In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Culture of Poverty

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  • Journals
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Anthropology Culture of Poverty
Dana-Ain Davis
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 January 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0004


The term culture of poverty emerged in 1959 to explain why people were poor. The culture of poverty concept delineates factors associated with poor people’s behaviors, and argues that their values are distinguishable from members of the middle class. The persistence of poverty can presumably be explained by the reproduction of this “lifeway,” because the values that the poor have are passed down generationally. Initially the term was primarily applicable in Third World countries and in those nation-states in the early stages of industrialization. Culture of poverty proposed that approximately 20% of poor people are trapped in cycles of self-perpetuating behavior that caused poverty. More specifically, 70 behavioral traits or characteristics are identified with those who have a culture of poverty. These characteristics include weak ego structure, a sense of resignation and fatalism, strong present-time orientation, and confusion of sexual identification. Alternately, intellectual support has been found for various aspects of the culture of poverty concept and for criticisms leveled against the explanatory power of the framework. As it pertains to explaining poverty in US-based urban areas, ensuing research has focused on several areas, including the presentation of empirical evidence that identifies and explicates the absence, or presence, of some of the characteristics found among the poor. These include: social participation, pathological family structure, social isolation, and individual behavioral traits, among others. While the term did have its supporters, the degree of support varied. For example, some argued that while a culture of poverty did exist, the definition of culture was not adequate enough to use the framework effectively. The concept also had detractors, and, in fact, it has served to polarize poverty research scholars, practitioners, and policymakers. Some scholars find the concept ill-conceived because it is not empirically or politically contextualized. Others have found that the concept, which centers on individual behaviors, overlooks the interaction of behavior and structure. Still others claim that the urban-centric focus that came to be associated with the concept both subsumed the reality of poverty in urban areas and simultaneously racialized poverty as it became associated with African Americans.


A great number of journals address the subject of poverty, but none is specifically focused on the culture of poverty concept. Anthropology is far from the only, or even the primary, discipline to elaborate or critique the framework. Across disciplines, one will find the issue of poverty covered in a number of peer-reviewed/refereed journals, as well as those that are not peer-reviewed. Many of the journals are focused on policy and research, such as the Journal of Children and Poverty, the Journal of Poverty, and Poverty and Public Policy. However, other journals are more interdisciplinary, such as Race, Poverty, and the Environment and the Journal of Poverty and Social Justice. No anthropological journals are dedicated exclusively to the subject of poverty; however, major journals, such as Critique of Anthropology, American Anthropologist, Ethnology, and City and Society have each attended to poverty issues and culture of poverty debates over the years.

  • American Anthropologist.

    This is the premier journal of the American Anthropological Association. The journal advances the association’s mission by publishing articles that add to, synthesize, and interpret anthropological knowledge.

  • City and Society

    This is the journal of the Society for Urban, National and Transnational/Global Anthropology, a section of the American Anthropological Association. The journal is intended to foster debate and conceptual development in urban, transnational anthropology.

  • Critique of Anthropology.

    This is an international peer-reviewed journal dedicated to the development of anthropology as a discipline that subjects social reality to critical analysis.

  • Ethnology.

    This a quarterly journal devoted to offering a broad range of general cultural and social anthropology. It publishes only articles.

  • Journal of Children and Poverty.

    This journal serves as a forum for research and policy initiatives in the areas of education, health and public policy, and the socioeconomic causes and effects of poverty.

  • Journal of Poverty.

    This a quarterly journal dedicated to research on poverty that goes beyond narrow definitions of poverty based on thresholds. It takes the view that poverty is more than the lack of financial means; rather, it is a condition of inadequacy, lacking, and scarcity. Published by Haworth Press.

  • Journal of Poverty and Social Justice.

    The Journal of Poverty and Social Justice covers poverty-related topics as they are connected to social justice located in the United Kingdom. Contributors include researchers, policy analysts, practitioners, and scholars. Published by the Policy Press.

  • Poverty and Public Policy: A Global Journal of Social Security, Income and Aide and Welfare.

    This is a new global journal that began publishing in 2009. It publishes policy research on poverty, income distribution, and welfare. It begins with the assumption that progress is possible and policy has a role to play in alleviating global poverty. Published on behalf of the Policy Studies Organization.

  • Race, Poverty, and the Environment.

    This twenty-year-old journal is concerned with social and environmental justice. When it was founded, the goal was to strengthen the connections between environmental groups, working people, poor people, and people of color.

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