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The Globalization and Development Reader: Perspectives on Development and Global Change, 2nd Edition by Nitsan Chorev, Amy Bellone Hite, J. Timmons Roberts

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5 A Study of Slum Culture: Backgrounds for La Vida (1968)

Oscar Lewis

The Culture of Poverty

As an anthropologist I have tried to understand poverty and its associated traits as a culture or, more accurately, as a subculture1 with its own structure and rationale, as a way of life that is passed down from generation to generation along family lines. This view directs attention to the fact that the culture of poverty in modern nations is not only a matter of economic deprivation, of disorganization, or of the absence of something. It is also something positive and provides some rewards without which the poor could hardly carry on.

In my book Five Families: Mexican Case Studies in the Culture of Poverty, I suggested that the culture of poverty transcends regional, rural–urban, and national differences and shows remarkable cross-national similarities in family structure, interpersonal relations, time orientation, value systems, and spending patterns. These similarities are examples of independent invention and convergence. They are common adaptations to common problems.

The culture of poverty can come into being in a variety of historical contexts. However, it tends to grow and flourish in societies with the following set of conditions: (1) a cash economy, wage labor, and production for profit;2 (2) a persistently high rate of unemployment and underemployment for unskilled labor; (3) low wages; (4) the failure to provide social, political, and economic organization, either ...

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