The Cultural Roots of Poverty

By Lawrence E. Harrison, a senior fellow at Harvard University's Academy for International and Area Studies. His most recent book is "The Pan-American Dream" (Basic Books, 1996).

The Wall Street Journal

July 13, 1999

President Clinton's four-day poverty tour last week took him to Appalachia, the Mississippi Delta, the Black Hills and the Los Angeles ghetto, evoking similar trips more than 30 years ago by Lyndon B. Johnson and Robert F. Kennedy. In those three decades, some progress has been made--notwithstanding President Reagan's comment: "We fought a war against poverty, and poverty won." The proportion of blacks below the poverty line, well above 30% as recently as 1990, has fallen to 27%, and black unemployment has dropped to 9% from 15% in 1985.

But more than 30% of Hispanics are below the poverty line. And on some Indian reservations, the unemployment rate is above 70%. Poverty lingers in the U.S., as it does on vastly greater scale in the developing world. The optimism of those who fought the war on poverty at home and abroad has been replaced by fatigue and even pessimism.

What explains the persistence of poverty? The conventional diagnoses--shortfalls in education and skills, lack of opportunity, lack of capital, discrimination and, in the Third World, imperialism--are now demonstrably inadequate.

The crucial element that has been ignored is cultural values and attitudes that stand in the way of progress. It makes many people uncomfortable to acknowledge that some cultures produce greater well-being than others. Cultural relativism--the view that cultures can be evaluated only on their own terms and are therefore equally good--is dominant in universities. Many economists believe that people respond to economic signals in the same way, no matter their culture.

The extraordinary achievements of Chinese, Japanese and Korean immigrants in the U.S.--and elsewhere--belie these views. A recent RAND Corp. study, "Immigration in a Changing Economy," documents the rapid upward mobility of East Asian immigrants, in sharp contrast with immigrants from Mexico and Central America. East Asians in the U.S. substantially exceed national averages for years of education, while the Hispanic high-school dropout rate hovers around 30%.

In her 1970 book, "Mexican Americans," Joan Moore wrote: "Jewish and Japanese children . . . march off to school with enthusiasm. Mexican and Negro children are much less interested. Some sort of cultural factor works here." The troubling Hispanic dropout rate reflects a culture that does not attach a high priority to education; witness the persistence of illiteracy in Latin America (10% in Mexico, more than 40% in Guatemala). The high-school dropout rate in most Latin American countries exceeds 50%.

Progress-prone cultures cross religious and racial lines. In addition to the Confucian cultures of East Asia, they include Basques, Sikhs, Jews, Mormons and Armenians, not to mention the mainstream culture of the West. Such cultures share the belief that one's destiny can be influenced through considered action, and they attach high value to work, education, achievement and saving. Progress-resistant cultures tend to be passive and fatalistic, less entrepreneurial, less committed to education.

A growing number of Latin Americans, novelist Mario Vargas Llosa among them, have come to the conclusion that culture is at the root of the region's underdevelopment. Lionel Sosa, the Mexican-American advertising executive and author, has come to the same conclusion about Latino underachievement in the U.S. In his 1998 book, "The Americano Dream," he points to fatalism, the resignation of the poor and the low priority of education as major obstacles to upward mobility.

Similarly, the Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson has concluded that culture is the key to understanding the underachievement of African-Americans. In "Rituals of Blood" (1999), he documents the destructive consequences of slavery and Jim Crow for black attitudes about relationships between the sexes. Many other writers have pointed to the destructive impact of slavery on values and attitudes toward work, education and social responsibility. I believe that the cultural legacy of slavery, perpetuated by the isolation of Jim Crow and the ghetto, has a lot to do not only with the persistence of poverty among blacks but also such recently highlighted phenomena as the gap in black-white test scores and the gap in computer usage by blacks relative to whites and Asians.

Some contemporary Africans have come to conclusions about the cultural obstacles to progress on their continent that parallel Mr. Vargas Llosa's observations about Latin America. Among them is Daniel Etounga Manguelle, a Camerounian, whose book "Does Africa Need a Cultural Adjustment Program?" identifies fatalism and sorcery, a distaste for work, centralized traditions of authority, and the suppression of initiative, achievement and saving as chiefly responsible for Africa's poverty, authoritarianism and social injustice.

Culture is not necessarily destiny, a conclusion underscored by the striking gains made by black Americans in the past several decades: sharply rising educational achievement, declining poverty and unemployment, reductions in crime, the rapid growth of the middle class. These encouraging trends reflect the escape from the traditional culture to the progressive national cultural mainstream.

Isolation from that mainstream largely explains the disproportionate poverty of American Indians, particularly those 1.2 million (of a total of two million) who live on or near reservations. Some 30% of all Indians live below the poverty line. Their traditional culture, based on man's partnership with nature, inculcates both a sense of fatalism and an egalitarianism that discourages initiative and upward mobility.

We are reminded that poverty cuts across racial lines by its persistence in isolated white Appalachia. In his remarkable 1989 book, "Albion's Seed," Brandeis historian David Hackett Fisher traces the cultural roots of Appalachian poverty back to the British borderlands. Most of the Appalachia settlers came from that poverty-stricken Scottish-Irish-English region. Its culture of violence, distaste for work, and disdain of education starkly contrasts with the literate, pacific, communitarian settlers from East Anglia who settled Massachusetts.

It's true that culture changes, sometimes dramatically. Consider the transformations in this century of Spain, Turkey, Quebec and Ireland, among other places. Nor is culture the only factor that explains poverty. It is obviously easier to reduce poverty in a vibrant economy than in a recession. The role of government policy is important, particularly with respect to the economy and labor, education and immigration.

America's immigration policy, which has facilitated substantial inflows of people with little education and few skills, particularly from Latin America, has aggravated the poverty problem. The creativity and diligence of East Asian immigrants, and their rapid assimilation, are clearly a national asset. But with 30% of Hispanics below the poverty line, it can be argued that we have imported a poverty problem as well as a cultural problem.

Moreover, the unskilled immigrants accept lower salaries and fewer benefits, and they place downward pressure on wages at the lower end that makes it more difficult for poor citizens to escape poverty. The late Barbara Jordan, who chaired the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, was particularly concerned about this problem; her commission recommended lower levels of legal immigration, redoubled efforts to stem illegal immigration and more emphasis on skills in deciding who gets to immigrate.

Dallas Morning News columnist Richard Estrada worries that the high immigration volume impedes acculturation to the American mainstream. Multiculturalism--the rejection of mainstream Western culture and the assumption that all cultures are equal--also poses an obstacle to assimilation, to say nothing of its erosive effect on national unity.

The course of human progress demonstrates that some cultures produce greater good for greater numbers than others. Both at home and in the Third World, the antipoverty agenda must address values and attitudes, as difficult and as painful as it may be. The process will be slow, but it offers hope that the War on Poverty can, in due course, be won.