Culture or jobs?

Stephen Steinberg contributed a provocative but important piece to Boston Review a year ago on current academic thinking about race and poverty. The piece is titled Poor Reason: Culture Still Doesn’t Explain Poverty, and it is now available as a short Kindle publication. The topic Steinberg focuses on is deeply important — fundamentally, how to explain and remediate the persistent fact of poverty in the African American population in the United States. And anyone who is paying attention to urban America knows that the economic and social situation of much of the African-American population of the United States is bad, and in many respects barely improved over the past 40 years.

Putting the point most bluntly: is the primary explanation of persistent urban African American poverty the cumulative workings of a set of racially discriminatory economic and social structures? Or is it some set of factors that have been internalized within African American culture and values, persisting long after discrimination has disappeared?

Steinberg’s polemic is a response to a special 2010 issue of Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science on “new” approaches to the role of culture in poverty in a racialized America.  The old approach was stimulated by Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s assertions about the black family offered in The Negro Family: The Case for National Action in 1965. Moynihan’s position paper for the Johnson administration provoked a firestorm of criticism when it was leaked, and some observers believe that the ensuing divisiveness, between progressives and conservatives and within the progressive movement itself, contributed to the failure of the Johnson administration to seriously address the structural issues of race that our country faced then (and now). One version of the view attributed to Moynihan is that it is difficulties with the African American family that are the root cause of persistent African American poverty. This is the “culture” end of the story. (I’ll note below that most of the contributors do not agree with this reading of Moynihan.) The “jobs” end is the view that the key issue of racial disadvantage in American society was (and is) the lack of economic opportunities and jobs for many millions of young African Americans, and that cultural and family characteristics are shaped by this basic fact.

Steinberg takes a very sharp stand against the “culture” stream of research on the question of persistent African American poverty:

These myths add up to something — a perverse obfuscation of American racial history.

Instead, he believes our attention needs to be directed to the structural disadvantages created for African Americans within our economic and social system:

Or do we have to transform the ghetto itself, not by reconstructing the identities of its people, but through a wholesale commitment to eliminating poverty and joblessness?

And he maintains that the “culture” myth originated with Moynihan’s report in 1965:

Moynihan made the fatal error of inverting cause and effect. Although he acknowledged that past racism and unemployment undermined black families, he held that the pathology in “the Negro American family” had not only assumed a life of its own, but was also the primary determinant.

Steinberg’s central conviction here and elsewhere in other writings is surely correct: the root cause is the political economy of race and the persistent limitation of economic opportunities for African Americans. American society continues to present very high obstacles to African American young people when it comes to gaining admission to the job system, including residential segregation and chronically poor schooling.  And as a society and a generation of commentators, we don’t pay nearly enough attention to these facts about the political economy of race in America. In particular, Steinberg faults the sociologists and ethnographers included in the 2010 Annals collection for this reason:

Aren’t we asking the wrong questions? Do the answers bring us any closer to understanding why this nation has millions of racial outcasts who are consigned to a social death?

Against this background, the ballyhooed “restoration” of culture to poverty discourse can only be one thing: an evasion of the persistent racial and economic inequalities that are a blot on American democracy.

So Steinberg harshly faults anyone, including especially conservative commentators, who put the primary causal role on culture.  But Steinberg also attributes this blindness about the structural causes of racial inequality and poverty to the current poverty and race research community as represented by this Annals collection, and I’m not persuaded this is justified.

In fact, it doesn’t seem to be true to say that Moynihan himself disagreed with Steinberg about which factor is most important. Rather, Moynihan described the problems with the African American family that he identified as endogenous — caused by the facts of racial discrimination and economic disadvantage — rather than exogenous — an independent cause of poverty. The original cause, persisting into the present, is the structural circumstance of high unemployment and limited economic opportunities for African American young people.

The 2010 Annals volume was followed by a second collection in 2012, edited by Douglas Massey.  Massey’s volume, The Moynihan Report Revisited: Lessons and Reflections after Four Decades (link), is also focused on the Moynihan report and is a contribution of at least equal importance.  This collection too focuses on the contrast between culture and structures as explanations of persistent poverty.  But unlike the 2010 collection, this collection gives greater attention to structural factors that appear to be at work.

Massey and Robert Sampson point out in their introduction to the 2012 volume that Moynihan’s original argument invoked both family and jobs; and in fact, Moynihan got the arrow of causation going in the same direction as Steinberg wants it to go.  They claim that Moynihan’s argument was that it was necessary to break the cycle of poverty by creating abundant opportunities for jobs for young African American men. The logical implication of his argument was establishment of a massive Federal jobs program to break the logjam of African American unemployment.  Massey and Sampson paraphrase his theory: “If full employment for black males—especially young black males—could be achieved, he thought, then family stability could be restored and government would be in a better position to attack more entrenched problems such as discrimination and segregation.”

The 2012 volume focuses on more of the structural causes at a range of levels of African American poverty and reduced opportunity.  Harry Holzer reviews current research on the ways in which young African-American men are incorporated (or not) into the labor market.  Devah Pager and Diana Karafin examine the workings of discrimination and stereotypes in employer decisions about hiring. Andrew Cherlin et al attempt to assess the effects of welfare reform on African American and Hispanic families in the 2000s. In “Racial Stratification and the Durable Tangle of Neighborhood Inequality” Robert Sampson reviews empirical work on the ways in which residential neighborhoods influence behavior and outcomes.  Sampson finds that Moynihan offers some ideas that are very consistent with current thinking about the “ecological” influences on poverty and the characteristics of poverty in an urban location.  Almost all these authors give credit to Moynihan for accurately perceiving the reality of racial inequality and African American poverty in the 1960s, and they confirm that Moynihan emphasized the primacy of jobs as an instigating cause of these outcomes.

So it seems that the current wave of social science research on race and poverty is doing a much better job of addressing the causal factors involved than Steinberg allows.  To me, anyway, it seems that Steinberg’s critique confuses two things: the urgency of addressing structural racism (yes!) and the value of attempting to better understand the cultural systems through which poor communities navigate their lives (also yes!).  Steinberg puts it forward that we need to choose one to the exclusion of the other; but that is unconvincing to me.  When Al Young offers an empirical and theoretical account of the role of “framing” in the choices made by poor people in the 2010 volume, he is adding something of real value to our understanding of the workings of economy, culture, and race within the circumstances of urban poverty. This understanding can then be deployed in the design of a variety of policy efforts, including programs aimed at improving the health status of young African American men.  But Steinberg dismisses this work:

Enter the sociologist, to record the agony of the dispossessed. Does it really matter how they define a “good job” when they have virtually no prospect of finding one?

Rhetoric aside, I’d say that the analysis of the experience of poverty and the repertoires employed to survive in that environment is indeed important; it really does matter. 

In short, it seems to me that Steinberg’s criticisms are properly addressed to conservative commentators on African American poverty who do indeed blame the victim; but that virtually none of the scholars included in either of these Annals volumes are guilty of this injustice.

(Steinberg spells out more of his critique in Turning Back: The Retreat from Racial Justice in American Thought and Policy.)


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