Why the poor stay poor?

Why the poor stay poor? – Book Review

Roger Waldinger

Review of The Color of Opportunity: Pathways to Family, Welfare, and Work by Haya Stier and Marta Tienda

The affluent society discovered the other America more than four decades ago. Ever since, the United States has been locked in debate over poverty and its possible causes and cures. For those who have been paying attention, the controversy is not only endless, but never quite seems to change. In the vision lying behind the war on poverty, the problem lay in the conditions that the poor encountered: change their circumstances, through job creation and training, and America’s impoverished would seize the chance, moving ahead on their own. But in an echo of the old distinction between poor of the deserving and undeserving kind, some commentators insisted that the problem was rooted in the behavior and outlook of the poor themselves. Diminishing the penalties associated with poverty would do more harm than good: unless pushed to mend their ways, those who had internalized the “culture of poverty” would be unlikely to change.

Of course, the poverty debate was not just about the poor; it was also implicitly, often explicitly, about race. It was one thing to learn that poverty persisted in the hollows of Appalachia; quite another, it appeared, to be told that poverty afflicted a disproportionate number of African Americans, and even more so, those who lived in and around cities. Needless to say, arguments about the “culture of poverty” took on an entirely different tone when the poor people in question also turned out to be black.

In policy terms, it takes no scorecard to know who’s won the debate, as the name of our last major piece of welfare reform–“Personality Responsibility Act”–tells it all. But outside the corridors of Congress, the discussion, albeit in muted terms, burbles on. For the moment, it may all have an academic feel, as the tide that rose during the 1990s eventually lifted many boats. But the ways of the economy often prove fickle: should America slip into a serious recession, then the fortunes of the poor may take a significant turn for a worse–but this time, with much thinner a safety net than before. In that case, the continuing considerations of experts will turn out to be relevant, assuming, of course, that anyone in power cares to ask for their advice.

As it happens, the experts really do have something to say. While ideology hasn’t disappeared from the halls of academe, contemporary scholars have taken the pains to learn from their mistakes of their predecessors. They’ve also moved well beyond earlier, more simplistic formulations of the problem, understanding that the phenomenon is multidimensional, and its causes complex. Any number of factors increase the risk of falling into poverty: residing in central cities; lacking the educational credentials that employers want; having grown up poor; starting out life without two parents; membership in a group for which some white Americans might have considerable distaste, or, from a different point of view, that might have a preference for idleness over work. But the analytic difficulty derives from the fact that, in reality, these features are usually bundled together; the question is how to unpack the relationship, and then specify how one factor influences the next.

This is the agenda tackled by Stier and Tienda in their ambitious and important new book. To understand poverty, they argue, one needs to identify the routes by which people fall into that state. Events in an individual’s life–a failure to finish high school; a teenage pregnancy; forming a family without marriage–make impoverishment a likely fate, at least for some period of time. But these events often occur in a context over which the individual has little control: after all, one doesn’t choose one’s own parents. Growing up in a poor household or one where there’s only one parent increases all of the subsequent risk factors. And one misstep in the early stage of adult life and long-term trouble follows: you don’t finish high school, and it’s hard to get an adequate, stable job, producing an erratic work record that persistently makes you an unattractive recruit.

Stier and Tienda take this perspective and apply it to a set of data that is uniquely suited to explore their concerns. Poverty seems most intractable, and politically most explosive, in its big-city form. It is in that setting that Stier and Tienda find their most basic raw materials, drawing on William Julius Wilson’s Urban Poverty and Family Life Study, a survey of 2,490 residents of poor neighborhoods in Chicago. Since poor neighborhoods house people of varying class backgrounds, that design choice is crucial, ensuring that the survey takes in the comfortably middle class, along with those Chicagoans living in circumstances that are the bleakest of the bleak. Design as well as the choice of place yield another axis of variation, as Chicago represents the emerging shape of American life, containing not just black and white, but sizeable populations originating in Puerto Rico and Mexico as well. To widen the focus and highlight any factors that might make Chicago a special, rather than exemplary case, Stier and Tienda bring in a large-scale, contemporaneous sample of urban residents nationwide. The two surveys provide a neat parallel, as both use current as well as retrospective data, allowing Stier and Tienda to trace the pathways by which earlier events led to the life course that their respondents eventually followed.

