The Anthropologist’s View of Poverty

A Presentation by Thomas Gladwin

 at the 88th Annual Forum, National Conference On Social Welfare, Minneapolis, Minnesota, May 14-19, 1961

Editor’s Note: Thomas Gladwin was the Social Science Consultant, Community Services Branch, National Institute of Mental Health, Bethesda, Md.

 POVERTY has been a part of the life of mankind throughout its history. If we define poverty minimally as an existence close to the edge of starvation, we must recognize that during man’s more primitive eras, poverty was universal. The times and places in which food was abundant and in secure supply were rare indeed. Even our own Western European civilization, both in the Old World and in the New, was characterized until recently by widespread poverty. Only a tiny minority enjoyed freedom from the struggle for a bare living, although it was of course this minority which created the great cultural tradition which we now so generally share. Karl Marx, writing a century ago, propounded largely unsound solutions and some clearly erroneous predictions, but his description of the dilemma of the exploited proletariat was in essence completely true.

However, in the United States and most of Western Europe the situation is now reversed. The comforts so recently enjoyed only by the few are presently the privilege of the masses. The minority are now the few who still suffer in poverty. This reversal has been made possible by broad economic changes, both planned and unplanned. But these changes were, in turn, partially dependent, as we shall see, upon a sweeping alteration in our ethical and moral values.

Nevertheless, poverty is still with us. Decreasingly, it is created by temporary dislocations in the economy which throw people out of work. More critical is the familiar hard core of poverty, which never goes away. It is primarily located in a small sector of our population. This group is widely recognized to be infecting the larger society with many social ills, and also to have a way of life which tends to be self-perpetuating.

It is precisely the self-perpetuating nature of this component of our society which creates such a frustrating problem for all those who address themselves to it. Explanations of its causes vary. Galbraith, writing as an economist about the “affluent society,” sees this population as socially inadequate, but primarily as chained by psychological or social pressures to an economically marginal environment.1) One school of thought in social work, if I may read between the lines, seems to agree that they are psychologically and socially inadequate people, but believes that they would become more adequate if they would just let these social workers treat them or show them how to live more constructively. Walter Miller, from the anthropological perspective, points to a characteristic type of family organization, “serial monogamy,” which makes emotional cripples of this group and thus perpetuates their ineffectiveness.2)

Whatever the explanation, there is general agreement that we are dealing with a form of social inadequacy which is deeply rooted in a characteristic way of life. When social workers speak of the multiproblem families which comprise this hard core of poverty, they are not simply referring to those persons who happen to have numerically more problems than others. They are referring to a very specific constellation of problems which characterize a distinguishable group of people whom social agencies usually encounter in urban slums. As Galbraith has pointed out, precisely the same array of devastating multiple problems is found in many backwater rural areas, a fact with which rural welfare workers are all too familiar. However, the essential similarity in life styles of rural and urban multiproblem families seems often to escape the awareness of workers in urban slums on the one hand, and of rural social workers on the other.

In anthropological terms we are, as Miller has pointed out with respect to a larger sector of the lower class, dealing with a subculture. This means that we are dealing with shared patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving which deviate in some (but not all) respects from those of the larger culture, and which happen to create some dysfunctional relationships between this group and the society in which it is embedded.3)

Defining the multiproblem population as a subculture is only one of several ways of looking at the problem. Doing so provides some intellectual satisfaction to the anthropologist (it represents his private form of snobbery), but the formulation is useful only if it can bring us closer to a solution. What, then, does this definition imply operationally?

Most obviously, it implies that any plan for a remedy must be concerned with culture change, with an alteration in the over-all way of life. Piecemeal approaches directed toward the alleviation of individual distress will not solve the problem because they will not alter the basic cultural environment in which children learn undesirable attitudes and behaviors. Optimistically, or perhaps in desperation, some have therefore put forward the view that by doing enough with the children we can mold a new and different generation which will escape the shackles of its parents. However, thus far we never seem to be able to do that amount which is enough. We continue to find that as the majority of the children grow up, they follow patterns of life modeled primarily upon those of the parents with whom they live and only in minor degree according to the plans of community agencies.

