Monday, December 22, 2008

Wanted: A Brief History of Ideas

Journalists are often told to skip the history when writing the news. Contemporary context is okay. Extended history is out. In rethinking that advice, I offer up Tina Rosenberg’s masterful article on poverty in the Sunday Magazine of the New York Times.

In a few paragraphs, Rosenberg covers nearly half a century of thinking about “the culture of poverty”—at least as far as U.S. intellectuals have described it.

Summary and synthesis, the history of ideas.

That’s increasingly what I am looking for—whether in old media or on the web. And what I find missing in so many discussions about global health.

From Rosenberg’s NYT article:

FORTY-NINE YEARS AGO, the anthropologist Oscar Lewis published a book called “Five Families: Mexican Case Studies in the Culture of Poverty,” detailing a single day in these families’ lives. One family, headed by Jesús Sánchez, a food buyer for a restaurant, continued to tell its story in a second Lewis book, the widely read “Children of Sánchez.” Lewis singled out elements of a culture that, he argued, keep those socialized in it mired in poverty: machismo, authoritarianism, marginalization from organized civic life, high rates of abandonment of illegitimate children, alcoholism, disdain for education, fatalism, passivity, inability to defer gratification and a time orientation fixed firmly on the present.

We still call this the culture of poverty today. But the idea has taken on a life far beyond the world of Mexican peasants. And although the concept originated with Lewis, it has come to mean almost the opposite of what Lewis intended.

Lewis was a man of the left. He saw the culture of poverty as a defense mechanism adapted by the poor in response to capitalist inequality. For a while, the culture of poverty remained a leftist idea: Michael Harrington used it throughout his hugely influential 1962 book, “The Other America,” which laid the foundation for President Johnson’s War on Poverty. But Lewis soon lost control of the concept. With the publication of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1965 report “The Negro Family,” the “culture of poverty” became a shorthand for black ghetto culture, a defect of the poor. Then Edward Banfield, a conservative political scientist, introduced the notion that the culture of poverty was immutable; his 1970 book, “The Unheavenly City,” attacked the key assumption of the War on Poverty — the idea that government can help. Banfield argued that poverty was a product of the poor’s lack of future-orientation, and that nothing government could feasibly do would change that orientation or stop parents from transmitting it to their children.

Banfield’s book is widely seen as retrograde today, but he still seems to own the culture of poverty. Lewis had used the phrase to describe habits acquired in response to structural factors — the standard left-wing argument that people are poor because of low wages, discrimination and bad schools. But the phrase has essentially become shorthand for the right-wing argument that poverty stems from the limitations of the poor and is largely impervious to outside intervention.

Persistent poverty has retreated from the political debate in the United States. But outside the headlines there has been a gentle evolution in thinking about the causes and cures for poverty, one that moves away from blaming capitalism and blaming the poor alike. Today, the most interesting development in that evolution — one with implications for fighting poverty around the world, including in the United States — is coming once again from Mexico, this time from the grandchildren of the children of Sánchez.

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