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Books in Translation

April 2008 | Volume 65 | Number 7
Poverty and Learning Pages 32-36

The Myth of the Culture of Poverty

Paul Gorski

As the students file out of Janet's classroom, I sit in the back corner, scribbling a few final notes. Defeat in her eyes, Janet drops into a seat next to me with a sigh.

"I love these kids," she declares, as if trying to convince me. "I adore them. But my hope is fading."

"Why's that?" I ask, stuffing my notes into a folder.

"They're smart. I know they're smart, but . . ."

And then the deficit floodgates open: "They don't care about school. They're unmotivated. And their parents—I'm lucky if two or three of them show up for conferences. No wonder the kids are unprepared to learn."

At Janet's invitation, I spent dozens of hours in her classroom, meeting her students, observing her teaching, helping her navigate the complexities of an urban midwestern elementary classroom with a growing percentage of students in poverty. I observed powerful moments of teaching and learning, caring and support. And I witnessed moments of internal conflict in Janet, when what she wanted to believe about her students collided with her prejudices.

Like most educators, Janet is determined to create an environment in which each student reaches his or her full potential. And like many of us, despite overflowing with good intentions, Janet has bought into the most common and dangerous myths about poverty.

Chief among these is the "culture of poverty" myth—the idea that poor people share more or less monolithic and predictable beliefs, values, and behaviors. For educators like Janet to be the best teachers they can be for all students, they need to challenge this myth and reach a deeper understanding of class and poverty.

Roots of the Culture of Poverty Concept

Oscar Lewis coined the term culture of poverty in his 1961 book The Children of Sanchez. Lewis based his thesis on his ethnographic studies of small Mexican communities. His studies uncovered approximately 50 attributes shared within these communities: frequent violence, a lack of a sense of history, a neglect of planning for the future, and so on. Despite studying very small communities, Lewis extrapolated his findings to suggest a universal culture of poverty. More than 45 years later, the premise of the culture of poverty paradigm remains the same: that people in poverty share a consistent and observable "culture."

Lewis ignited a debate about the nature of poverty that continues today. But just as important—especially in the age of data-driven decision making—he inspired a flood of research. Researchers around the world tested the culture of poverty concept empirically (see Billings, 1974; Carmon, 1985; Jones & Luo, 1999). Others analyzed the overall body of evidence regarding the culture of poverty paradigm (see Abell & Lyon, 1979; Ortiz & Briggs, 2003; Rodman, 1977).

These studies raise a variety of questions and come to a variety of conclusions about poverty. But on this they all agree: There is no such thing as a culture of poverty. Differences in values and behaviors among poor people are just as great as those between poor and wealthy people.

In actuality, the culture of poverty concept is constructed from a collection of smaller stereotypes which, however false, seem to have crept into mainstream thinking as unquestioned fact. Let's look at some examples.

MYTH: Poor people are unmotivated and have weak work ethics.

The Reality: Poor people do not have weaker work ethics or lower levels of motivation than wealthier people (Iversen & Farber, 1996; Wilson, 1997). Although poor people are often stereotyped as lazy, 83 percent of children from low-income families have at least one employed parent; close to 60 percent have at least one parent who works full-time and year-round (National Center for Children in Poverty, 2004). In fact, the severe shortage of living-wage jobs means that many poor adults must work two, three, or four jobs. According to the Economic Policy Institute (2002), poor working adults spend more hours working each week than their wealthier counterparts.

MYTH: Poor parents are uninvolved in their children's learning, largely because they do not value education.

The Reality: Low-income parents hold the same attitudes about education that wealthy parents do (Compton-Lilly, 2003; Lareau & Horvat, 1999; Leichter, 1978). Low-income parents are less likely to attend school functions or volunteer in their children's classrooms (National Center for Education Statistics, 2005)—not because they care less about education, but because they have less access to school involvement than their wealthier peers. They are more likely to work multiple jobs, to work evenings, to have jobs without paid leave, and to be unable to afford child care and public transportation. It might be said more accurately that schools that fail to take these considerations into account do not value the involvement of poor families as much as they value the involvement of other families.

