Thursday, March 22, 2007

Poverty without a Culture of Poverty

Following my previous post, I would here emphasize that “poverty” and “culture of poverty” are not synonymous, that a culture of poverty is one possible development as people attempt to adapt to conditions of extreme and persistent impoverishment. But the subcultural patterns of a culture of poverty (including present-time orientation with little future orientation, the emotional and physical grind to meet basic needs and the stresses resulting from that, social anomie and lack of real hope for a better future, often high rates of substance use and abuse, what Philippe Bourgois called a “culture of violence” in reference to parts of Spanish Harlem in his ethnography In Search of Respect, etc.) are not the only possible developments in contexts of poverty.

In La Vida (pp. xlviii – l), Oscar Lewis discussed four examples of social settings in which people lived in extreme poverty, but where a culture of poverty had not developed. He argues first that in most of the small scale “primitive” societies anthropologists have often studied (cultures in which people live through foraging or small scale cultivation), people live in physical poverty in an absolute sense, with very little in the way of material wealth, and often with little accumulated food surplus. They don’t constitute a subculture at all, though, much less one in relative poverty to a larger society. Instead, individuals have a strong sense of belonging to a well integrated and fully functioning society. This hasn’t precluded the development of cultures of poverty among such peoples over the last century and a half or so as many of them have been incorporated forcibly into larger state societies, turning them into no longer fully functioning, distinct subcultures living in both absolute and relative poverty (the social malaise of many Native American reservations in North America is a good example of this).

Lewis’ second and third examples concern distinct subcultures that were distinctly poor (lower caste Indians in villages in mid-twentieth century India when Lewis encountered them ethnographically, and Jews of Eastern Europe [up through the mid-twentieth century Holocaust – though Lewis doesn’t mention this – the communities he speaks of being obliterated at that time]) but which did not have a culture of poverty. The two cases have a number of things in common. First, the examples Lewis discusses involve distinct subcultural groups in rural or small community settings, rather than impoverished communities in vast and largely anonymous urban slums (Lewis in fact mentions the possibility of cultures of poverty seeming to be in development in Calcutta and Bombay at the time of the writing of La Vida). Second, these both involve groups seen as distinct and seeing themselves as distinct, but also providing a sense of belonging within the group for their members (the religion and common schooling for Eastern European Jews, unilineal clans for lower caste Indian villagers), mitigating against the malaise and anomie so often an important part of a culture of poverty. Finally, while extremely poor, both groups had at least some collective influence over the larger community, through the high quality of education and literacy, as well as voluntary associations for Eastern European Jews, through the panchayat, or formal caste organization, which provided local leadership and some collective influence for even lower caste Indians, at least in small villages.

Lewis presented his fourth example as a speculative and tentative one, Cuba after the revolution. Having visited a slum in Havana before the revolution, Lewis writes, “After the Castro Revolution I made my second trip to Cuba as a correspondent for a major magazine, and I revisited the same slum and some of the same families. The physical aspect of the slum had changed very little, except for a beautiful new nursery school. It was clear that the people were still desperately poor, but I found much less of the despair, apathy and hopelessness which are so diagnostic of urban slums in the culture of poverty. They expressed great confidence in their leaders and hope for a better life in the future. The slum itself was now highly organized, with block committees, educational committees, party committees. The people had a new sense of power and importance.” While I’m wary of the picture Lewis paints here, wary in particular of whether what he encountered in Havana on his second trip was a sort of “Potemkin Village” show for the visiting, sympathetic scholar, and while I certainly have no illusion that Cuba has achieved a socialist paradise, given everything I’ve read about the Caribbean, when comparing Cuba to other islands of the Greater Antilles, the features associated with a culture of poverty seem much less prevalent even in impoverished conditions in Cuba than in Jamaica, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, or even Puerto Rico.

But poverty in a large urban area without the development of a culture of poverty is possible even without a socialist revolution. (Then again, the example I’m about to discuss is in Mexico City, and the Mexican Revolution of the early 20th century was a socialist revolution of a sort, though it’s no longer particularly recent and not a Marxist socialist revolution. It is likely, though, that widespread education in Mexico emphasizing the virtues of the Mexican Revolution, as well as the post-revolutionary ideal of an effective social welfare state [even if not always well instantiated in practice], have shaped all Mexicans’ expectations and have facilitated the development of Urban Popular Movements [UPMs] there.)

Matthew Gutmann’s fine ethnography The Meanings of Macho: Being a Man in Mexico City has as its main setting the colonia community of Santo Domingo. (A colonia is an urban squatter community, typically on the edge of a major city, such as Mexico City. Initially, colonias represent communities with truly dire conditions of poverty, with housing improvised out of materials at hand, generally unpaved streets, and a lack of even basic utility services. Over time, if not subject to mass eviction and elimination of the colonia, such settlements do tend to improve at least a bit, with individual residents and families improving their housing bit by bit, tapping into utilities, often illegally at first and gradually through legal means, having streets paved, and acquiring legal title to land.) Santo Domingo, though still known as a colonia, was at the time of Gutmann’s field work in the early 1990s a well established community in Mexico City – while it was once on the outskirts of town, further squatter settlement had long since surrounded it. It was also a community with relatively formalized infrastructure. What had brought this about, and what seems in part to have kept the colonia from developing a culture of poverty, even though poverty was an element of day to day life, was a strong tradition of community activism and the presence of UPMs.

“Urban Popular Movement” is used in the social science literature to refer to a variety of social movements. Some are oriented toward very specific issues, such as paving roads in a community, improving a water supply, or building a school, others toward improving conditions of a community generally or of addressing important social justice issues, such as women’s rights or combating police violence. Though the terminology could be applied to other world areas, UPM usually refers to Latin American social movements, with the main thing in common being their urban orientation and the fact that these are grassroots organized movements. UPMs have played an important role in the economic and infrastructural development of Santo Domingo, and while they have by no means eliminated poverty, the UPMs (and the fact that many of the residents of the community seem to be the sort who join UPMs) seems to have inhibited the development of a culture of poverty.

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