A recently published opinion piece, “Poverty and Culture,” written by Professor Lawrence Mead and published in Society, has caused great concern within the poverty research community. While the editor has since withdrawn the article, the concerns that have been raised about the nature of poverty remain. As former directors of the Institute for Research on Poverty (IRP), University of Wisconsin–Madison, where Professor Mead was once a visiting scholar and has participated in poverty focused meetings, we write to say that we are confident that his commentary is unlikely to have passed peer review by poverty researchers. Here we highlight a few examples from the vast poverty research literature that contradict Mead’s claims, and we call for renewed research on issues of poverty and race from the current generation of poverty researchers.
In the abstract Mead asserts, “Attempts to attribute longterm poverty to social barriers, such as racial discrimination or lack of jobs, have failed.” As evidence, he cites (footnote 2) his own 1992 book. Even if that book dealt with the best research on the effects of racial discrimination and oppression on longterm poverty at the time it was published thirty years ago—which it doesn’t—it is irresponsible to ignore all research conducted since 1992.
Mead ignores hundreds of academic papers and books from economics, sociology, political science, psychology, history and other disciplines on the continuing existence and negative effects of racial oppression. Here we cite only two: “Identifying Discrimination at Work: The Use of Field Experiments,” by the late Devah Pager and Bruce Western, shows that “black applicants were half as likely as equally qualified whites to receive a callback or job offer. In fact, black and Latino applicants with clean backgrounds fared no better than white applicants just released from prison. From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty First Century, by William Darity and Kirsten Mullin, documents the continuation of discrimination against black Americans in education, housing and jobs after slavery ended. Their examples run from the failure to provide promised 40-acre land grants, to massacres such as that in Tulsa in 1921, to restricted land covenants, redlining, and recent predatory lending practices, all of which contributed to reduced black wealth and growing wealth inequality.
Other recent research by Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren, in “Race and Economic Opportunity in the United States: An Intergenerational Perspective”, demonstrates that the black and white income gap is driven by differences in the wages and employment rates of black and white men who start out in families with comparable incomes; and even, lived in the same neighbroood. Rucker Johnson and Alexander Nazaryan show in Children of the Dream: Why School Integration Works that school integration efforts set in motion by the War on Poverty and Civil Rights Movement were “overwhelming successful.” Martha Bailey, Hilary Hoynes, and colleagues in “Is the Social Safety Net a Long-Term Investment? Large-Scale Evidence from the Food Stamps Program” document the positive effects of Food Stamps receipt in childhood on adult self sufficiency, health status, and a reduced probability of being incarcerated. Janet Currie and colleagues in “Does Prenatal WIC Participation Improve Child Outcomes?” show that the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) improved birth outcomes, which in turn led to better longer term outcomes such as lower incidence of mental health conditions and a lower probability of grade repetition. These examples do not do justice to the rich legacy of poverty research in the 30 years since the publication of Mead’s book.
Mead’s piece proposes an alternative, evidence-free explanation based on his speculations about the effects of cultural differences that he suggests can be ascribed to the Western “European” white world in contrast to the rest of the non-white world. An ironic error is his citation of Richard Nisbett’s book, The Geography of Thought, which argues that there is a holistic world-view among Chinese and other Asians—populations that have enjoyed substantial economic success in the United States and other western societies. And Mead does not address the prevalence of poverty and increasing joblessness among Whites.
The murder of George Floyd, the surgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, and disparities made obvious by the Covid-19 pandemic should on their own encourage poverty researchers and all social scientists to continue their research and inform a wide range of policies that can contribute to mitigating and reversing racial and ethnic oppression in the United States.
We call on the poverty center directors who have issued their own statement regarding Mead’s piece to gather leading scholars of poverty and race to both conduct a comprehensive review of the social science literature and, launch new research on the full range of factors that account for differential poverty rates and differential social mobility by race and ethnicity.
Robert M. Hauser