Culture of Poverty?    (or victimization)

By Will Baker


I recently attended a lecture on poverty, or more precisely, the presenter’s interpretation of some of the implications associated with poverty in 21st Century America. Although the material presented was, for the most part a regurgitation of postmodernist philosophy with revised lexicons (but mostly the same content) there was one notable exception. For it seems to me that the presenter was attempting to argue that folks who live in poverty are victims of their realities and that over time this fact has culturalized the experience. When I challenged this assertion, there was some backpedaling on the part of the speaker but as the lecture continued it became clear to me that I was being asked to stipulate that, generally speaking folks who live in poverty in America are in fact victims. Well, on the ride home and in the days since that presentation I have considered these ideas and having done so must reject them.

One of the principle reasons for my dismissal of this notion is that it seems to me that were I to accept this theory I would be helping to perpetuate the victimization mentality, an action which I am loath to take. I believe that Sartre had it right when he argued that claiming victimhood-or in the case of the above referenced presenter, foisting victimhood upon another are acts that are associated with Bad Faith. And to state the thing simply it seems to me that this is not a good thing.

Another reason for my rejection of the thesis has to do with a recent visit I made to the Amish country in Pennsylvania. Here are folks who; it could be argued lead an existence that appears to be one of poverty by design, their Quaker faith aside they seem to assume a simplification of living that Thoreau would understand. And when I juxtapose their brand of contrived poverty against the so-called culture of poverty spoken to above it seems to me that the latter notion falls flat. For in the case of the Amish, they actively choose (read: an act of empowerment) to lead their lives in the manner in which they do, while it could be argued that many of the American poor often feel fated (read: an act of relinquishing power) to their existence. As an important aside, the above referenced presenter would have us attempt to develop an understanding of this that leads to the conclusion that these folks are victims of this mindset. After all, there were generations of children who were raised in this reality therefore overtime this Culture of Poverty developed. Of course this fails to explain the storied examples of Americans, born into poverty who managed to make choices which led to their achieving great things. Culture of poverty, I think not, Culture of Victimization, perhaps.

When I audited this talk, which was billed as masters-level course material I have to admit to feeling a bit out of place. For although the presenter was an academician most of the audience were clinicians in various social work disciplines. And it appeared that they were ready willing and able to gobble up the material as gospel truth. As I mentioned above much of the stuff had to do with ideas associated with postmodernist philosophy, therefore it seems to me that they can’t be faulted if some of those ideas resonated with them. However, it seems to me that linking the idea of victimization to the ideas associated with Sartre, Arendt, Derrida, Husserl et al bastardizes the core principles of choice and free-will.

All this being said I will stipulate that poverty exists in America therefore there must be causal factors associated with this reality-and they can and should be studied and strategies should be devised and tested to mitigate against it. For example, it occurs to me that the victimization mindset could be related to the culturalization of poverty. In addition, the presenter argued that it is possible to provide folks living in poverty with specific tools (new language and prioritization skills etc.) and this seems like a valid approach. But a soft-peddled message of victimization wrapped in postmodernist philosophical thought does not strike me as a helpful addition to the prescription.

Of course, during a break I made my position known to the presenter and he asked me to send him an e-mail outlining my ideas. You can be sure that I will provide him with a link to this essay and if he is so inclined I will post his response.



 (Essay Collection)




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