This month marks 51 years since Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” speech. On January 8, 1964, during his State of the Union address, he urged the joint session of Congress to join him in a battle that the “richest Nation on earth can afford to win.” Over the past year, current elected officials have been reflecting on the legacy of Johnson’s war on poverty as a way of assessing contemporary anti-poverty policies and programs. Some Republicans have taken the opportunity to expound on the failures of the current liberal-progressive agenda in light of a poor economy and the nearly 50 million people still living in below the poverty line. With Representative Paul Ryan as their spokesperson, they have collectively resurrected an assessment Ronald Reagan made in 1987 that the government “waged a war on poverty, and poverty won.” Ryan has followed the standard conservative party logic: big government spending on “counterproductive” federal programs induces the poverty trap—a mechanism that impedes upward mobility from poverty to the middle class. For Ryan, who is the current chairman of the House Budget Committee and was the GOP’s 2012 vice presidential candidate, the current federal policies dissuade the free-market values of work and independence that are essential to the American way of happiness and success.
Last July, Ryan released his latest proposal, “Expanding Opportunity in America,” a program designed to reduce poverty and increase social mobility. In a speech at the American Enterprise Institute that unveiled the proposal, Ryan said, “We need to cut down the bureaucratic red tape. A lot of families are trying to get ahead, but Washington is just simply getting in the way.” He also embarked on a poverty tour around the country, visiting local leaders and learning how they combat poverty in their communities. Last August, he released a book title The Way Forward: Renewing the American Idea, which advocates for growing the economy and civil society—not government programs. Ryan and other Republicans have once again strategically transported the discussion of poverty to the domain of individual cultural behaviors. Inspired by local religious and charity organizations’ successes at eliminating gangs from school grounds and assisting men with drug addictions, the party has adopted the cultural deficit hypothesis—blaming poverty on broken families and dependency rather than on social inequities. Against the American “nuclear family,” the “broken family” is a coded term for the single, female-headed household crowded with illegitimate children, which Ryan identifies as the primary cause of intergenerational poverty.
Ryan has pushed for drastic cuts to safety net programs such as food stamps and housing vouchers. He stresses that welfare programs must be centered on a work-first mentality. Underneath this emphasis is the ideology of dependence and a presumption that poor people lack the motivation to work. In March of 2014, Ryan told conservative radio host Bill Bennett that there is a “tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work.” It is not surprising that on the air Ryan mentioned neoconservative social scientist Charles Murray, the controversial co-author of The Bell Curve, to justify his claim about the tailspin of culture. These arguments date back to the Progressive Era and to debates around “Negro loaferism,” which depicted blacks as unwilling or unable to work; that trope intellectually grounded the notion of the “undeserving poor” and vagrancy laws. Ryan later apologized in a statement sent to reporters and concluded that his comments were “inarticulate.”
Ryan’s rumination on the broken family and dependency is a footnote to the larger discourse of the urban black underclass that resurfaced during the Reagan administration. The problems with dependency and the female-headed household were popularized in the 1976 Republican primary, when then-California Governor Ronald Reagan told audiences the story of a lascivious, lazy, and criminally minded, Cadillac-driving “Welfare Queen,” who abused the system in deindustrialized Chicago. Although Reagan lost a close race to Gerald Ford, his attack on the war on poverty provided the intellectual foundations for a theoretical shift in the poverty debates from wage distribution and federal policies to cultural and behavioral patterns. The “Welfare Queen” speech showed that urban blacks were easy targets (or villains!) to support Cold War-era, free-market values and to rail against the welfare state and civil rights legislation. Although Reagan’s welfare queen was an isolated case and an exaggerated tale, it did not matter. That symbol prompted pundits to legitimate urban black cultural deficiencies—single-parent households, teenage pregnancy, laziness, drug addictions, and high-school dropouts—through pseudo-scientific and arbitrary statistics, graphs, and I.Q. testing. During the Reagan Revolution, the black underclass was transformed into a purely cultural category designed to delineate a set of urban behaviors that were deemed pathological or deficient, according to historian Alice O’Connor in her volume, Poverty-Knowledge. In 1986, liberal journalist Nicholas Lemann wondered in The Atlantic how the bifurcation of the middle and lower class in Black America continued, even “during a period of relative prosperity and of national commitment to black progress.” His answer? “In the ghettos … it appears that the distinctive culture is now the greatest barrier to progress by the black underclass, rather than either unemployment or welfare.” In essence, Lemann was saying that economic policies paled in the face of an overpowering culture that confined the black underclass to a life of destruction. Although Lemann’s analysis of the black underclass sought to transcend either a Republican or Democratic solution, his attention to the negative power of culture definitely fueled neoconservatives’ cultural deficit hypothesis. In the 2012 Republican primaries, the rhetoric around government handouts and the criticism of Barack Obama as the “food-stamp president” underscored how American politics was and is still deeply wedded to the discourse around the “Welfare Queen” and the black underclass of the late 1970s and 80s. Democrats have not been immune either. The Clinton administration’s welfare reforms of the 1990s dismantled many programs, and made cash benefits to poor families temporary and contingent on finding employment. The cultural deficiency hypothesis—the idea that deficits in black culture keep black Americans in poverty—continues to frame the discussion of poverty in American politics.