Armed with the right raw materials, Stier and Tienda then crunch the numbers. They provide devotees of the quantitative arts with supporting evidence in the form they like, but do so in appendices, allowing graphs and words to do most of the work in the text. And while careful writing about numbers is never an easy task, Stier and Tienda deliver the message in a clear, straightforward, and readily comprehensible way.

Put simply, perhaps simplistically, the story they tell is one in which troubles, once encountered, rarely go away. Start out in a poor, broken family and a parent with little education, and one is at significant risk of not finishing high school by the time one turns 19. The same factors increase the likelihood of having a child out of wedlock, to which one now adds the liability associated with failure to get the high school degree. Likewise for the possibility of recent welfare utilization, where the long hand of the past often leads persons brought up in households with an extensive history of welfare utilization to repeat the pattern as adults. The same set of problems makes it harder to get a job, with employment difficulties at any one point in time compounded by earlier failures to develop the right work history.

With few exceptions, it’s all much harder in Chicago, where deindustrialization has destroyed the job market for the low-skilled and hypersegregation has left black Chicagoans severely isolated from everyone else, to follow the analyses of William Julius Wilson and Douglas Massey. Chicago is just a bad place to get started: as compared with other urban residents, Chicagoans are more likely to have dropped out of high school; unlike the pattern nationwide, growing up with one or two parents makes little difference in this regard. Teen parenthood without marriage is also much likelier in Chicago than in other urban places; once again, the local effect of structure in the family of origin proves much weaker, especially for men. And finding a job is tougher in Chicago than elsewhere, where jobholding experience has a weaker payoff than in other big cities, and women who’ve been out of work have virtually no chance of finding an employer willing to put them on a payroll.

But the politics of poverty, and of poverty research, have been especially polarized by their intersection with the politics of race. For that reason, Stier and Tienda’s lessons regarding intergroup differences are sure to garner particular attention: in their study, the effects of ethnic or racial group membership largely disappear once one has controlled for disparities in early life experiences. On only one count do blacks appear clearly different from whites, even after taking into account background experiences and circumstances. Whether in Chicago or elsewhere, whether men or women, a birth outside marriage was far likelier to occur among African American respondents than among whites. In Chicago, black men and women were also more likely to report recent welfare use than were whites, even after differences in family structure, past and present, or education had been set aside. But as no such disparity emerged in the national sample, or even among a subsample of poor urban women, Stier and Tienda conclude that the Chicago results reveal something distinctive about the Windy City–namely its high level of racial segregation–and not an attribute characteristic of the black population nationwide. And as regards the other outcomes of interest–dropping out of high school and participating in the labor force–Stier and Tienda find that blacks don’t differ from whites at all, once the analysis has controlled for earlier life experiences.

All of which is not to say that other intergroup differences don’t matter. Like other major metros, Chicago’s minority population is taking an increasingly Hispanic tilt. The two Latino groups studied by Stier and Tienda–Mexicans and Puerto Ricans–don’t look like blacks or whites; nor do they appear identical to one another. Stier and Tienda’s picture of the conditions experienced by Puerto Ricans does not look particularly pretty. Accepted as labor migrants a half century ago, the Puerto Ricans have long since worn out whatever little welcome they then received. In Chicago, they fall into trouble, relative to comparable native whites, on several counts–high school completion, out-of-wedlock births, and welfare usage–a pattern that’s especially distressing since each source of disadvantage brings on another.

The Mexicans provide a rather different story, at least for now. Stier and Tienda’s data show that members of this group are much likelier than whites to drop out of high school–though as Chicago’s Mexicans are a mainly foreign-born population, coming from a country where school usually ends after grade 7, it’s probably more accurate to say that they never dropped in. This liability notwithstanding, few other sources of trouble appear: Mexican men and women are no more likely than whites to become parents out of wedlock; by contrast, Mexican women are more likely than whites to become parents through marriage. Furthermore, Mexican men and women are less likely than comparable whites to experience recent use of welfare. That the Mexicans should look so distinctive is not difficult to understand: after all, one doesn’t get to el norte without kin and friends, already in place and who are prepared to help out. The network also connects Mexicans to more cohesive inner-city neighborhoods, which turn out to be different places than the severely impoverished neighborhoods in which many blacks live. And Stier and Tienda provide enough evidence to keep Pollyanna still: contrasted to comparable whites in poor neighborhoods, the Mexicans are doing OK. But then again, they’re not quite comparable, as the Mexicans have such low skills, for which they pay considerable penalty in the low wages they earn.

