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Culture of Poverty ~ Is it Real?

Have you ever heard of ‘culture of poverty’? If not, let me give you a brief description of the term; culture of poverty is a social theory that explains the cycle of poverty. Based on this theory the poor have a ‘unique’ value system that ‘keeps’ poor people poor; it is suggested that this is due to their adaptations to the burdens of poverty. What makes this an interesting topic is the controversy that it brings. Many believe that there is no such thing as culture of poverty, and simply believe that people who are poor choose to be poor. Now, that being said, let’s take this a bit further; what was once considered ‘culture of poverty’ is now being called ‘black poverty’. Why, you ask? I, personally, cannot say. From my professional experience, poverty strikes people of all races and all cultural backgrounds. This being a known fact I ask the same question as you…why has this term been altered and made to label the African American families, most of who reside in predominantly African American communities? This is such an important ​​issue because there are millions of children living in poverty today. Data indicates that there is a disproportionate number of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) who are exempt from resources required to ensure their overall well-being, children included. There are many barriers that continue to pose a concern when considering such issues. Some of these include different cultural perceptions about mental health, racism and discrimination, no insurance or high copays, mistrust of treatment, and lack of resources. Regardless of the reasons why children do not get the help that they need, no race or culture should be exempt from acknowledgment when addressing, advocating for, and trying to make a change regarding this issue. This topic relates to cultural poverty because of the misconceptions many people have about people who live in poverty. This is a misconception that leads some to believe that families, particularly African American families, choose not to get help for their children.

Just to give a little history on the matter, the term ‘cultural poverty’ was introduced in the 1960s when Oscar Lewis stated that, “sustained poverty generates a set of cultural attitudes, beliefs, values, and practices that he called 'culture of poverty”; and that, “the culture grows over time and does not change regardless of the structural conditions.” Mr. Lewis believed that poverty transformed the lives of poor people and imposed burdens on those living in it; he further suggested that children adapt to behaviors and attitudes that make it difficult for them to escape their surroundings. There are, however, scholars from this generation who do not agree. Some scholars believe that there is no such thing as a poverty culture and that values do not determine whether one is poor or not. So does the new generation of scholars believe that people are poor by choice? I refuse to believe that anyone in their right mind would ‘choose’ to be poor! Based on my experience working with youth and families, I do believe in culture of poverty. I would also like to add that there is no race attached to culture of poverty. There are families of all races, religions, and cultures that are affected by the social ills that overtake the communities in which poor families reside. The schools are lacking the tools necessary to provide equity in education for the children residing in these communities; there are no jobs for the parents that will enable them to provide the basic needs for their children; there are not enough resources that guide and support the families that are in need, including mental health services; and the services they do receive are more likely to be of poor quality.

There is a man by the name of William Julius Wilson, who has advocated for and written many books in hopes to break down the walls of poverty. Mr. Wilson stated that children adapt to their surroundings and learn that 'this is all there is', thus causing them to repeat the generational 'curse' of poverty. How truthful is this? It pains me to say, but it is more truthful than many of us are willing to admit, or to acknowledge. Cultural poverty is a real thing; it is alive and well within the communities here in the United States and many countries abroad. Children are growing up and repeating a vicious cycle, how do we stop this madness? One suggestion, we must begin to work hard on improving the 'ideas' and 'beliefs' within the communities; the children must be taught that what they see is not 'all there is'. They must be provided with avenues toward great opportunities, happiness; and good health physically, mentally, and emotionally.

If we, as a community, are unable to recognize the disparities that stand in the way of caring for our youth then there will continue to be generations of children growing into unsuccessful, unproductive adults in society. And to no fault of their own. Improving and increasing the number of culturally competent services, bridging the gap of diversity in the workforce (approximately 86% of psychologists are white, and less than 2% are African American), reducing the stigma of mental health with families of color, and reducing/eliminating systemic racism is detrimental to the welfare of our children and the communities in which they reside.

It takes a village....

Tomaro Monique

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