MYTH: Poor people are linguistically deficient.

The Reality: All people, regardless of the languages and language varieties they speak, use a full continuum of language registers (Bomer, Dworin, May, & Semingson, 2008). What's more, linguists have known for decades that all language varieties are highly structured with complex grammatical rules (Gee, 2004; Hess, 1974; Miller, Cho, & Bracey, 2005). What often are assumed to be deficient varieties of English—Appalachian varieties, perhaps, or what some refer to as Black English Vernacular—are no less sophisticated than so-called "standard English."

MYTH: Poor people tend to abuse drugs and alcohol.

The Reality: Poor people are no more likely than their wealthier counterparts to abuse alcohol or drugs. Although drug sales are more visible in poor neighborhoods, drug use is equally distributed across poor, middle class, and wealthy communities (Saxe, Kadushin, Tighe, Rindskopf, & Beveridge, 2001). Chen, Sheth, Krejci, and Wallace (2003) found that alcohol consumption is significantly higher among upper middle class white high school students than among poor black high school students. Their finding supports a history of research showing that alcohol abuse is far more prevalent among wealthy people than among poor people (Diala, Muntaner, & Walrath, 2004; Galea, Ahern, Tracy, & Vlahov, 2007). In other words, considering alcohol and illicit drugs together, wealthy people are more likely than poor people to be substance abusers.

The Culture of Classism

The myth of a "culture of poverty" distracts us from a dangerous culture that does exist—the culture of classism. This culture continues to harden in our schools today. It leads the most well intentioned of us, like my friend Janet, into low expectations for low-income students. It makes teachers fear their most powerless pupils. And, worst of all, it diverts attention from what people in poverty do have in common: inequitable access to basic human rights.

The most destructive tool of the culture of classism is deficit theory. In education, we often talk about the deficit perspective—defining students by their weaknesses rather than their strengths. Deficit theory takes this attitude a step further, suggesting that poor people are poor because of their own moral and intellectual deficiencies (Collins, 1988). Deficit theorists use two strategies for propagating this world view: (1) drawing on well-established stereotypes, and (2) ignoring systemic conditions, such as inequitable access to high-quality schooling, that support the cycle of poverty.

The implications of deficit theory reach far beyond individual bias. If we convince ourselves that poverty results not from gross inequities (in which we might be complicit) but from poor people's own deficiencies, we are much less likely to support authentic antipoverty policy and programs. Further, if we believe, however wrongly, that poor people don't value education, then we dodge any responsibility to redress the gross education inequities with which they contend. This application of deficit theory establishes the idea of what Gans (1995) calls the undeserving poor—a segment of our society that simply does not deserve a fair shake.

If the goal of deficit theory is to justify a system that privileges economically advantaged students at the expense of working-class and poor students, then it appears to be working marvelously. In our determination to "fix" the mythical culture of poor students, we ignore the ways in which our society cheats them out of opportunities that their wealthier peers take for granted. We ignore the fact that poor people suffer disproportionately the effects of nearly every major social ill. They lack access to health care, living-wage jobs, safe and affordable housing, clean air and water, and so on (Books, 2004)—conditions that limit their abilities to achieve to their full potential.

Perhaps most of us, as educators, feel powerless to address these bigger issues. But the question is this: Are we willing, at the very least, to tackle the classism in our own schools and classrooms?

This classism is plentiful and well documented (Kozol, 1992). For example, compared with their wealthier peers, poor students are more likely to attend schools that have less funding (Carey, 2005); lower teacher salaries (Karoly, 2001); more limited computer and Internet access (Gorski, 2003); larger class sizes; higher student-to-teacher ratios; a less-rigorous curriculum; and fewer experienced teachers (Barton, 2004). The National Commission on Teaching and America's Future (2004) also found that low-income schools were more likely to suffer from cockroach or rat infestation, dirty or inoperative student bathrooms, large numbers of teacher vacancies and substitute teachers, more teachers who are not licensed in their subject areas, insufficient or outdated classroom materials, and inadequate or nonexistent learning facilities, such as science labs.

