CRUE Discussion Guide: The Culture of Poverty

The term, the culture of poverty, has been around since the sixties and has had a major impact on the way we view low-income individuals and families. Oscar Lewis first used the term in his book The Children of Sanchez, an ethnographic study of some small Mexican communities. Lewis used his findings to make generalizations about people living in poverty all over the world. A few years later Daniel Patrick Moynihan in his role with the Johnson administration produced a report using the concept to explain problems within urban Black families as a self-perpetuating cycle.In both cases, stereotypes and generalizations were used to explain generational poverty and place blame on individuals while ignoring the role of inequality and other societal factors in creating class differences. As a result, the idea of the culture of poverty was widely criticized and social scientists were discouraged from engaging in research on the subject.

Still, the idea has held great power and its beliefs about a culture of poverty are common within schools. Paul Gorski writes that the myth of the culture of poverty is rooted in “the idea that poor people share more or less monolithic and predictable beliefs, values, and behaviors.” Besides the fact that this perspective is innacurate and overly simplistic, a fundamental problem with this idea is that the notion of a culture of poverty is used to blame the victim and promote low expectations towards those living in poverty. Gloria Ladson-Billings points out that “culture is randomly and regularly used to explain everything” and that “teachers have begun to dump all manner of behavior into a catchall they call ‘culture.’ Whenever [teacher education] students seem not to be able to explain or identify with students, they point to students’ culture as the culprit” (Ladson-Billings, 2006, 106). Thus, a seemingly innocent expression is used to perpetuate a deficit perspective of students and blame them for the poor performance of their schools.

The New York Times reports that the idea of the culture of poverty is back. A recent issue of The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science focused exclusively on the concept and the journal presented a variety of perspectives on the culture of poverty and the usefulness of such an idea. However, outside of academic discussions and within our schools and communities, students and families living in poverty are being blamed for their struggles at the cost of providing them with the support they need and advocating for social change.

Discussion Questions:

  1. How do you and your colleagues tend to view and talk about low-income students? Do you see or hear ideas that rely on inaccurate notions of a culture of poverty?
  2. What kind of trainings have you had at your school and district discussing class and income inequality? Do these trainings talk about people living in poverty as diverse groups impacted by a variety of forces or as a monolithic group stuck in a self-perpetuating cycle?
  3. How do you think students living in poverty are impacted by generalizations and stereotypes about the culture of poverty within their schools and communities?

Further Reading:

NPR: The Culture of Poverty

Ta-Nehisi Coates: A Culture of Poverty

James T. Patterson: Misrepresenting the Moynihan Report—Will It Ever Stop

Patricia Cohen: The Emotional Power of the “Culture of Poverty”

The American Prospect: The Culture of Poverty

Paul Gorski: A Wealth of Whammies for Youth In Poverty

Jonathan Kozol: Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools

Ladson-Billings, G. (2006). It’s not the culture of poverty, it’s the poverty of culture: The problem with teacher education. Anthropology & Education Quarterly: 37(2). 104-109.

CRUE Book Studies:

To learn more about low-income students consider signing up for a CRUE Center Book Study like Annette Lareau’s book Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life. Earn 1 CEU for just $75. For more information visit or email us at

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