In the end, of course, no fact can kill a theory–not even as impressive an assemblage as the one that Stier and Tienda have gathered. The politics of poverty are such that ideological commitments make it hard to change minds: I doubt that a reading of this book will lead advocates of the culture of poverty–or is it the culture of blame?–to look at the matter in a different light. But if resistant to persuasion, they should still be able to appreciate this book’s many virtues. Linking past and present, as Stier and Tienda have done, is no small feat: surely, even unfriendly critics can agree that poverty is at least partly the result of cumulative causation, which is why unraveling the circle, as these authors have done, is the only way to achieve intellectual results. To be sure, one can anticipate the riposte: isn’t cumulative causation just another word for “culture of poverty,” with Stier and Tienda telling us that the poor lock themselves into their own fate? But Stier and Tienda’s argument involves a contention about pathways and their consequences: though influenced by poverty, it is the pathway chosen that exercises the long-term effect. By contrast, a cultural argument involves something else: a demonstration that the poor view the world through a distinctive lens, and therefore, act differently from others. And any effort to ascribe behavior to the culture of the poor would also have to inquire into the culture of the nonpoor–whose views of, and behavior toward, the impoverished are as cultural as anything else, and surely are not without effect.

Some readers may find the style of analysis off-putting, notwithstanding the authors’ efforts to write a user-friendly book. The quantitative arts, as applied social science style, will simply not appeal to all tastes. One can already hear those of different methodological persuasions complaining that the book takes a mechanistic approach, treating the “subjects” it analyzes as if they were balls in a billiards game, as opposed to real-live, thinking, feeling people making decisions on their own. Perhaps they’re not entirely wrong. But it’s never fair to fault the authors for the book they didn’t write. Like any other, this book needs to be evaluated on its own terms–in which case, there can’t be any question about the nature of the accomplishment.

While waiting for controversy to erupt, however, the friendly critic can issue a few quibbles of his own. In general, Stier and Tienda persuade that intergroup differences, in and of themselves, are of little, if any, import. But the terminology is occasionally confusing. It’s a bit disconcerting, in a book entitled The Color of Opportunity, to learn that “racial differences” are only those concerning blacks and whites; it’s also bothersome to do cross-checking when it turns out that the usage is not quite consistent. There is also the matter of how to interpret the relative importance of intergroup differences. One can’t quarrel with Stier and Tienda if one keeps the focus on blacks and whites. But if one asks about the number of domains in which one observes at least one important intergroup difference–controlling for earlier experiences–then the weight of earlier experiences, as such, doesn’t seem to be quite so great.

This reader is also not fully comfortable with the way in which Stier and Tienda handled the one clear line of distinction between blacks and whites–namely, the greater likelihood that African American teens will bear a child outside of marriage, as compared with whites. Yes, having a child out of wedlock has a negative effect on a range of outcomes across all groups. But is its impact on African Americans simply due to its greater prevalence–or does the response to out-of-wedlock births take a different form among members of this group as well? And one can’t help but note the tone of special pleading that creeps into the discussion, when Stier and Tienda try to explain the stronger racial effects in Chicago as opposed to the national sample.

But these are surely minor complaints, not worthy of distracting attention from this book’s many strengths. The Color of Opportunity is a skillful demonstration of the best that social science can do, using the latest tools, and applying them to the type of hard-won evidence best suited for the question at hand. Of course, knowledge is no more than that, leaving the problem just as it was when the authors wrote. But one can’t get anywhere, if one doesn’t know where one’s going. For their contribution to understanding America’s thus far intractable poverty dilemma, the authors of this outstanding book have both students of poverty, and advocates of change, in their debt.


COPYRIGHT 2002 U.S. Commission on Civil Rights

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group