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Why Socioeconomics Don’t Explain Black Poverty5 min read

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Sunday’s New York Times had a very good Op-Ed piece on black poverty called A Poverty of Mind.  It cogently explained why we have largely ignored the cultural factors (that is, the black American subculture) in favor of socioeconomic and educational factors, and why these do not really explain the problem fully.  I summarize his main points below.

1. Social science has failed to explain black poverty in America

SEVERAL recent studies have garnered wide attention for reconfirming the tragic disconnection of millions of black youths from the American mainstream. But they also highlighted another crisis: the failure of social scientists to adequately explain the problem, and their inability to come up with any effective strategy to deal with it.

2. Social science and policy makers have held on to a dogma

…that rejects any explanation that invokes a group’s cultural attributes – its distinctive attitudes, values and predispositions, and the resulting behavior of its members — and the relentless preference for relying on structural factors like low incomes, joblessness, poor schools and bad housing.

3. We have to ask the important questions

Why are young black men doing so poorly in school that they lack basic literacy and math skills?

And why do so many young unemployed black men have children — several of them — which they have no resources or intention to support? And why, finally, do they murder each other at nine times the rate of white youths?

4. The boom of the 90’s proved that socioeconomic opportunity alone will not bring blacks out of poverty

The Clinton administration achieved exactly what policy analysts had long said would pull black men out of their torpor: the economy grew at a rapid pace, providing millions of new jobs at all levels. Yet the jobless black youths simply did not turn up to take them. Instead, the opportunity was seized in large part by immigrants — including many blacks — mainly from Latin America and the Caribbean.

One oft-repeated excuse for the failure of black Americans to take these jobs — that they did not offer a living wage — turned out to be irrelevant.

5. Why have academics been so allergic to cultural explanations?

  • the pervasive idea that cultural explanations inherently blame the victim; that they focus on internal behavioral factors and, as such, hold people responsible for their poverty, rather than putting the onus on their deprived environment. But this argument is utterly bogus. To hold someone responsible for his behavior is not to exclude any recognition of the environmental factors that may have induced the problematic behavior in the first place.
  • it is often assumed that cultural explanations are wholly deterministic, leaving no room for human agency. This, too, is nonsense. Modern students of culture have long shown that while it partly determines behavior, it also enables people to change behavior. People use their culture as a frame for understanding their world, and as a resource to do much of what they want. (translation:  people aren’t just ruled by their culture – they make individual decisions apart from culture)
  • it is often assumed that cultural patterns cannot change — the old “cake of custom” saw. This too is nonsense. Indeed, cultural patterns are often easier to change than the economic factors favored by policy analysts, and American history offers numerous examples.

6. The real issue?  Bling culture makes them feel significant, and they see nothing beyond that.

SO why were they flunking out? Their candid answer was that what sociologists call the “cool-pose culture” of young black men was simply too gratifying to give up. For these young men, it was almost like a drug, hanging out on the street after school, shopping and dressing sharply, sexual conquests, party drugs, hip-hop music and culture, the fact that almost all the superstar athletes and a great many of the nation’s best entertainers were black.

The important thing to note about the subculture that ensnares them is that it is not disconnected from the mainstream culture. To the contrary, it has powerful support from some of America’s largest corporations. Hip-hop, professional basketball and homeboy fashions are as American as cherry pie. Young white Americans are very much into these things, but selectively; they know when it is time to turn off Fifty Cent and get out the SAT prep book.

For young black men, however, that culture is all there is — or so they think. Sadly, their complete engagement in this part of the American cultural mainstream, which they created and which feeds their pride and self-respect, is a major factor in their disconnection from the socioeconomic mainstream.

Geez, is that his whole explanation?  Well, no.  But he does at least finally bring up the idea that the problem is not socioeconomic poverty alone, or even primarily socioeconomic poverty, but a problem with the VALUE SYSTEM of the black subculture.