Are There Cultural Roots to Poverty?

The conventional diagnosis of the persistence of poverty has pointed to shortfalls in education and skills, lack of opportunity, lack of capital, discrimination, and in the Third World, imperialism are all inadequate, according to Lawrence Harrison (a senior fellow at Harvard University’s Academy for International and Area Studies).

Harrison believes that a crucial element that has been ignored is “cultural values and attitudes that stand in the way of progress.”  It makes many people uncomfortable to acknowledge that some cultures produce greater well-being than others.  Cultural relativism ¾ the view that cultures can be evaluated only on their own terms ¾ is universal.  Many economists believe that people respond to economic signals the same way, regardless of the culture.  Harrison, however, points out that “the extraordinary achievements of Chinese, Korean, and Japanese immigrants in the U.S. ¾ and elsewhere ¾ belie these views.

“He notes that a recent RAND Corp. study, “Immigration in a Changing Economy,” documents the rapid upward mobility of East Asian immigrants in sharp contrast with immigrants from Mexico and Central America.  East Asians in the U.S. substantially exceed the national averages for years of education, while the Hispanic high-school dropout rate is about 30 percent.

In her 1970 book, “Mexican Americans,” Joan Moore wrote, “Jewish and Japanese children march off to school with enthusiasm.  Mexican and Negro children are much less interested.  Some sort of cultural factor works here.”  It could be argued that the Hispanic dropout rate reflects a culture that does not attach a high priority to education.  Note the persistence of illiteracy in Latin America (10 percent in Mexico, more than 40 percent in Guatemala).  The high school dropout rate in most Latin American countries exceeds 50 percent.

Harrison contends that progress-prone cultures cross religious and racial lines.  “In addition to the Confucian cultures of East Asia, they include Bosques, Sikhs, Jews, Mormons, and Americans, not to mention the mainstream culture of the West.”  Such cultures share the belief that one’s destiny can be influenced through considered action, and they attach a high value to work, education, and saving.  Progress-resistant cultures tend to be passive and fatalistic, less entrepreneurial, and less committed to education.

A growing number of Latin Americans (e.g., novelist Mario Vargas Llosa) have come to the conclusion that culture is at the root of the region’s underdevelopment.  Lionel Sosa, a Mexican-American advertising executive and author, has come to the same conclusion about Latin American underachievement in the U.S.  In his book The American Dream he notes fatalism, the resignation of the poor, and the low priority of education as major obstacles to social mobility.  Similarly, Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson has concluded that culture is the key to understanding the underachievement of African Americans.  Harrison also believes that the cultural legacy of slavery, perpetuated by the isolation of Jim Crow and the ghetto, has greatly impacted on not only the persistence of poverty among blacks but also such recently highlighted phenomena as the gap in black-white test scores and the gap in computer usage by blacks relative to whites and Asians.

Still, culture is not destiny.  Note the gains made by black Americans in the past several decades: sharply rising educational attainment, declining poverty and unemployment, reductions in crime, and the rapid growth of the middle class.  These trends reflect the escape from the traditional culture to the progressive national cultural mainstream.  (In contrast, isolation from that mainstream largely explains the disproportionate poverty of American Indians, particularly the 1.2 million [of a total of 2 million] who live in or on reservations.)

Dallas Morning News columnist Richard Estrada has expressed a concern that the high volume of immigration in the U.S. impedes acculturation to the American mainstream.  Multiculturalism, the rejection of mainstream Western culture and the assumption that all cultures are equal, also poses an obstacle to assimilation (to say nothing of its erosive effect on national unity).

Harrison concludes:

The course of human progress demonstrates that some cultures produce greater good for greater numbers than others.  Both at home and in the Third World, the antipoverty agenda must address values and attitudes, as difficult and painful as it may be.


Harrison, Lawrence K. “The Cultural Roots of Poverty.”  The Wall Street Journal (July 13, 1999).

Discussion Questions:

1.         Given the different levels of achievement by Asian immigrants compared to Hispanic immigrants, what are your feelings about reestablishing immigration quotas?

2.         Discuss how slavery and Jim Crow laws exacerbated the mainstream acculturation problems of African Americans, compared to Hispanics and Asian immigrants.

3.         Native American cultures, with their traditional cultures’ emphasis on man’s relationship with nature, incubate both a sense of fatalism and egalitarianism that in Harrison’s words “discourages initiative and upward mobility.”  Discuss the cost to Native Americans of abandoning this traditional heritage in exchange for upward social mobility.

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