Here in Minnesota, several school districts offer universal half-day kindergarten but allow those families that can afford to do so to pay for full-day services. Our poor students scarcely make it out of early childhood without paying the price for our culture of classism. Deficit theory requires us to ignore these inequities—or worse, to see them as normal and justified.

What does this mean? Regardless of how much students in poverty value education, they must overcome tremendous inequities to learn. Perhaps the greatest myth of all is the one that dubs education the "great equalizer." Without considerable change, it cannot be anything of the sort.

What Can We Do?

The socioeconomic opportunity gap can be eliminated only when we stop trying to "fix" poor students and start addressing the ways in which our schools perpetuate classism. This includes destroying the inequities listed above as well as abolishing such practices as tracking and ability grouping, segregational redistricting, and the privatization of public schools. We must demand the best possible education for all students—higher-order pedagogies, innovative learning materials, and holistic teaching and learning. But first, we must demand basic human rights for all people: adequate housing and health care, living-wage jobs, and so on.

Of course, we ought not tell students who suffer today that, if they can wait for this education revolution, everything will fall into place. So as we prepare ourselves for bigger changes, we must

  • Educate ourselves about class and poverty.
  • Reject deficit theory and help students and colleagues unlearn misperceptions about poverty.
  • Make school involvement accessible to all families.
  • Follow Janet's lead, inviting colleagues to observe our teaching for signs of class bias.
  • Continue reaching out to low-income families even when they appear unresponsive (and without assuming, if they are unresponsive, that we know why).
  • Respond when colleagues stereotype poor students or parents.
  • Never assume that all students have equitable access to such learning resources as computers and the Internet, and never assign work requiring this access without providing in-school time to complete it.
  • Ensure that learning materials do not stereotype poor people.
  • Fight to keep low-income students from being assigned unjustly to special education or low academic tracks.
  • Make curriculum relevant to poor students, drawing on and validating their experiences and intelligences.
  • Teach about issues related to class and poverty—including consumer culture, the dissolution of labor unions, and environmental injustice—and about movements for class equity.
  • Teach about the antipoverty work of Martin Luther King Jr., Helen Keller, the Black Panthers, César Chávez, and other U.S. icons—and about why this dimension of their legacies has been erased from our national consciousness.
  • Fight to ensure that school meal programs offer healthy options.
  • Examine proposed corporate-school partnerships, rejecting those that require the adoption of specific curriculums or pedagogies.

Most important, we must consider how our own class biases affect our interactions with and expectations of our students. And then we must ask ourselves, Where, in reality, does the deficit lie? Does it lie in poor people, the most disenfranchised people among us? Does it lie in the education system itself—in, as Jonathan Kozol says, the savage inequalities of our schools? Or does it lie in us—educators with unquestionably good intentions who too often fall to the temptation of the quick fix, the easily digestible framework that never requires us to consider how we comply with the culture of classism.


Abell, T., & Lyon, L. (1979). Do the differences make a difference? An empirical evaluation of the culture of poverty in the United States. American Anthropologist, 6(3), 602–621.

Barton, P. E. (2004). Why does the gap persist? Educational Leadership, 62(3), 8–13.

Billings, D. (1974). Culture and poverty in Appalachia: A theoretical discussion and empirical analysis. Social Forces, 53(2), 315–323.

Bomer, R., Dworin, J. E.,May, L., & Semingson, P. (2008). Miseducating teachers about the poor: A critical analysis of Ruby Payne's claims about poverty. Teachers College Record, 110(11). Available:

Books, S. (2004). Poverty and schooling in the U.S.: Contexts and consequences. Mahway, NJ: Erlbaum.

Carey, K. (2005). The funding gap 2004: Many states still shortchange low-income and minority students. Washington, DC: Education Trust.

Carmon, N. (1985). Poverty and culture. Sociological Perspectives, 28(4), 403–418.

