Scholars of Poverty and Inequality Face Their Own Racial Reckoning

Scholars of Poverty and Inequality Face Their Own Racial Reckoning

Scholars of Poverty and Inequality Face Their Own Racial Reckoning

Beliefs about Black cultural deficiencies show up regularly in the field of inequality and poverty studies. It’s time to call that what it is: racism.


The United States is in the midst of a long-overdue racial reckoning, and the fight is not only happening in the streets.

The field of poverty scholarship, a discipline that includes researchers and academics across universities, think tanks, advocacy organizations, and governments, has become embroiled in its own debates over racism within its ranks. The field has spent decades debating how much of the persistence of Black poverty can be attributed to “cultural” versus “structural” issues. Cultural arguments place emphasis on individuals’ behaviors, while structural arguments highlight the role of discrimination and racism. Cultural arguments are now coming under deserved new scrutiny.

Blaming Black people for their own hardships is its own kind of tradition, and seems to make a comeback at very regular intervals. Citing a “culture of poverty” and lack of “marriage culture” are two of its mainstays. Which is why the response to a recent article in an academic journal by Dr. Lawrence Mead, a long-standing professor of public policy and politics at New York University, is noteworthy.

The hypothesis of Mead’s commentary, titled “Poverty and Culture,” is that Black and Hispanic people are still disproportionately living in poverty decades after the civil rights movement because of their own cultural shortcomings. Specifically, Mead says Black and Hispanic people lack “individualism” and “ambition” because these groups did not come from Europe (notably, Mead provides no analysis of the downsides of “individualism” as primary human motivation). He also provides almost no data to support his claims. Understandably, outrage followed.

Following more than a week of increasingly visible pushback, the scholarly journal that published the offensive piece decided to retract it—an unusual move in academia. Those publicly rejecting Mead’s article included educators, scholars, researchers, advocates, and community leaders, along with folks within his own institution, NYU, who took to Twitter and signed petitions and denounced its racist conclusions.

But these ideas are not new for Mead: In his 1992 book The New Politics of Poverty: The Nonworking Poor in America, Mead asserted that “the worldview of blacks makes them uniquely prone to the attitudes contrary to work, and thus vulnerable to poverty and dependency.” Still, the timing of the release of his newest article, in 2020, against the backdrop of a global pandemic, political turmoil, and a spotlight on systemic racism, seems to have triggered an “aha” moment for much of the field.

This raises a hopeful possibility: Is 2020 the year researchers and academics finally confront their field’s complicity in peddling racist ideas about the causes of poverty, ideas that remain far too influential in the development of public policy? Just as phrenology–which was used to justify racism–was eventually discredited by scientists, could poverty scholars finally be ready to abandon theories about Black cultural pathology, and see them for what they really are?

Mead’s ideas have been highly influential in welfare reform efforts. He has consulted with federal, state, and local governments and testifies regularly to Congress on poverty, welfare, and social policy. As recently as 2013 Mead testified before a House subcommittee in favor of “workfare,” which places strict work participation requirements on receiving welfare benefits. His words are not treated merely as a matter of opinion; rather, his arguments have had real-world implications for understanding poverty, and on the lives of poor people in the United States.

But this worldview goes far beyond Mead: Beliefs about Black cultural deficiencies, whether explicit or implied, show up regularly in the field of inequality and poverty studies. Conventional research on racial inequality in poverty has a history of pointing to behavioral characteristics, such as nonmarital childbearing, as the cause of racial inequities by promoting welfare dependency and leading to the intergenerational transfer of inequality. Given that Black and Hispanic women are more likely to have a nonmarital birth, these arguments serve as a type of dog-whistle politics.

Few scholars point to cultural differences between racialized groups as explicitly as Mead does, but many seem to arrive at similar conclusions. Ron Haskins, a longtime figure at Brookings, has often linked the increase in nonmarital childbearing among Black families to racial inequality, while Sara McLanahan’s work has underscored the importance of family structure in the reproduction of inequality. Isabel Sawhill’s concern over the cultural shift toward “unwed” childbearing is core to her work, along with an interest in reducing nonmarital births to “fragile families.” W. Bradford Wilcox has built what could be described as a scholarly empire promoting marriage and the importance of the supposedly best family structure (nuclear), but critics have suggested that the integrity of his findings is compromised, and his approach, at minimum, opportunistic.

These are not fringe players. They are giants of their fields—influential, well-connected, and well-funded. But when it comes to comparing their core ideas about the role of “culture” to those of someone like Mead, it’s reasonable to ask if we’re talking about a distinction without a difference. All of this analysis, and these “findings,” after all, imply behavioral deficiencies among unmarried Black people. Thus, like Mead, many scholars present the connection between behaviors and inequality in ways that lack broader historical context and ignore historical and contemporary forms of racism and discrimination. For instance, many scholars, like Mead, tend to (1) treat racial groups as biologically real rather than a social invention, (2) attribute adverse behaviors as fundamental to these supposedly real biological groups, and (3) ignore individuals’ adaptive responses to racism.

To understand racial inequality, now and historically, it’s most important to recognize how historical forms of structural racism (e.g., colonialism, slavery, and Jim Crow) continue to shape contemporary forms of inequitable conditions (e.g., residential segregation, mass incarceration, poverty, etc.). Joe Feagin, for example, connects historical racism with contemporary racial inequality by focusing on systemic racism. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Michael Omi, and Howard Winant call for a more structural approach to racial inequality and to move away from biological or behavioral interpretations. Thus, the response to Mead may reflect a growing awareness of the need to think more critically about the link between race or ethnicity and inequality, and to expose erroneous assumptions underlying his central arguments.

Some will inevitably call what’s happening to Mead “cancel culture,” expressive of an intolerance for different viewpoints. They will point to university debates about “trigger warnings” and worry about the slide into protecting students from unwelcome opinions. But they are missing that the opposition to Mead’s work is substantive, and overdue.

There is no guarantee that the current level of activism and allyship will stick, inside or outside of academia, nor that it will be successful. Though cautious optimism seems warranted, it would be naive to ignore that since the founding of our country many have consistently found new ways to extinguish, enslave, imprison, disenfranchise, disadvantage, and disparage Black people and their families and blame them for their own struggles. But when we look at the considerable size of the adverse response to Mead’s paper and the conversations it has spurred, we see signs of hope.

As institutions are renamed, and iconic statues across the country torn down in the streets, this is exactly the right time for a critical rethinking of which scholars we revere, and listen to.

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