The Culture-of-Poverty Thesis and African Americans: The Work of Gunnar Myrdal and Other Institutionalists
Cherry, Robert, Journal of Economic Issues
[T]he poor, or at least a subset of them, are different from the nonpoor in terms of their attitudes, values, or aspirations and that these personality traits produce behaviors that mire them in long-term poverty. A softer version of this hypothesis is that attitudes and behaviors, whatever their origins, change only slowly in response to greater opportunities, and thereby contribute to the persistence of poverty.
- Isabel Sawhill, 1988
This paper will describe the evolution and the influence of this culture-of-poverty thesis on the work of institutional economists who have tried to explain the low economic status of African Americans. Prominent among these institutionalism is Gunnar Myrdal, whose study An American Dilemma  was a catalyst for important changes in race policies. Prior to Myrdal, there was a broad consensus within the economics profession that the inferior status of African Americans reflected genetic inferiority [Cherry 1976, 1980]. This consensus began with the founders of the American Economics Association, including Richard Ely  and its first president, General Amasa Walker . It was supported by association publications, most notably the monographs by Frederick Hoffman  and Joseph Tillinghast . Indeed, the founders and many economists also believed that southern and eastern European immigrants were genetically inferior. These economists, including Irving Fisher [Aldrich 1975], persistently fought for immigration restriction legislation to stem what they believed was "race suicide."
The Progressives rejected the notion that southern and eastern European immigrants were genetically inferior. Instead, they offered what has become known as a culture-of-poverty thesis to explain the inferiority of these newer immigrants. Many Progressives, including John R. Commons, used this thesis to justify institutional policies to improve the situation of European immigrants. Commons [1920, 220] believed that unions were instrumental to the assimilation of the new immigrants:
The influence of schools, churches, settlements, and farming communities applied more to the children of immigrants than to the parents. The immigrants themselves are too old for Americanization, especially when they speak a non-English language. To them the labor-union is at present the strongest Americanizing force.
Commons [1919, 108] considered the union shop particularly important in helping develop democratic values in the eastern and southern European immigrants:
When this particular shop scheme was started, many of the workers were newly arrived immigrants, acquainted only with the despotism of Austria, Hungary, Russia . . . Many were what is known as Bolsheviks . . . Many were successful agitators, hostile to employers as a class. In the course of time their employers were astonished with the changes that came over them.
While Progressives, such as Commons and Walter Willcox, were optimistic that these newer immigrants could be integrated into society once their cultural inferiority was overcome, they were pessimistic with regard to African Americans. Like Hoffman and Tillinghast, they believed that African Americans were genetically inferior.
The culture-of-poverty explanation presented by Commons was, however, eventually applied to the situation of African Americans. This adaptation to African Americans originated in the work of Booker T. Washington and such sociologists as Louis Wirth and Edward A. Ross. It was only with the publication of American Dilemma that the culture-of-poverty thesis was applied to African Americans within the economics profession. Myrdal rejected the notion of genetic inferiority and instead identified cultural factors to explain the persistence of racial inequality. Contemporary institutionalists Michael Piore and William J. Wilson, like Commons and Myrdal before them, use the culture-of-poverty explanation to buttress their views on how structural characteristics of labor markets can explain the persistence of racial wage inequalities. In the last section of this paper, after the evolution of the thesis is explored, I suggest reasons why institutionalists have tended to embrace culture-of-poverty explanations.
The Views of John R. Commons and Walter Willcox
Commons held open little possibility that African Americans as a group could attain equality with Americans of European descent.(1) Commons accepted the notion that an African American is so present-oriented that he is notorious for his improvidence:
His neglect of his horse, his mule, his machinery, his eagerness to spend his earnings on finery, his reckless purchase of watermelons, chickens and garden stuff when he might easily grow them on his own patch of ground, these and many other incidents of improvidence explain the constant dependence of the Negro upon his employer and creditor [quoted in Ramstad and Starkey 1992].
Commons did not believe that social institutions could overcome the genetic inferiority of African Americans. Only crossbreeding would allow African Americans to rise up to the standards of European Americans. "Amalgamation is their door to assimilation. Frederick Douglass, Booker Washington, Professor DuBois are an honor to any race, but they are mulattoes" [1904, 222].
Commons believed that unions were necessary to protect white workers from competing against themselves, thus lowering the wages for all workers. Since African Americans were docile and noncompetitive, unions for black workers were unnecessary. Indeed, Commons [1920, 136] claimed that the tropical climate produced a race that was so "indolent and fickle" that "some form of compulsion" was necessary if it were to adopt the industrious life.
While he was careful not to exclude individual African Americans from equality, Commons predicted that the race was doomed once it had entered into competition with European Americans after emancipation. Echoing the thoughts of Tillinghast and Hoffman, Commons believed that African Americans were ill-prepared for freedom. Commenting on the failure of education …
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Publication information: Article title: The Culture-of-Poverty Thesis and African Americans: The Work of Gunnar Myrdal and Other Institutionalists. Contributors: Cherry, Robert - Author. Journal title: Journal of Economic Issues. Volume: 29. Issue: 4 Publication date: December 1995. Page number: 1119+. © 1999 Association for Evolutionary Economics. COPYRIGHT 1995 Gale Group.
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