Chen, K., Sheth, A., Krejci, J., & Wallace, J. (2003, August). Understanding differences in alcohol use among high school students in two different communities. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, Atlanta, GA.

Collins, J. (1988). Language and class in minority education. Anthropology and Education Quarterly, 19(4), 299–326.

Compton-Lilly, C. (2003). Reading families: The literate lives of urban children. New York: Teachers College Press.

Diala, C. C., Muntaner, C., & Walrath, C. (2004). Gender, occupational, and socioeconomic correlates of alcohol and drug abuse among U.S. rural, metropolitan, and urban residents. American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, 30(2), 409–428.

Economic Policy Institute. (2002). The state of working class America 2002–03. Washington, DC: Author.

Galea, S., Ahern, J., Tracy, M., & Vlahov, D. (2007). Neighborhood income and income distribution and the use of cigarettes, alcohol, and marijuana. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 32(6), 195–202.

Gans, H. J. (1995). The war against the poor: The underclass and antipoverty policy. New York: BasicBooks.

Gee, J. P. (2004). Situated language and learning: A critique of traditional schooling. New York: Routledge.

Gorski, P. C. (2003). Privilege and repression in the digital era: Rethinking the sociopolitics of the digital divide. Race, Gender and Class, 10(4), 145–76.

Hess, K. M. (1974). The nonstandard speakers in our schools: What should be done? The Elementary School Journal, 74(5), 280–290.

Iversen, R. R., & Farber, N. (1996). Transmission of family values, work, and welfare among poor urban black women. Work and Occupations, 23(4), 437–460.

Jones, R. K., & Luo, Y. (1999). The culture of poverty and African-American culture: An empirical assessment. Sociological Perspectives, 42(3), 439–458.

Karoly, L. A. (2001). Investing in the future: Reducing poverty through human capital investments. In S. Danzinger & R. Haveman (Eds.), Understanding poverty (pp. 314–356). New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Kozol, J. (1992). Savage inequalities: Children in America's schools. New York: Harper-Collins.

Lareau, A., & Horvat, E. (1999). Moments of social inclusion and exclusion: Race, class, and cultural capital in family-school relationships. Sociology of Education, 72, 37–53.

Leichter, H. J. (Ed.). (1978). Families and communities as educators. New York: Teachers College Press.

Lewis, O. (1961). The children of Sanchez: Autobiography of a Mexican family. New York: Random House.

Miller, P. J., Cho, G. E., & Bracey, J. R. (2005). Working-class children's experience through the prism of personal storytelling. Human Development, 48, 115–135.

National Center for Children in Poverty. (2004). Parental employment in low-income families. New York: Author.

National Center for Education Statistics. (2005). Parent and family involvement in education: 2002–03. Washington, DC: Author.

National Commission on Teaching and America's Future. (2004). Fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education: A two-tiered education system. Washington, DC: Author.

Ortiz, A. T., & Briggs, L. (2003). The culture of poverty, crack babies, and welfare cheats: The making of the "healthy white baby crisis." Social Text, 21(3), 39–57.

Rodman, R. (1977). Culture of poverty: The rise and fall of a concept. Sociological Review, 25(4), 867–876.

Saxe, L., Kadushin, C., Tighe, E., Rindskopf, D., & Beveridge, A. (2001). National evaluation of the fighting back program: General population surveys, 1995–1999. New York: City University of New York Graduate Center.

Wilson, W. J. (1997). When work disappears. New York: Random House.

Paul Gorski is Assistant Professor in the Graduate School of Education, Hamline University, St. Paul, Minnesota, and the founder of EdChange (; 651-523-2584;


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  • Kevin_Parent 2 years ago

    Although this article is now a few years old, it does tie into the theme of the current issue, which is what lead me here. I feel compelled to point out an error in a citation. The Abell and Lyon article is not in American Anthropologist as listed but in American Ethnologist.