If neither the alleviation of individual distress nor work with the rising generation will really solve the problem, what is necessary in order to deflect this tragic minority from their disastrous subcultural ways? At least two equally vital requirements must be met before this is possible. First is a genuine willingness to invest in a commitment to effect such a change. This sense of commit ment, with an understanding of what it implies, is thus far lacking not only in the larger society but also, in my opinion, in those professions which are vested with the responsibility for dealing with social problems, including social work. Secondly, we must develop a clear appreciation of precisely which characteristics we will undertake to change. In seeking these crucial characteristics we cannot be satisfied merely to identify those which are most distressing, nor even those which we may judge to be most central to their way of life. Our task is to search for those attributes which are most amenable to permanent change and which will at the same time exert the most effective leverage on the group’s total pattern of living. Both the first and second of these requirements are difficult of attainment, but neither is impossible.

Let us look first at the matter of commitment-our national commitment as Americans-to effect a change. If the goal of change is defined only as the elimination of poverty, to this we can all subscribe, wholeheartedly and without reservation. But real change also requires our acceptance of the people-adults as well as children-in the hard core of poverty as truly worthy of our help, personally deserving of both our generosity and, more crucially, our respect. But how can we respect people who are so shiftless, so dishonest, so irresponsible? The answer to this question is another question: How can we extend a really helping hand if we do not respect them as people, equally worthy with ourselves? In other words, we must find a way to develop in ourselves and in others a sincere and genuine respect for the chronically poverty stricken.

The first step toward this goal is to identify the most critical barrier to respect. It is not that these people are dirty, or dishonest, or unfaithful in marriage. We have no trouble in respecting the natives of other lands who never bathe, and at least some crooks, and the majority of movie stars. The real reason, in my opinion, is that they are unwilling to undertake responsibility on their own behalf. We like to help people who are trying to help themselves. However pitiful the individual, or unsavory his circumstances, if he is really trying to improve his lot we will help him, and we will respect him for trying.

The people with whom we are here concerned do not try. Some of us, certainly most social workers, may be able rationally to understand that in their unhappy environment these people have never learned to try; or, perhaps, even learned that it is better not to try. Nevertheless, our objective judgment that their apathy is not their fault seems to help even us professionals very little to persuade our subjective selves that we should accord them real respect. These are, in the immortal phrase of Alfred P. Doolittle in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, the undeserving poor.

The undeserving poor stand in contrast to those who, though deprived by circumstance, continually try to cease being poor. The people in the latter category, the deserving poor, have become fewer and fewer in number. Furthermore, every time their ranks begin to swell we declare a national emergency and are willing to make almost any sacrifice to help them. However, this attitude of respect and helpfulness toward those we now call the “unemployed” is quite new. In years gone by, not only were the masses of the population in poverty, but these masses were not considered very deserving. The accident of birth had placed them where they were, and they were expected to be reasonably satisfied with their lot, or at least not to complain too loudly. If part of our present task is to transform the remaining still undeserving poor into a status of respectability, perhaps it would be instructive to examine briefly the factors involved in the earlier and far more extensive transformation.

Obviously, the right to a decent manner of life remained an academic issue until sufficient goods were available to supply the needs of the bulk of the people. However, a high level of productivity does not in itself guarantee that those who remain poor will be considered to have a right to expect the help of others not so poor. As we watch the steady rise in the standard of living in the United States it is easy to forget that for many years this rise was not accompanied by an attitude we now take as axiomatic: that anyone who is really willing to work has a right to share in the general affluence. Those who remember 1932 will recollect that the unemployed “hunger marchers” on their way to the White House were met by the police and by the instant indignation of a large and influential sector of the nation. The business community perhaps felt sorry for the unemployed, but it was appalled by the basic implication of the hunger march, that people have a right to jobs even when no jobs exist. This is a far cry from the concern and the huge contributions of industry today to assure the health, welfare, and security of even their most lowly employees.

