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“Poor Folks Have Poor Ways ”

The point of the Moynihan Report was to assist President Johnson's “War on Poverty” by addressing the causes of endemic poverty among blacks. The goal was to understand the nature of that poverty in order then to eliminate it. Nevertheless, the report was attacked vehemently from the left. It was accused of “blaming the victim” and even of endorsing a racist viewpoint. The critics insisted that the cause of black poverty was white racism. Period.

The real consequence of the liberal refusal to honestly examine the root causes of black poverty have helped to ensure that it persists. The essence of the Moyihan Report can be summed up in an old saying: “Poor folks have poor ways.” There is such a thing as a culture of poverty. Children raised in such a culture have a very difficult time breaking out of it. It is not impossible; in fact it happens all the time. But it is the exception. One of the reasons for the difficulty is the fact that the culture of poverty erects a barrier between the poor and the affluent. It makes them seem different. Different and frightening. Add racism to that sense of difference and you have indeed a formidable barrier. It should hardly be necessary to point out the that same culture of poverty helps to feed and justify racism in minds so inclined. A culture of poverty is thus self-perpetuating both by depriving its victims of the necessary attitudes and abilities needed to succeed in a middle-class world, and by reinforcing prejudices against them on the part of the established members of the middle class.

If you recognize this problem as a problem, there are a number of things that you could do to attack it. Most obviously, you can institute policies to provide jobs and income. There is no more certain cure for poverty than money. Such a radical policy would unite the conservatives in frothing, ferocious opposition. To have a chance it would require equally united and passionate support from liberals.

But instead most liberals denounced the Moynihan Report, joining with those who claimed that it “blamed the victim.” Black poverty is the result of racism alone. So what was to be done? What they did was just to loudly declare that racism is wicked and let everyone know that they were against it. They very ostentatiously struck a self-righteous pose. The result of course was that nothing changed and the problem persists.

This gave the conservatives a wonderfully big stick with which to beat the liberals. They could point out that liberals, by refusing to honestly face facts, allowed a dreadful blight to grow and fester. It should be pointed out in turn that the conservative view of the disease in question was somewhat different from the liberal one. They were distressed not by black poverty, but by the disintegration of the black family. Their solution was either like the liberal one — strike a self-righteous pose, but about unwed mothers, illicit sex, and broken families rather than about racism — or it was punitive: do away with welfare and punish illicit sex. Conservatives and liberals were united in their determination to do nothing helpful.

It is certainly true that conservatives use the idea of a “culture of poverty” to blame poverty on poor folks. They always do that. They love to break the legs of their opponents in a foot race and then not only brag about winning the race but insult those they have maimed as well. But that is no reason for liberals to tell lies about the problem. We do not want to compete with conservatives in a lying contest; they will always beat us. Our recourse must always be the truth. In this case the relevant truth is simply that the culture of poverty is the product of poverty, not the other way round. Eliminate poverty and the culture will disappear. It may take a generation or two, but no more.

[Next: Why the Hysteria?]

See, for example, The Black Family: 40 Years of Lies by Kay S. Hymowitz [published Summer 2005]