Contemporary Political and Academic Descriptions of Poverty among Minority Groups

07 May 2002

Larry Olomoofe1

"There is something in her life story to confirm any political view-point – liberal, moderate, or conservative. Some may see her as a victim of hopeless circumstances, a woman born to a life of deprivation because of America's long history of discrimination and racism. Others may give her the benefit of the doubt in some cases but hold her personally accountable for much of what she did to herself, her children, and her grandchildren. A third group might say that Rosa Lee is a thief, a drug-addict, a failed parent, a broken woman paying for her sins, and a woman who seemingly was so set on placing her children on the path to failure that it is amazing that even two of them manage to live conventional lives." – Leon Dash2

"The culture of poverty is both an adaptation and a reaction of the poor to their marginal position in a class-stratified, highly individuated, capitalistic society.3 It represents the effort to cope with feelings of hopelessness and despair which develop from the realization of the improbability of achieving success in terms of the values and goals of the larger society." – Oscar Lewis4

This article presents an analysis of some current theoretical positions that inform many perceptions of poverty in Western, and increasingly, Central and Eastern European societies. Its aim is twofold: 1) to high-light the major theoretical themes in any discussion of poverty, and 2) to help to contextualise the current situation regarding the entrenched poverty of Roma in the region. In the case of the latter, it is my hope to reveal some of the deep social, cultural and structural factors informing the dynamics which continually affect certain minority groups disproportionately. Finally, this article will attempt to offer insights into how action can redress the situation.

The opening quotations represent one of the major arguments in discussions on poverty, where "pathology" and "culture" commonly serve as metaphors to describe its nature. The dichotomy between the two methodological approaches revolves around the role of the individual, focusing on the issue of agency (and the lack of it) of "subjects" who are, purportedly, active, conscious architects of their own misery. This situation consequently perpetuates a set of circumstances that renders ineffective any form of intervention proposed by various government agencies.

Though both focus on the individual, the two approaches diverge when apportioning blame for a travesty such as poverty in modern societies. Advocates of the "cultural" approach suggest that individuals make choices that are ultimately harmful to themselves because they have no other alternatives. In this view, impoverished people are manipulated by wider social forces and structures – sub-standard education, poor health-care provision, little chance of gainful employment. On the other hand, acolytes of the "pathological" approach tend to suggest that sole responsibility for the impoverished condition lies in individuals, i.e., poverty is self-imposed, mainly through the social and personal deficiencies (or choices) of the individual. This assumption of the individual's active engagement in creating his or her impoverished circumstances is supposedly more discernible through the "pathological", as opposed to the "cultural", approach.

In other words, "pathology" alludes to the active role played by the individual in creating the circumstances for his or her impoverished situation, while "culture" emphasises the causality of wider structural forces which shape and limit the choices available to the ultimately helpless individuals trapped in poverty. Despite this divergence, and their sharp methodological distinctions, the two approaches are ultimately connected. They form a full circle that converges to present a holistic set of dynamics. These dynamics appear unalterable and therefore endemic. It is this seemingly immutable dynamic that I challenge in this article.

As the title of this article suggests, the wider discussion concentrates on the various theories of academics and others to explain the processes of poverty and impoverishment. The main discourse has as its premise the views on the "culture of poverty" theory, famously propounded by Oscar Lewis in 1966. The core tenets have undergone many modifications, but the idea itself has significantly influenced many studies of [urban] poverty over the last 35 years. The theory's basic premise is that people living poverty-stricken lives display and employ strategies originating from practices embedded in a cultural framework which governs their choices at any given time. They are therefore locked in an endemic, self-perpetuating cycle, since the "tools" with which they are equipped to cope with life emanate from a structural process shaped by poverty and its accompanying dynamics, all of which are beyond the subject's control. This theory is used to explain the preponderance of criminal acts among the poor. Acts such as stealing, begging, petty fraud, prostitution, loan-sharking, drug use and peddling, teenage pregnancies/parenthood and any number of "deviancies" are all considered signifiers of this culture of poverty.5

Bearing this in mind then, the culture of poverty theory hints at the wider structural causes or conditions which influence people's life-choices and strategies, ultimately dictating what they can consider legitimate spheres of action and what are to be precluded by them. Despite offering analytical perspective – principally the analysis of societal structural forces – this theory is far from comprehensive and only presents a partial explanation of the major dynamics of poverty. It is ultimately susceptible to charges of being an apologist6 account of the situation. By this, it is suggested that advocates of the "cultural" approach tend to sacrifice a critical objective analysis, presenting the individual as a victim, as opposed to being the architect of social conditions, thereby skewing the situation and apportioning blame to structural forces that are hardly visible and barely tangible.