Often overlooked in the cultural deficit hypothesis is the role that religion has played in stereotyping the urban, black lower class. In the late 1930s and 40s, liberal-minded social scientists began to study black laborers at the height of the New Deal era. They were invested in chronicling the psychological ramifications of segregation in urban race relations. In doing so, social scientists, such as E. Franklin Frazier, John Dollard, and Allison Davis, helped to legitimate the cultural assumptions about impoverished, black laborers—from their parenting skills and sexual relationships to leisure activities and group affiliations. In her book Your Spirits Walk Beside Us, Barbara Savage writes that these social scientists “often advanced old arguments without questioning them or listening to the ideas of their human subjects.” Savage adds that within lower-class, black religious circles, these scholars “occupied overlapping roles as trespassers, as intermediaries, as experts, and, ultimately, as creators of narratives they told about respectability and deviance in black communities.”
In investigating religion, ethnographers chronicled the beliefs, songs, worship styles, testimonies, visions, and prayers in the growing Pentecostal, Holiness, Spiritual, and “independent churches” in the urban South and North. Studies concentrated on how these emerging “sects and cults” were fundamentally changing the religious and cultural landscape in modern America. Ethnographers were interested in exploring the appeal of these churches and denominations to black lower classes, especially to black women who were domestic servants. They interpreted the theologies, rituals, and expressions as the behavioral repository for black, lower-class expressions and their reactions to the social inequalities that engulfed them.
In September of 1939, social anthropologist Guy Johnson attended a late-night, religious ceremony at Father Divine’s Peace Missions in Harlem, New York, as part of his work with the Myrdal-Carnegie Corporation race-relations research team. Johnson devoted his attention mainly to single, black, middle-aged women and their “hand-clapping, foot-patting, and swaying bodies, sometimes, in a shuffle dance during the spirit-led and “lustily” sung songs. Johnson was shocked at the women’s emotional and physical stamina that reached its peak in the “hysterical shrieking, fainting spells, shouts,” once Father Divine appeared well after midnight. After visiting the same church, economist Gunnar Myrdal concluded that a “person acquainted with the problems and techniques of abnormal psychology” could particularly well assess the impact of black religion among the black lower class.
American sociologists and anthropologists certainly paid close attention to the shouting, singing, dancing, and rhythmic oral expressions in Negro revivals (i.e. prayers, sermons, call-and-response) to capture what they deemed to be inherited racial characteristics. But Johnson and other racial liberals, however, did not interpret these religious experiences in independent churches as natural behaviors. Instead, they interpreted the crying, fainting spells, hand-clapping, and swaying bodies of black, middle-aged women as signs of the “lack of training and discriminatory labor policies, low economic status, and poor housing” in urban environments, as Edward Palmer wrote in 1945 in the Quarterly Review of Higher Education among Negroes. Johnson and his colleague Palmer saw a relationship between middle-aged women’s religious experiences and their restriction to the domestic occupations. They argued that the popularity of these independent religious movements stemmed from the freedom they offered to low-income workers, who could release their daily frustrations and rage organically and emotionally. Palmer asserted that expressive “religion always appears when people are thwarted and when they can do little to remove the limitations which encircle them.”
These liberal-minded social scientists’ reflections compared the religious behaviors of the black, lower class with dominant, cultural norms and values. For Gunnar Myrdal, the “hysterical” behaviors exhibited in the independent churches represented “distorted development” and the spiritual and cultural lag of low-income blacks, i.e. the cultural deficit hypothesis. These assumptions increasingly sought to use black religious rituals and practices as data to highlight the marginalization of black, low-income communities from modern life and to make the case that the federal government should legislate policies to assimilate blacks into the larger, mainstream society.
The cultural deficit hypothesis emerged out of liberal and conservative commentaries on the black underclass. It continues to dominate our discussion of poverty in America today. It lurks beneath Ryan and other Republicans’ declaration that Lyndon Johnson’s unconditional war on poverty has been soundly defeated. Many unjust systems, past and current, keep Americans in poverty, from housing discrimination and unequal access to quality education to mass incarceration and racial profiling. The national discussion of poverty is still framed around cultural behaviors while ignoring the deep structural inequities that have fostered high rates of poverty in the contemporary economy. In the end, ascribing certain behaviors or pathologies that actually cut across race, class, and region solely to a particular people underscores a blind faith in the myth of free-market society.
Jamil Drake is a Ph.D. candidate in American Religious Cultures in the Graduate Division of Religion at Emory University. He is currently completing his dissertation, “To Know the Soul of the People: The Field Study of the ‘Folk Negro’ and the Making of Popular Religion in Modern America, 1924-1945.”