Taking culture seriously

With so many households in America facing destitution and inequality, talk of a “cultural” dimension to poverty may sound like blaming the victim. But as William Julius Wilson and others have argued, we should not flinch from examining the culture of poverty.  Neighborhood behavior norms, expectations in a community about the future, and personal values and attitudes can all limit a person’s prospects for upward mobility.

Social norms shape individual habits that, over time, become non-cognitive skills we awkwardly call “character,” including such things as the propensity to save or the social skills needed to succeed in many entry-level service sector jobs.  Friends, peers and associations—from churches to gangs—can powerfully influence behavior. In many very poor neighborhoods, the prevalent culture helps exacerbate detrimental patterns.

Cultural policy is hard

Can public policy transform a prevailing culture that reinforces underlying poverty? Not easily, and not by policymakers simply lecturing people to change their ways. But three policy strategies can make a difference.

  • Enable people to move from one neighborhood culture to another. Programs like housing vouchers or Moving to Opportunity (MTO) help those who are open to living in a different environment to move permanently. As we have learned from recent analysis of MTO, the earlier in life a person transfers to a more positive community culture, the more significant and lasting the impact. Short of a permanent move, submerging someone in a different culture for even part of the day can help build new habits. That’s why KIPP and some other charter schools focus on creating character strengths as well as on academics. It is also in part why they adopt longer school days—to submerge children for a longer period in a different community culture.

Limit the consequences of negative norms. There is general agreement that the decline of marriage and two-parent households has been damaging for children and increases poverty; but much less on what to do about it. Some argue for policies intended to revive traditional marriage. Others, such as Brookings scholars Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill agree that such policies can help to a degree, but Sawhill is concerned that the revival strategy pushes against a cultural string of an increasing social trend of childbearing outside marriage. Instead, she argues, we should also focus on “changing the default” to limit the consequences of unintended births, for example by encouraging greater use of long-acting reversible contraceptives (LARCs).

Turn negative traits and habits into positive outcomes and new patterns. Behavioral economists look at adjusting a “choice architecture” to nudge people towards more positive outcomes. Rather than simply rail against payday lenders and the lottery culture, it might be better to encourage prize-linked savings. Legislation passed by Congress last December allows financial institutions to offer “lottery” prizes funded from the accumulated interest on accounts. Likewise, through a technique of “gamification,” experts are finding ways to utilize the teenage obsession with phone games and texting to incentivize saving. And timed text messages have boosted timely and complete college applications.

None of these is a panacea. But if we are serious about social mobility, we do have to get serious about culture, too.