Other theories that use the culture of poverty thesis as their basis or form of counterpoint (to the "pathology" argument) fall into a trap that often suggests that the thesis is too arbitrary and therefore subjective. The thesis's subjectivity manifests itself in the intentions and conclusions of the enquirer. Generally speaking, it is suggested that the main objective of this approach is to absolve the individual of any responsibility for his or her situation. One contemporary example is Philippe Bourgois, who deploys the culture of poverty thesis in his work among East Harlem's Puerto Rican youths in New York, published in 1995:

…In other words, millions of dollars of business is taking place within a stone's throw of the youths growing up in East Harlem tenements and housing projects. Why should these young men and women take the subway to work minimum wage jobs – or even double minimum wage jobs – in downtown offices when they can earn more, at least in the short run, by selling drugs on the street corner in front of their apartment or school yard? In fact, I am always surprised that so many inner-city men and women remain in the legal economy and work nine to five plus overtime, barely making ends meet (emphasis added).7

The quote's ending lines indicate the inherent problem with the "cultural" approach, in that Bourgois seems to condone the illegal activities of some of the indigent Puerto Ricans he interviewed/observed. His analysis is thus suffused with moral undertones that do not help the majority of poor people, who have fought hard and long to remove the stigma of criminality/immorality attached to them simply because they are poor. "Culture" represents only one element of what it means to be part of society's impoverished class; there are other signifiers that cannot be fully explained as part of an overarching cultural framework. This is the ultimate shortcoming of the "cultural" model, which has been open to the claim that it is too deterministic,8 rendering the individual as a passive agent with little or no power over the choices he or she has made. Bourgois, for example, states:

Male income-generating strategies in the underground9 economy are more publicly visible. Some men repair cars on the curb; others wait on stoops (in front of houses) for unlicensed construction subcontractors to pick them up for fly-by-night demolition jobs or window renovation projects ... The most visible cohorts hawk 'nickels and dimes' of one illegal drug or another. They are part of the most robust, multibillion dollar sector of the booming underground economy…10
Roma in the Maszkowice settlement in Poland, June 30, 2001.
Photo: ERRC

Another problem burdening the "culture of poverty" approach is that one cannot simply explain all universally observable phenomena of poverty through deployment of the thesis. At best, it is a partial explanation of poverty. Despite its limitations, however, the thesis still has its uses as a heuristic tool in explaining poverty.

Acceptance of the limitations of the "cultural" model apparently indicated that another approach was needed in order to fully explore, explain and understand poverty and its various dynamics. An alternative approach would provide the proper focus on the issue of poverty, as well as highlighting the exact role played by culture, societal superstructures and individuals, since it is the conjunction of all of these factors that makes poverty what it is. In order to do this then, what one had to do was to shift the focus away from the superstructures of society and observe individuals in their material environments, taking into account the general patterns of their existence and the prevalence of certain phenomena. Apparently, this would be a more forensic approach in the investigation of poverty, uncovering "pathological" traits which were more representative of the situation, as opposed to the top-heavy "culture of poverty" thesis. Consequently, one would have to relinquish the notion of "culture" and employ the more "scientific" term "pathology", thereby getting closer to the truth of the situation. In order to critically and objectively analyse poverty, one would have to discern the "pathological" traits of this "sub-group" in order to provide any kind of remedy to the problem. Adoption of an approach regarding poverty as a form of pathology would, according to this view, allow us to observe universal phenomena which characterise the poor, including their distinctive cultural practices.