To understand the significance and nature of this change, as well as to define the task which lies ahead, we must examine some of the basic components of our system of ethics, and especially the relationship between them. High in our hierarchy of values are three broad principles: the right of private property; equality of opportunity for all men; and the dignity and worth of the individual. Until the New Deal in the 193os, the relative ranking in importance of these three principles was in just that order. In simplest terms, the achievement of the New Deal was to reverse the first two. Equality of opportunity was placed ahead of the inviolability of private property. Through taxes and other means it became not only possible but morally right to deprive people of profits on their investments in order to provide, among other things, decent job opportunities for everyone who is willing to work. There was resistance to this change, but it could not prevail. Equality of opportunity is now solidly enthroned as a cardinal moral principle of our society, so much so that we are currently trying to export it to the entire world. (I am referring here, of course, to acceptance of the principle. Like all principles, it is often violated in practice.)

The principle of the inherent worth of the individual did not fare as well. The New Deal extended to everyone who was willing to take it the opportunity for help and for dignity. The physically handicapped, who could not help themselves, were given generous support, But those who were physically able but still did not try to better themselves were given little more than a reasonable assurance that they would not quite starve to death. This position, it should be noted, diverges sharply from the emphasis in the Judeo-Christian ethic, by which we are all supposedly governed, on the value of every human soul. It is in particularly glaring contrast with the teaching of Christ that we should love and respect all our neighbors in their every circumstance, even the despised Samaritan.

If the New Deal provides a valid analogy, it seems evident, then, that a prerequisite for the elimination of poverty is the elevation of the worth of the individual to first place in the hierarchy of values I have outlined. In certain respects this may be an easier task than was the earlier elevation of equality of opportunity. Disregarding temporary dislocations in the economy, the availability of jobs is no longer a major problem. This is especially true if we remember that the hard core with which we are dealing in the 196os comprises a far smaller number of individuals than the hard core of the 1930s. Their small number also means that their integration into a life of relative affluence will create no visible change in the productive economy.

However, if the economic problem is simpler, the shift in our ethical priorities may be far more difficult to accomplish than the transformation of the 1930s. Individual initiative is, in our culture, a primary criterion of the worth of an individual-perhaps the primary criterion. To divorce initiative from our definition of a person’s worth would, for many, remove the central meaning of the concept of personal worthiness. It may not be possible, at least in our generation. However, we have not yet tried.

Certainly, the first step must be for those who are closest to the undeserving poor to redefine the nature of the problem for their profession and then for society. This is is the real challenge of poverty to social work. Social work must take a new look at the multiproblem family, in perception, in research, and in program. As we shall see, social agencies have thus far defined the characteristics of multiproblem families not in terms of their inherent nature, but rather with reference to their ability, or inability, to utilize social casework. The hard core must be looked upon as people who share a dysfunctional subculture, not as recalcitrant clients of social agencies.

Anthropology can help, but this is primarily a job for social work. Not only are social workers best equipped to work with the hard core, but they are also in the most effective position to communicate with fellow professionals. Through such communication, social work should be able to redefine the problem and the feeling of social workers about the problem. Despite the attention and money which are devoted to multiproblem families, there is no escaping the fact that most social workers prefer to work with people who share the more comfortable middle-class values and behaviors. This preference is often referred to in tones of disparagement, implying that social workers are essentially a little snobbish. However, if this is true I am sure it is only a small part of the truth. It is extremely frustrating to work with the multiproblem family, and the procedures now available really help these families very little. It is hard to plunge enthusiastically into an undertaking which is foredoomed to failure. It is my conviction that from a redefinition of the problem in terms of directed culture change a more workable strategy will emerge, one which will produce visible results. And if social work, through research and a new examination of the problem, can develop an approach which promises real solutions, I find it hard to believe that the profession will be reluctant to work with this population.

