An Historian

historical stuff by Gareth Millward


The Poor


Here’s an interesting piece on poor people and the middle classes. Originally published in 1963, it seems strikingly similar to the way conservative politicians (small “c”) on both sides of the Atlantic continue to see the “have nots”.

From Oscar Lewis, The Culture of Poverty, Society 35(2) (1998), pp. 7-9.

Middle class people, and this certainly includes most social scientists, tend to concentrate on the negative aspects of the culture of poverty; they tend to have negative feelings about traits such as an emphasis on the present and a neglect of the future, or on concrete as against abstract orientations. I do not intend to idealize or romanticize the culture of poverty. As someone has said, “It is easier to praise poverty than to live it.” However, we must not overlook some of the positive aspects that may flow from these traits. Living immersed in the present may develop a capacity for spontaneity for the enjoyment of the sensual, the indulgence of impulse, which is too often blunted in our middle class, future-oriented man. Perhaps it is this reality of the moment that middle class existentialist writers are so desperately trying to recapture, but which the culture of poverty experiences as a natural, everyday phenomenon. The frequent use of violence certainly provides a ready outlet for hostility, so that people in the culture of poverty suffer less from repression than does the middle class.

He concludes:

In considering what can be done about the culture of poverty, we must make a sharp distinction between those countries in which it involves a relatively small segment of the population, and those in which it constitutes a very large section. Obviously, the solutions will have to differ in these two areas. In the United States, the major solution proposed by planners and social workers for dealing with what are called “multiple problem families,” the “undeserving poor,” and the “hard core of poverty,” is slowly to raise their level of living and eventually incorporate them into the middle class. And, wherever possible, there is some reliance upon psychiatric treatment in an effort to imbue these “shiftless, lazy, unambitious people” with the higher middle class aspirations.

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