Its supposedly deeper grounding in science assisted disciples of Daniel Patrick Moynihan – widely regarded as the ideological father of the "pathology" approach – in vanquishing followers of Lewis. Moynihan's 1965 policy paper "The Negro Family: The Case for National Action" famously inaugurated U.S. debate about poverty as both primarily a "Negro thing" and as an appropriate subject of government policy.11 However, despite its avowedly "scientific" approach, the pathological model of analysis has its own limitations. Essentially, it is equally deterministic as the "culture of poverty" thesis. While the cultural position is open to criticism for being too "structural", the pathological approach is guilty of imposing an arbitrary standard of analysis on the individual. Moynihan's focus on the family as the "basic socialising unit" is a problematic one. He constructs a theory of pathology (an endogamous cycle of events) that is representative of the poor,12 in which he indicates an inevitability of life cycles and the choices that affect them. They are consequential results of a particular bounded environment, premised upon the equation x + y = z. Factor "x" in this case could/would be the [Negro] "family", and factor "y" anything from "criminal" activity to "deviant" sexuality, etc. The sum-total of these combinations, factor "z", is the decay of the wider social fabric:

At the heart of the deterioration of the fabric of Negro society is the deterioration of the Negro family. It is the fundamental source of the weakness of the Negro community at the present time… The role of the family in shaping character and ability is so pervasive as to be easily overlooked. The family is the basic social unit of American life; it is the basic socializing unit.13

Later in the text, under the title "The Tangle of Pathology", he adds:

In essence, the Negro community has been forced into a matriarchal structure which, because it is so out of line with the rest of American society, seriously retards the progress of the group as a whole and imposes a crushing burden on the Negro male and, in consequence, on a great many Negro women as well.14

By adopting this theoretical approach, Moynihan hopes to explain the causality of events leading to social phenomena among the poor that threaten the cohesion of [mainstream] society. This ultimately lends itself to arguments against government intervention to alleviate the plight of the poor because the poor are viewed as active participants of their plight. Indeed, more damagingly, this theory suggests that the "poor" are pathologically predisposed to acts of criminality and deviance, so any intervention is doomed to fail because of these people's very nature. This last point is clearly discernible from the following quote, taken from a working document on the "Roma issue" distributed at the "Meeting of Presidents of the Visegrad Four Countries"15 on December 3, 1999:

The lifestyle of many of them is oriented towards consumption and they live from hand to mouth. Because of their lower educational standard, the philosophy of some of them is to simply survive from one day to the next. If we add their increased propensity to alcohol abuse, absence of an at least minimum degree of planning, and low concern for developing normal habits including the feeling of responsibility, hygienic habits and ethics, this philosophy is changing today to that of living 'from one benefit to the next'.16

The "culture" vs. "pathology" debate has shed light on many factors in contemporary understandings of poverty. However, despite these insights, the concentration on the individual hints at its fundamental problem. Such focus ultimately leads to a spurious debate about the "deserving" poor vs. the "undeserving" poor. Those who are characterised as underserving of mainstream taxpayers' charity – through government financial and structural assistance – tend to live lives similar to the one depicted in Leon Dash's account of Rosa Lee, a black drug addict firmly ensconced in the poverty trap in America. The other category of "deserving" is unclear, since proponents of support for the poor tend to disagree about who is eligible under its designation. For our purposes here, I refer to people who are gainfully employed, but are eking out a hand-to-mouth existence just beneath the poverty line, as generally those who one can consider as worthy recipients of government assistance.

Debates about the relative merits and demerits of each of these models of analysis have raged since the 1960s, and both have enduring influence on current discussions. Perhaps the most recent account, which seems to borrow from both models, is the notion of "inheritance", presented at a December 2001 seminar on poverty at the Central European University, in Budapest, Hungary, by Polish sociologist Elzbieta Tarkowska. One premise of this theory, as presented, is the notion that the poor pass on cultural practices, beliefs, ambitions and expectations from one generation to another as a form of "inheritance". For example, if an indigent family has the particular practice of begging or cheating, this trait/skill will be transmitted to the younger members of the family by the older ones as a means of dealing with their social and economic marginalisation. This is considered a legitimate transfer of familial "wealth", a process that is internalised by the young and employed later in their lives. The same logic would apply to the [low] educational goals and future ambitions of the young under such conditions.