    As there is an American Anthropologist that was in publication in the same year, 1979, and which also had an issue number 3 and corresponding page numbers, and as several other articles come up in a google search with the same error copied and pasted, I felt the need to point it out. It's not intended as a criticism but only in case someone else finds this article and tries to search for it, to help them. It took me about 30 minutes to figure out the problem and track down the article.

  • Paul_Gorski 3 years ago


    Thanks for your comments. I'm a little thrown by your "ivory tower" attack on me. I think it's a little unfair, you not knowing anything about me or my background. For instance, you don't know that my mom is from a poor Appalachian coal-mining family; that male relatives of mine regularly died of black lung and other ailments caused by the coal mines. You don't know that I wasn't born in the ivory tower; that I'm a community activist who works a lot with youth and knows what it means to be in the trenches. I wonder if you're taking your demean-the-university-people cue from Ruby Payne there, not realizing that she, too, has a PhD and now makes millions of dollars a year lecturing about poverty. In some cases her company receives hundreds of thousands of dollars from single school districts. I wonder if you consider her "ivory tower" or just plain wealthy? Anyway, I teach future teachers, and education faculty are not engineering faculty. I'm very much working class. I live in a one bedroom apartment.

    Why do you start with the assumption that, because somebody works at a university, he can't possibly understand anything on the ground? I get the sense from your message that you're desperate to hold onto the culture of poverty idea. But you did not really address anything I wrote in the article. Instead, you attacked my credibility in a strange way. So I'm wondering, what about those common myths that I dispel bothers you? And why are you so offended that somebody would raise questions about those stereotypes? Why is fighting back against stereotypes that I see used oppressively against people in my own family "pompous"? And why do you completely ignore the on-the-ground, research-based, strategies I do list in the article?

    I would guess you and I want the same thing: for every student to have an equitable opportunity to achieve to her or his fullest capability, regardless of socioeconomic status. So why the vitriol? And why the assumptions?


  • Paul_Gorski 3 years ago

    J_Lewis: I didn't define the culture of poverty approach as race and class biased by myself. As early as the mid-1960's, Lewis's fellow "progressive" social scientists were blasting him and his culture of poverty framework--and really more so irresponsible applications of the culture of poverty hypothesis--as a bad case of victim-blaming and false extrapolation. He had studied a couple small villages in Puerto Rico and Mexico, and that's it. Anyway, I don't mean in my article to identify Oscar Lewis as "the problem," I mean to point out that work that was even seen way back in the 1960s as very problematic, and that never (by the way) was reproduced by other social scientists despite many trying, was then borrowed and applied in very oppressive ways, and still is. Lewis coined the term "culture of poverty," although his contemporaries in what they considered to be a progressive movement in the social scientists were writing more about an "underclass" and began applying Lewis's framework to that underclass, which predominantly was focused on poor urban African American families,especially those with single mothers. In fact, the term "blaming the victim" was coined in the later 1960's by William Ryan in response to the culture of poverty framework as it was being applied at that time, nearly 10 years after being introduced by Lewis.

    However, that's not how the "culture of poverty" framework is used to day, largely thanks to Ruby Payne, who basically borrowed directly from Oscar Lewis's model and never distinguished between any economically disadvantaged people in any way, other than being in "generational" poverty. Lewis himself grew pretty pissed off about the way his work was being misapplied, actually. He wrote about it.

    So it wasn't just the problem that the Right was misusing Lewis's insights. It was that social scientists on the Left were misusing the insights, even after other research had demonstrated clearly that there was no "culture of poverty." Today, generations of teachers are being trained using a very troubling version of his work that offers none of the context he offered and mentions none of the criticisms of his approach or the major insight that later research found that there is no consistent and predictable culture of poverty.

    By the way, nowhere do I argue that any students should not learn what is considered the 'standard' vernacular. My only argument is that educators should not use a student's language variety as a measure of her or his intelligence. My grandma was valedictorian of her graduating class, but walking around here in northern Virginia she might be considered ignorant just because of how she and everybody who grew up where she grew up speaks. People are tracked into lower academic tracks for less, and they shouldn't be, I'm sure you'd agree.