Furthermore, if social workers can really demonstrate effective results in this area they will then have a program they can sell with genuine conviction to the nation. It has been extremely difficult to urge all-out support for programs which are recognized by their own proponents as probably futile.

Social work can, I believe, develop a strategy of culture change in which the profession can have faith. Furthermore, there is by now sufficient national concern over the hard core of poverty that a commitment to its eradication may really be possible even though it does require a major shift in our value systems. It should be remembered that Franklin D. Roosevelt’s right-hand man in building the New Deal was Harry Hopkins, whose basic values and philosophy were derived from social work. Roosevelt was, in addition, armed with a conviction that what he was doing was morally right and necessary, and that the programs he developed were practical. It is precisely this sort of conviction which makes the impossible become possible. This is as true in the 196os as it was in the 1930s.

Let us now turn to the question of what we mean by a “subculture” and consider the characteristics of the hard core in these terms. In doing so we must search for those aspects through which we can most realistically expect to effect constructive change. As I have noted, social work has tended to define the group characteristics of multiproblem families almost entirely with reference to their ability to relate to social agencies. A 1960 study carried out in New York State 4) attributes to this population four broad characteristics: multiplicity of problems; chronicity of need; resistance to treatment; and handicapping attitudes. This listing really tells us nothing about the nature of the people nor about the way they behave and perceive themselves. Furthermore, far from suggesting ways in which change can be affected, they explicitly define the problem as virtually insoluble.

Miller describes the lower class as a subculture; yet the characteristics to which he gives particular attention related to the basic emotional integration of personality as it develops in a setting of poverty. His approach is interesting and valid. However, he defines the problem in terms almost as difficult as those used by social workers. Even with an extensive professional investment on an individual basis, psychiatry is still far from being able consistently to correct personality handicaps of this magnitude. Although Miller’s work has not yet been fully published, I do not thus far see in his approach a real key to the elimination of poverty.

What, then, are the characteristics upon which we should focus? Obviously, I cannot provide a confident answer. But it might be useful to suggest two closely related attributes which I believe are shared by all those people whom we refer to as “multiproblem” and which, in fact, play a primary role in creating the difficulties of which social workers are so acutely aware. The two variables are, first, the degree to which this population believes it has any actual control over its destiny, individually or collectively, and secondly, their orientation toward the future.

We in the middle class take it for granted that, within limits, we can achieve anything for which we are willing to work hard enough. What happens to us depends in large measure on our own choice of career, of education, of willingness to lead or to conform, and on the strength of our dedication and conscience. A man is what he makes of himself. Conversely, if a person fails, we may be sympathetic but we remain convinced that primarily it was he who failed, and not the society about him. This view of the individual and his society is not shared by much of the lower class, certainly not by the hard core.

Regardless of the opportunities which we as observers believe may exist, in their own self-perception these people have no conviction that it is within their power to alter their circumstances. I must emphasize that I am referring here to their own expectations for themselves, which they have learned in their own subculture environment, and not to any objective reality which we may perceive. In this framework of expectations they see virtually all the institutions of society-business and all the social and official agencies-arrayed against them. Whether or not this perception has a reality basis does not concern me here, although it is my suspicion that it is not pure illusion. The important thing is that these people see their social universe in these terms.

At the same time, they are sufficiently realistic to recognize that the larger institutions of society hold the keys to power. Obviously, therefore, if the power of the community is committed to holding them down, there is no possibility of their rising from their miserable status through their own efforts. Consequently, there is no purpose in trying. Why should they work hard and make sacrifices to struggle toward a goal which others control, and which will be withheld from them?