This point has apparently not gone unnoticed by politicians in Central and Eastern Europe. Mr Géza Jeszenszky, a founding member of the rightist-centrist party Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF), former Minister of Foreign Affairs (1990-1994) and current Ambassador to the United States of America, recently wrote:

Hungary has a large Gypsy minority with serious social problems deriving mostly from poverty, poor education and, in many cases, an inherited lifestyle that lacks any incentives to break out and do better.17

This theory of "inheritance" is problematic due to its explicit assumption that the poor are conscious contributors to their impoverishment by their active collection, preservation and transmission of behavioural traits linked to poverty for use by future generations. This hints at the theory's central problem: It combines the worst elements of both the "pathological" and the "cultural" models. There is no hint in the "inheritance" theory of the impact government policy (informed by the prevalence of racism in wider society), such as a lack of investment in local schools and other short-sighted government policies, may have on the individual – thereby limiting the choices and resources the poor may have at their disposal and forcing them to employ unconventional survival strategies in reaction to their circumstances. The inheritance theory suggests an individual's proactive participation, which is, in fact, reactive, due to the many debilitating factors they encounter on a daily basis. Thus any analytical benefit from this theory is lost, because it presents the poor as the main arbiters of their condition, premising the notion of "inheritance" upon the active collection of "capital" by the individual, with the sole purpose of passing this on to offspring. It is this particular dynamic, onto which politicians such as Mr Jeszenszky latch – depicting indigent Roma as wilful contributors to their plight because of their cultural/pathological "inheritance" of sloth – that renders the theory unhelpful.

There is little hope of uniting the various camps on the issue of poverty. The inescapable spectre of "determinism" haunts one, while the others are plagued by an unfair concentration on the individual. In order to get around this problem, I propose that the debate on poverty needs to include a discussion on "habitus" as presented by the late French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu.18 Bourdieu defines "habitus" in the following terms:

… That all knowledge, and in particular all knowledge of the social world, is an act of construction implementing schemes of thought and expression, and that between conditions of existence and practices or representations there intervenes the structuring activity of the agents, who, far from reacting mechanically to mechanical stimulations, respond to the invitations or threats of a world whose meaning they have helped produce … The cognitive structures which social agents implement in their practical knowledge of the social world are 'embodied' social structures… Being the product (the classificatory schemes of society) of the incorporation of the fundamental structures of a society, these principles of division are common to all the agents of society and make possible the production of a common, meaningful world, a common sense world.19

The notion of "habitus" presents us with insights into the inter-relation between the individual and the social structures of society, specifically revealing the contingent nature of this relationship. If we apply this concept to the current plight of impoverished Romani communities and peoples in Central and Eastern Europe, we can reveal the speciousness of arguments that suggest that poverty and its attendant dynamics are an intrinsic part of their culture, and as such, that there is nothing the wider public can do to address it. The latter point is a direct reference to the number of conversations that I have had with people who call themselves "sympathisers" to the Romani cause, while claiming that the poverty of the Roma (generically) is a consequence of their purported lifestyles and cultural practices.

Habitus means that we can deploy a theory of social action without relying upon or falling into tacit assumptions as to what the poor represent. Habitus allows us to observe the linkages between structures of society and the individual, as well as the acts employed within a particular social class/realm, revealing the true symbiotic nature of the relationship. It is not as value-laden as the other approaches and therefore comes closer to an objective account of poverty specifically and society generally. This is an important conclusion because it galvanises us to deal with poverty in its many forms, instead of focusing on its particular elements (be they relative or absolute, cultural or pathological, deserving or undeserving). The habitus paradigm reveals the fissures of these former binary categories, allowing interested parties to navigate a course of action that should ultimately lead to the implementation of appropriate policies. The concept of habitus alludes to the wider social and cultural mores, as well as the range of possibilities available to people.

What does this mean in practical terms? How can the deployment of habitus impact on the sphere of social policy regarding poverty? One example could be the field of education. Educational strategists should/could seriously contemplate that the aims of education is to provide (mainly young) people with the basic "tools" which would assist them in their quest to lead independent, meaningful lives. As a basic requirement then, the aim of educational policy would be to ensure that this provision (of tools) is made, thereby expanding the opportunities available to people. It goes without saying that this provision/process should be equitable and fair. By employing habitus as the basic premise of government policy, the aim would be to broaden the scope of potentialities and possibilities available to society's members.

