How Much Does 'Culture' Matter for 'Inner-City' Poverty?

"Culture" can mean a lot of things, and when it comes to explaining the particular phenomenon of inner-city black poverty, it's not the most helpful term in the world.

When talking about particular groups, communities or neighborhoods, it’s a mistake to refer to a single, all-encompassing “culture.” It’s too imprecise. What we call “culture” refers to a broad range of concepts and ideas that overlap and diverge at various points. And indeed, within communities—even homogenous ones—there are multiple “cultures” that interact differently with the environment in question.

Which brings us to the current argument over race and poverty, sparked by Rep. Paul Ryan’s comments on the “inner city.” At The Atlantic, puzzled by the vehement reaction to the Wisconsin congressman, Ta-Nehisi Coates argues that Ryan’s perspective is of a piece with President Obama’s, who frequently chastises poor black men for “not holding up their end of the deal.” Responding to this and the broader claim that culture isn’t the core problem, Jonathan Chait of New York magazine writes that, in fact, we can look to culture to explain the persistent joblessness of inner-city African American men:

The argument is that structural conditions shape culture, and culture, in turn, can take on a life of its own independent of the forces that created it. It would be bizarre to imagine that centuries of slavery, followed by systematic terrorism, segregation, discrimination, a legacy wealth gap, and so on did not leave a cultural residue that itself became an impediment to success.

Here are a few things we know. The first is that, according to sociologist Patrick Sharkey in his bookStuck in Place: Urban Neighborhoods and the End of Progress toward Racial Equality, “almost three out of four black families living in today’s most segregated, poorest neighborhoods are the same families that lived in the ghettos of the 1970s.” The second is that, relative to whites, African Americans of all income and educational levels have seen a remarkable amount of downward mobility over the last forty years. And finally, we know that even after the tight labor market of the 1990s, many black, urban communities remained mired in concentrated poverty and high joblessness.

Now, there’s no question that some of these families and individuals have narratives, frames, and cultural practices that either exacerbate their position or heighten the odds that they move backwards. But what about the formerly middle-class African Americans who find themselves on the backslide? What about the ghetto residents who exhibit “mainstream” values on working, education, and child-rearing? And what about the working-class African Americans who can’t seem to translate higher income into geographic mobility?

“Culture” plays a part in answering these questions—and a growing number of academics are doinggreat work in this area—but it’s far too much to say that it ought to lie near the top of our concerns, in large part because by doing so, we ignore the broad, systemic factors that shape the lives of African Americans across the class divide. Sharkey, for instance, sees neighborhood segregation—and its attendant consequences—as a key variable for explaining persistent poverty and downward mobility:

Even if a white and a black child are raised by parents who have similar jobs, similar levels of education, and similar aspirations for their children, the rigid segregation of urban neighborhoods means that the black child will be raised in a residential environment with higher poverty, fewer resources, poorer schools, and more violence than that of the white child.

And of course, the “rigid segregation of urban neighborhoods” was shaped by decades of public policy and decades of urban disinvestment and neglect, as well as ongoing housing discrimination. “Culture” might explain the reluctance of individual households and families to leave, but it’s of limited utility when it comes to the broad phenomenon. In that case, the starting point should be the fact that African Americans deal with a unique set of durable circumstances that have festered and worsened over the last forty years (and this is to say nothing of the growth of mass incarceration, which has multiplied the disparities).

Our first priority should be to ameliorate those circumstances. This will require a massive investment of resources, both in terms of jobs, job training, and services for families and individuals. If, in the face of a sustained investment, inner-city black men continue not to work and take advantage of the real opportunities, then we can move to culture as a key factor. But it makes no sense to look at the broad disadvantage facing low-income African Americans—and the extent to which its been ignored, even during good times—and conclude that “culture” is the main hinderance to success for the group as a whole.