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The “Culture of Poverty” and the War on Poverty

Summary:
Many critics of Oscar Lewis viewed him as a traitor to the left.  The angriest of these critics was probably Charles Valentine.  In 1969, the journal Current Anthropology gave Lewis (and about a dozen other scholars) the chance to respond to Valentine’s critique of culture of poverty research.  Lewis’ whole reply is well-done, but here’s my favorite part: At one point Valentine charges that my concept of a culture of poverty was a guiding principle of the war against poverty and must, therefore, bear some responsibility for its failure. What a naive and absurd conception of the power of social science in our society! It is not the concept of a culture or subculture of poverty which is responsible for the lack of success of the anti-poverty program, but rather (1)

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Many critics of Oscar Lewis viewed him as a traitor to the left.  The angriest of these critics was probably Charles Valentine.  In 1969, the journal Current Anthropology gave Lewis (and about a dozen other scholars) the chance to respond to Valentine’s critique of culture of poverty research.  Lewis’ whole reply is well-done, but here’s my favorite part:

At one point Valentine charges that my concept of a culture of poverty was a guiding principle of the war against poverty and must, therefore, bear some responsibility for its failure. What a naive and absurd conception of the power of social science in our society! It is not the concept of a culture or subculture of poverty which is responsible for the lack of success of the anti-poverty program, but rather (1) the failure of the President and the Congress of the United States to understand the degree of national commitment necessary to cope with the problem; and (2) the Vietnam war, which has been draining our economic and human resources.

Having attended Moynihan’s year-long seminar on poverty and having heard some of the men who were directly responsible for formulating, organizing, and carrying out the war against poverty, I can testify that most of them had only the vaguest conception of the difference between poverty and the subculture of poverty.

Of course, if social science plays little role in forming public policy, it’s hard to see why anyone would be optimistic about government’s competence to solve social problems…

Bryan Caplan
Bryan Caplan is Professor of Economics at George Mason University and Senior Scholar at the Mercatus Center. He has published in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the American Economic Review, the Economic Journal, the Journal of Law and Economics, and Intelligence, and has appeared on 20/20, FoxNews, and C-SPAN. Bryan Caplan blogs on EconLog.

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