  • Felicia_Darling 3 years ago

    As a person who has been a single-parent collecting welfare, an educator who taught socioeconomically disadvantaged students for 22 years, and a current doctoral student at Stanford studying teaching math to linguistic, racial, and class minority students, I think this article is spot on. Even though this article was written four years ago, I still think the recommendations are relevant, too.

  • Art_Cicero 3 years ago

    I agree Terri but my question is do the people who are poor design the culture (sociologically speaking of course) or is it just by similar circumstances that this culture exists and is common to poor people?

  • Art_Cicero 3 years ago

    I disagree Oscar Lewis too where he claims that poor people have a neglect for planning for the future. How can one plan for the future if he or she is working 4 jobs to put food on the table THAT night, or how one has to possibly worry how he or she is going to get to the grocery store NOW because maybe their baby is about to run out of diapers or formula. Of course they are going to have neglect for the future when they are forced to live in the present!

  • Art_Cicero 3 years ago

    I am new to this subject and Gorski's rebuttal of the culture of poverty. I do however feel that the "Race to the Top" is self-defeating. Using one single test in one format is not an accurate or fair way to test every student from every socioeconomic background. I think the tests should differ in dialect and questioning between ethnic and raciall makeup. However, this leads me to another paradigm that asks, "how is THAT going to happen?".

  • Terri_McGraw 3 years ago

    While Gorski's arguments may have some merit, they are just that, arguments, and really do nothing to help those of us in the field everyday. He clearly states that teachers have bought into the most common and dangerous myths about poverty" and that "we need to challenge this myth and reach a deeper understanding of class and poverty."

    What ever those of you sitting in your ivory towers and on university campuses want to call this culture, call it what you will, it does exist! Maybe it's not poverty, but there is a "consistent and observable culture" out there. When you work with this culture everyday, believe me you DO challenge your thinking about the "myths" and reach for a "deeper understanding": everyday, every minute.... More than you may ever know Professor Gorski.....

    What I would really like to see is for those of you in your "think tanks", university campuses, and policy makers look at the "consistent and observable" data, quit the pompous arguments and get down to substance that will really help those of us in the field, and better yet, the kids were serve, to make for a better and more productive future for all of us.

  • J_Lewis 3 years ago

    While Prof. Gorski makes some valid points, his errors outweigh them. Unlike the theorists he criticizes, he conflates the working poor with what Marx in the 19th century called the lumpen-proletariat and what in the 1960s became known as the "under-class." Theorists like Oscar Lewis focused on this under-class as having a "culture of poverty", and not low-income people in general.

    Also, theorists of this culture of poverty were largely progressives like Harrington who argued that cultural impediments to anti-poverty programs had to be addressed if these programs were to succeed. The fact the Right sometimes seized upon their insights to oppose progressive policies does not invalidate those insights. The limited successes of the War on Poverty can be traced in part to the resistance to addressing those issues, due largely to misguided views like those of Gorski that stigmatized this as racist and class-biased.

    Prof. Gorski's alternatives are also dubious. However class-biased some views of lower-class vernaculars may be, an inability to effectively use middle-class dialect if/when necessary or appropriate is indicative of generally poor skill-sets that help lock people into poverty. While I agree with Prof. Gorski about the harmful effects of some academic tracking on children of the poor, I also maintain that advanced students are cheated of the attention they need to reach their highest potential when they are mixed in with large numbers of much less advanced or struggling students, despite what ideologists who argue that all students profit from mixed skill-level classes claim in defense of such policies when confronted with the inevitable drive to a lower common denominator they produce.

  • Becky_Whittenburg 3 years ago

    What does abolishing ability/achievement grouping do to advanced students who are way above grade level? Why does one have to win at the expense of the other? If schools were more willing to grade advance students into heterogeneous classes based on ability/achievement, then we could have both children of poverty and advanced children side by side. So what if one is 7 and one 9? Both could actually be learning something new - what a concept. As long as districts refuse to grade and subject accelerate students, tracking by birth date rather than some other construct, one or the other loses.