Closely related to this is their perception of the future, particularly of their own future. We think constantly of the future, whether we are planning our careers or our vacations or our work for the next week. For us this is realistic because we can make decisions and reasonably expect that we will be able to implement them. Obviously, however, in the lower class it is not merely unrealistic to think in this way of the future; it is, in their view, completely futile to do so. As a result, their time perspective is seriously foreshortened. Although they use the words which refer to the future, to them these phrases are largely empty of real meaning. An individual can recognize that what he does today will have consequences tomorrow. But at the same time he is aware that what someone else does to him or about him may be much more important in determining what tomorrow will be like than anything he himself does today. As a result, anything which he can do today which will be pleasurable and rewarding he will do, because the chance may never come again. I am of course referring, in our jargon, to the inability to delay gratification.

If these two characteristics-a belief in external control and a lack of future time perspective-really describe the multiproblem population, albeit only partially, what clues do they provide for us as we develop a strategy for changing the subculture? Before considering this question, it might be useful to reiterate that these attributes, by no means confined to the urban hard core familiar to social agencies, are shared by many rural groups, and it is obvious that they have great reality for members of many minority groups. Beyond this, they are found typically throughout most of the underdeveloped areas of the world. In fact, from a world perspective it would be fair to say that it is our middle-class subculture which is deviant from the norm in its conviction that it can control its own destiny. It is, of course, this very belief which creates our dynamism, a dynamism the rest of the world is anxious to share. Nevertheless, at the present time it is a phenomenon unique to our middle class.

It is in programs of economic development overseas that the necessity has become most clearly evident for changing the basic self-perceptions I have outlined. This necessity is frequently seen as a prerequisite to any other change. It is this fact which has given impetus to programs which are referred to as “community development.” In its simplest terms, community development is concerned with developing the capability for change, which means an awareness that it is possible to effect change through one’s own efforts. The customary strategy is to find some need which is felt in the community and which can fairly readily be met through local resources within a short period of time. The program then concentrates on this need. The essential difference between community development and other forms of technical assistance is that the goal is defined entirely in terms of felt needs and ease of accomplishment, with consideration of economic or social utility relegated to second place. The purpose is simply to create a realization that change is possible, that it is feasible to plan, and that it is worth giving up something today in return for a better tomorrow. Only after this realization is achieved can long-term economic plans be undertaken.

Community development is really a philosophy or a point of view rather than a specific technique. I have used it deliberately as my example although I am aware of the similar principles enunciated in the community organization techniques of social work. I have used it, not because the principles are different, but because the implementation is different. Community development workers overseas genuinely try to adhere to their principles and to disregard economic rewards. In contrast, it is my impression that with very rare exceptions social agencies pay lip service to the principles just outlined but consistently plan programs which will bring to their clients benefits which the social worker, using his own middleclass criteria, has determined are needed. What I am really saying is not that social workers must learn new principles, but rather that they must sincerely use and believe in the principles they enunciate.

To continue the analogy with community development, it is obvious that our hard-core population presents different and more formidable problems than are found in a village in Africa. Not the least of these is the fact that the African villagers share a functioning social organization which provides a framework for social action. It may not be the best or most efficient type of organization for the purpose, but at least it functions and it stays together. In contrast, we customarily consider that our multiproblem families exist in an environment of fairly complete disorganization. We may have accepted too readily the assumption of total disorganization. This is a useful area for research. It is rare indeed to find any group of people who have lived together over a period of years within which there are not recognized patterns of leadership, communication, and even loyalty. These patterns may be neither very strong nor immediately obvious, but they do provide a base upon which to build.

