Giving Birth to a “Culture of Poverty”:
Poverty Knowledge in Postwar Behavioral Science,
Culture, and Ideology
THE IDEA of a lower-class culture was firmly entrenched in social problem research by the 1940s, although social scientists did not always agree on its source. Not until the two decades following World War II, however, did social scientists begin to engage in debate about the existence of an independent culture of poverty that could persist even without the immediate deprivations caused by modernization, class, and race. The distinction was more than semantic, reflecting important and interrelated postwar changes that profoundly affected social scientific thinking about the poor. One was the political economy of affluence, which lent superficial credence to the idea that America was becoming a “classless” society with a small, isolated substratum of people who were poor. A second was the postwar institutionalization of the behavioral sciences, which encouraged and redoubled the psychological emphasis that had earlier begun to emerge in research on class and, in particular, on race. A third was the resurgence of middle-class domesticity in Cold War ideology and culture, which reinforced the patriarchal family as a psychological and cultural norm, and treated deviations from it as a source of lifelong afflictions in the young. And a fourth was the rise of poverty as a global political issue, creating a whole new vista of research opportunities as the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union expanded to the “underdeveloped” world. All of these changes converged in the social scientific theory of the culture of poverty, developed by anthropologist Oscar Lewis in the late 1950s and more widely adopted as an explanation for the “paradox” of poverty in the affluent U.S. Thus, rooted though it was in the concepts and methods of an earlier generation, the culture of poverty was a distinctively postwar idea, and can be understood as an expression of the broader trends in postwar political economy, politics, and culture that reshaped liberalism as an ideology as well as its approach to social knowledge and to the poor.
The most prominent of these trends was the much-heralded phenomenon of mass prosperity, which helped to make economic inequality less visible as a political issue while creating an environment in which liberals would identify