Photo: Judit M. Horváth

The protean debates about poverty shall continue in many public (and private) arenas. However, there is no escaping the fact that the urgency of the situation is clearly discernible. The impoverished Roma in Central and Eastern Europe do not have the luxury of requisite material resources that would allow them to participate in an abstract or theoretical discussion about poverty. They live it. Breathe it. Eat it. Sleep it. The abject material conditions of many Roma allow an immediacy of understanding, which, in a way, makes discussions such as this one superfluous. Therefore, our task is manifold and imperative. As we can see from the foregoing discussion, various theories have been deployed to explain the entrenched impoverishment of Roma communities in Central and Eastern Europe. Despite calls in the region for a change in government policy towards poverty, the status quo is maintained by governments that wish to contain Roma at the margins of society through their continued policies of segregation in education, housing, health and a raft of public sectors, perpetuating the cycle of poverty.

The fact that the collective statement of the V4 countries, quoted earlier, is supposedly representative of their attitudes towards impoverished Roma, i.e., societal perceptions that view Roma as the cause of their poverty, should give us cause for concern. The assistance that should be forthcoming from these governments, and others in the region, as part of their obligations to these human groups is not taking place. Surely our collective goal is to provide assistance, to ensure that Roma too can exercise, express and enjoy the whole gamut of social, economic and cultural rights. At present, the enjoyment by Roma of these rights is threatened by extreme poverty.


  1. Larry Olomoofe is the Human Rights Trainer at the ERRC as well as a lecturer at Eötvos Loránd University (ELTE) Budapest, the University of Pécs and the Institute for Social and European Studies (ISES), Szombathely.
  2. Dash, Leon, Rosa Lee: A Mother and Her Family in Urban America, (1996), Plume Books, page 251.
  3. I tend to agree with this assertion but would add that this is applicable not only in capitalistic societies but also in the nascent market economies that we can currently observe in Central and Eastern European post-communist states.
  4. Lewis, Oscar, "Culture of Poverty", Scientific American, 1966, page xliv.
  5. The inherently racist nature of the debate in the US and UK should not be overlooked here. There is an implicit racist theme that permeates the very essence of the debate and the notion of poverty is sometimes invoked as a euphemism for "blacks".
  6. By this, it is meant that social researchers who employ the "cultural" approach to poverty often excuse the actions of the individual by considering them blameless, since the subject appears to have no power over the situation in which he or she finds himself or herself.
  7. Bourgois, Phillippe, In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio, Cambridge University Press, 1995, page 4.
  8. This is the assumption that one can predict the outcome of a set of [social] dynamics based on prior knowledge and the existence of certain factors in a given sphere or category. This specter of determinism is mainly applicable "where social systems are highly structured and the outcome of any one actor's individual behavior can be shown to have little or no independent influence of the macro-structure of a system." (Dictionary of Sociology, 1991, page 160).
  9. This is a reference to what is popularly referred to as the "black" economy. Without dwelling on the double meaning implied by "black", this obviously refers to some form of illegal activity. These activities ("strategies") are racialised: considered racially inscribed actions of a racial minority group.
  10. Bourgois, Op. cit., page 3.
  11. Moynihan, D. P., The Negro Family: The Case for National Action; Washington D.C: Office of Policy Planning and Research, U.S. Department of Labor, 1965.
  12. This is reminiscent of the work conducted by the ?Chicago School? (a group of urban sociologists from Chicago University) in many of their studies of so-called urban cities.
  13. Moynihan, Op. cit., page 51.
  14. Moynihan, Op. cit., page 75.
  15. The so-called "Visegrad 4" countries are the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia.
  16. Office of the President of Slovakia, "Meeting of the Presidents of the Visegrad Four Countries: Working Dokument (sic) on the Roma Issue in the V4 Countries", High Tatra, 3 December 1999, page 7.
  17. Jeszenszky, Géza, "Story on Hungary's Gypsies 'Ill-informed, Malicious'", The Washington Times, December 7, 1999.
  18. Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction, Harvard University Press, 1984, pp. 467- 468.
  19. This provided the basis for his later theories of "cultural capital" and "cultural fields".



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