Nevertheless, there is little question but that social organization does need more strengthening in our multiproblem population than is usually required in community development programs overseas. We have no ready-made strategy for accomplishing this end. However, I do not believe we should discount the simple power of money. We are concerned with people who live most of their lives close to the edge of malnutrition, if not actual starvation. It has often been noted that it is difficult to plan on an empty stomach. If our society is to make a real commitment to helping these people, in advance of their ability to help themselves, it must, as a minimum requirement, be willing to provide enough money to make possible a decent life. The potential results should not be underestimated. Those who are familiar with Blackwell and Gould’s study of Aid to Dependent Children programs will remember that they demonstrated some striking correlations between level of payments and effectiveness of rehabilitation.5) This does not, of course, mean that money alone will produce an instant cure, but it does strongly suggest that money, along with all the factors implied in the willingness to provide money, can be a potent weapon in our arsenal.

This means that we must give money in amounts generous enough to be really constructive, to people who have done nothing to earn or deserve it. This brings us back to the barrier of the relative values prevailing in our society. The necessary generosity will be forthcoming only when our society really accepts the premise that people are deserving simply because they are people; that is, because they are fellow human beings.

To be realistic, this acceptance will not develop magically or through appeals to conscience. Power rests in the middle class. And we in the middle class are notoriously anxious and defensive in the presence of people whose way of life is more primitive and violent than our own. We are threatened, and hence our response is rejection, not acceptance. We can become accepting only if we believe that by so doing we will reduce the threat.

Thus we come around to the final point: the necessity for a workable program which will effectively reduce the social threat which the multiproblem population poses-the threat of delinquency, of vice, and of violence. It is my conviction that such a program must be one of directed culture change, one which will change the way of life which lies at the core of the culture of poverty. Until we set ourselves to devise such programs, and to demonstrate that they really work, our society will remain anxious, and therefore at best apathetic.

The elimination of poverty is not an easy task, but it offers a most exciting challenge, a challenge which, properly, must rest at the door of the social work profession. We must take a completely new look at the multiproblem family and decide which techniques in social work can be most effective. With these steps taken, social work can be armed and ready to mobilize the larger society to embrace the despised multiproblem population which it criticizes so strongly, but helps so little.

 Foot Notes:

1) John Kenneth Galbraith, The Affluent Society (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, Co., 1958).

2) Walter B. Miller, “Implications of Utban Lower-Class Culture for Social Work,” Social Service Review, XXXIII (1959), 219-36.

 3) It is legitimate to question whether multiproblem families, viewed collectively, would constitute a subculture in the anthropological sense. Even when seen in the slum area of a single city, multiproblem families show substantial individual variation. Furthermore, to be considered as a subculture they must show a significant number of attributes unique to themselves in addition to those shared with the broader lower-class subculture. Adequate research data do not at present exist to answer the question conclusively, even if the semantics of the definition of a subculture were sufficiently clear to offer definitive criteria. However, I believe it is useful to consider the implications inherent in the concept of subculture as applied to the multiproblem family, whether or not this working assumption is subsequently validated.

4) State Charities Aid Association, “Multi-Problem Families”– a New Name or a New Problem? (New York: State Charities Aid Association, Social Research Service, 1960).

 5) Gordon W. Blackwell and Raymond F. Gould, Future Citizens All (Chicago: American Public Welfare Association, 1952).

Source: Proceedings of the National Conference of Social Welfare (1961) pp. 73-86. –The proceedings of annual meetings of the NCSW, 1874-1983, are available on the web thanks to a digitization project undertaken by the University of Michigan Library, with assistance from the Social Welfare History Archives at the University of Minnesota.  The web site for this resource is:




2 Responses to Poverty: An Anthropologist’s View – 1961

  1. Arabi Sriranjan says:

    Any references to your article?

    • ACampbell says:

      I’m not sure I understand what you’re asking. This piece — “The Anthropologist’s View of Poverty” — was a presentation given by Thomas Gladwin at the 88th Annual Forum, National Conference On Social Welfare, Minneapolis, Minnesota, May 14-19, 1961. It was published in the Proceedings of the National Conference of Social Welfare (1961) pp. 73-86. (as you can see). The footnotes will point you to the material that Mr. Gladwin used to write this presentation.

      Hope that helps.

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