in the West seem to justify the precautionary approach of intellectuals like Hayek and Burke, who gave such credence to the unconscious wisdom of the way things are done. There were indeed cliffs concealed behind the liberation we’ve seen.


One can grant that unfortunate consequences have sometimes accompanied novel freedoms without believing we need to walk back those freedoms. First, suggesting that liberty for the capable must be circumscribed because the less capable might exercise that liberty in damaging ways is a strategy of blackmail, and it goes against the entire idea of freedom as individual liberty. Perhaps the stakes are high enough that we must hang our heads and pay the ransom, but this should be a last resort.

But more importantly, I think Douthat and his fellow travelers misapprehend the actual vector of damage inflicted on the disadvantaged. It isn’t necessarily that the poor fumble their new freedom. Instead, it is that the poor are often not given quite the same kind of freedom as the higher classes, or at least not freedom in the same context.

Consider the fact that sexual activity among women is basically invariant across income classes. Yes, the Sexual Revolution has happened, loudly and visibly in the cultural milieu, and so sexual activity, at least as admitted to in surveys, has increased in both volume and diversity. But the consequences of that increased sexual activity differ by class due to external factors. Poor women are less likely to use contraception or get abortions because they’re more likely to live in conservative environments where such options are demonized or just not available (consider the difficulty a young woman from a poor family might face in getting to an abortion clinic 200 miles away, even if her parents were supportive). The social scaffolding malfunctions.

Internal reasons bring conflict as well. Suppose our young woman sees the liberated sexual culture on HBO, and is motivated to mimic it to some degree, but she retains her conservative religious upbringing. She’s more likely to have sex, but maybe contraceptives conflict with her faith. She loves her boyfriend and feels like she’s ready for sex emotionally, but she’s uncomfortable talking about sex, so she doesn’t seek out information that can help her make wise decisions. She gets pregnant earlier than is good for anyone–especially the child–whether or not she’s married.

First off, yes, this is blameworthy negligence. If you’re going to embark on risky activity, in this case sexual activity, it’s incumbent upon you to understand and manage the risks involved. So we can advance apace with the accusing and judging (remembering always: But for the grace of privilege there go I). But I suggest this person is caught between two stable cultural equilibria: one of sexual liberation and one of restrictive mores. A young woman of equally limited capacities* (will power, smarts, etc) who grew up in a culture more accepting and celebratory of sexuality would not face the same dire consequences, even in similar situations.

In the more sex-positive equilibrium, our protagonist’s youthful romantic adventurism would occur in a background of comfort with discussing sexual health and best practices. The stigma against birth control wouldn’t be present and so even the least savvy adolescent might nevertheless use contraception, in part because her social scaffolding consists of peers and supportive adults who would have encouraged use of, say, the pill as a default from an early age. And should a pregnancy still occur, an abortion would be far easier to obtain, in physical, financial, safety, and emotional terms. The social scaffolding succeeds.

I’ve kept a female protagonist because women bear the heavier burden of sexual consequences, but young men of meager means who grow up in a sex-negative culture can also suffer adverse consequences that they wouldn’t face in a more sex-positive culture. Becoming a father too early in life in a youthful relationship where neither person is really mature or understands what they really need in a life partner is not a recipe for success. If the young man realizes this and abandons the woman, then he faces decades of child support and, worse, the knowledge of his moral mistake.

This sort of logic doesn’t necessarily have to lead to “liberal” conclusions. Consider briefly the case of gun culture. Many on the left in America are instinctively anti-gun. But gun violence per capita in Switzerland is comparable to other European countries (a little on the high side but less than half that of the US) despite massive rates of gun ownership, nearly universal among males. Switzerland accomplishes this through an effective gun culture wherein boys grow up around guns and expect to learn how to use them safely.

Conservatives like Douthat and Gobry point to the real, negative consequences that can obtain for feckless behavior among the poor in imitation of the rich. And they would have the rich sacrifice their own liberated lifestyles for the sake of culturally confining the poor to theoretically safer lifestyles. This appears to vindicate the Burkean/Hayekian insight that we tamper with longstanding traditions at our peril.

But Hayek at least was a cultural evolutionist and understood that, while caution is warranted always, we need intrepid souls to try out new ideas, including new moral ideas. “It is because every individual knows so little and, in particular, because we rarely know which of us knows best that we trust the independent and competitive efforts of many to induce the emergence of what we shall want when we see it.” (p29 in the Constitution of Liberty, ugly orange paperback edition) We tamper, carefully, with our culture because we just might stumble upon something better than what we’ve always done before. This tampering, this experimentation, involves reasoning about the human condition, our needs and desires in a changing world. We have inherited the accumulated wisdom of the ancients, which is pretty good, but there is still work to be done in discerning what among that cultural knowledge is vital and what is dross.

It is just possible that we can move from one social equilibrium where we all languish under stifling mores–but where of course the social elites will invariably allocate exceptions for themselves–to another equilibrium where the poor are accorded the same social freedoms as the rest of us. In so doing we can tinker with our social scaffolding in a way that acknowledges the human dignity of the poor.

*I don’t mean–at all–to imply that poor people are necessarily otherwise limited in their capacities, but if we’re talking about the most vulnerable people, then we are talking about individuals who don’t make good decisions.

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