Another reason why public policy faces a tremendous battle in helping central city residents overcome the economic restructuring of the mid-20th century is a common perception held by many Americans. This perception is known as the “culture of poverty” or “welfare-dependency” (Murray, 1984; Mead, 1986; 1992), and portrays welfare recipients (in actuality mainly AFDC recipients) as “undisciplined”, “lazy”,”dishonest”, “belligerent”, (Skinner, 1995) and “shiftless” (Tienda and Stier, 1991). Shiftless is defined by Random House as those that are lacking in resourcefulness, are inefficient, or are lacking in ambition, incentive, or aspiration (College Edition, 1988).
The basic argument of this perception holds that there are plenty of minimum-wage jobs available and accessible to central city minorities, primarily the black minority, which are being looked over in favor of government assistance (Skinner, 1995). Additionally, those who believe in this “culture of poverty/welfare-dependency” perceive that because of government assistance the urban poor’s work ethic, initiative, and self-reliance have decayed and have caused a “self-generating cycle of dysfunctional behavior and poverty” (Skinner, p. 48).
Some authors suggest that this perception is underpinned by the “Protestant/Puritan Ethic” (Washington, 1995), and rooted in the old English poor law system that preceded the modern welfare state (Marmor, Mashaw, and Harvey, 1990). This ethic “is a holdover of the Calvinist doctrine which associated industry, thrift, prudence, decorum, cleanliness, self-discipline, and sobriety with righteousness and wealth. Sin was almost exclusively identified with personal vices such as laziness, improvidence, frivolity, dirt, swearing, gambling, drinking, and acquired a distinctly lower-class look while success and wealth were associated with middle-class virtues” (Washington, p. 15). Based on this ethic, persons living in poverty and receiving welfare (AFDC) are seen negatively by middle-class America. This view is commonly perceived without taking into consideration external forces, or externalities that are due to no fault of the individual experiencing them (i.e. catastrophic events such as fires; poor health; poor economic conditions; manufacturing plant closures, etc.), the poor wages associated with the jobs available to low-skilled individuals, and the distances that these individuals have to travel to obtain jobs.
The “culture of poverty” perception is also based on the belief in the free market system, or capitalism, that is prevalent in American society. Inherent in capitalism is the belief that market forces are unbiased so every individual has an equal opportunity and an equal responsibility to provide for his- or herself and his or her family. Additionally, because the market provides equal opportunity for every individual, there is no need for government provisions to able-bodied individuals in society. Thus, the welfare state, which includes providing legitimate health and retirement benefits to the sick, the young, and the old is seen as a waste of the taxpayer’s money and as an insult to the working class because it is perceived that the majority, if not all, of the individuals receiving benefits are able-bodied and are taking advantage of the system.
However, work by Tienda and Stier (1991) demonstrates a considerably different reality from the “culture of poverty” or “welfare-dependency” perceptions. These authors show through analysis of two 1987 studies called the Urban Poverty and Family Life Survey of Chicago (directed by William Julius Wilson) and the National Survey of Families and Households (co-directed by Larry Bumpass and James Sweet) that nearly 85 percent of those individuals surveyed by the two studies who were not in the labor force or actively looking for employment wanted a job. Over 90 percent of those individuals who were not in the labor force and did not want a job offered poor health, family responsibilities, and that they were in education programs as reasons why they did not want a job at the time of the surveys (Tienda and Stier, 1991).
Bellah et al. (1985) approach the “culture of poverty” perception from this angle:
“Our American traditions encourage us to think of justice as a matter of equal opportunities for every individual to pursue whatever he or she understands by happiness. Equal opportunities are guaranteed by fair laws and political procedures–laws and procedures applied in the same way to everyone. But this way of thinking about justice does not in itself contain a vision of what the distribution of goods in a society would end up looking like if individuals had an equal chance to pursue their interests. Thus, there could be great disparities in the income given to people in different occupations in a just society so long as everyone had an equal chance of getting a well-paid job. But if, as is now becoming painfully apparent, there are more qualified applicants than openings for the interesting jobs, is equal opportunity enough to assure justice? What of the socially disadvantaged for whom a fair race is to no avail since they are left well short of the starting line?” (pp. 25-26)