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Commentary: The culture of poverty: An impediment to a nation's development
Published on January 7, 2017Email To Friend    Print Version

By Jean H Charles

At the sunrise of this year 2017, it is customary to set resolutions for the New Year and take steps to achieve those goals. The one that I formulate with all my heart for my beloved Caribbean, including Haiti, is to get out of the culture of poverty to enter into the realm of the culture of wealth and abundance.

Jean H Charles LLB, MSW, JD, is a regular contributor to the opinion section of Caribbean News Now.  He can be reached at
To understand the meaning of the culture of poverty, I am inspired by the book by J.D Vance, The Hillbilly Elegy, which explains his own transformation from a culture of poverty environment to a culture where he has been able to progressively achieve success and prosperity in his life by getting out of the culture of poverty.

JD Vance defines the culture of poverty as the main culprit of the fact that the poor remains poor. “With at whatever money they have on hand, they buy the biggest TV set, the latest and the most expensive tennis shoes, maximizing their credit card with a load they can barely afford. The money for tomorrow is spent today, leaving nothing for the next generation.”

As a man trained in social work, I know about the theory of the poor becoming poor because of bad habits, while that theory tends to ignore that the market creates circumstances that condemn the poor to their bleak situation, as the colonial world condemned the slaves to their dehumanization.

Yet I am still fascinated by JD Vance’s concept of the culture of poverty as disguised venom that will prevent anyone jumping on the lifeline towards prosperity when it is offered. To prove his point, Vance offered his own existential story. He was born in Kentucky’s Appalachia, the mining region of the United States where Robert Kennedy expressed his outrage at the bleak situation of the so called “white trash”: white people without education and sophistication back in the 70s. It has been 40 years since and the situation has not changed today.

The Appalachian values tainted with the culture of poverty are filled with drug and alcohol addiction, verbal abuse and loud music. JD Vince’s book’s popularity is credited with changing the tide of the voters from Hillary Clinton to Donald Trump. Here we have in the middle of America, trumpeted as the model to follow, millions of white and blacks living in dirt poverty trying to emulate all the trappings of prosperity with conspicuous consumption on a credit card.

Vince’s family moved from Kentucky to Ohio, where another set of culture prevailed, mainly from his grandmother, who taught him the principles of ethics, responsibility, hard work and resilience. From a street boy in Kentucky, Vance changed into a young man in Ohio, who succeeded so well in high school and in college that he was admitted to Yale Law School, where he graduated with a degree in law and prospered so well that he is now a celebrity called upon by several talk shows in the United States.

The significance of the story is that people and nations can change their situation in spite of the environmental impediments set upon them. The Haitian people often feel victimized by foreign countries; I tend to say, get over it! Look at the story of Vietnam, Rwanda, and Japan. The destruction inflicted upon the people of these countries has been systematically much greater than the one inflicted upon Haiti, but they recovered to become vibrant nations, while Haiti and the Haitians did not.

Haiti, like other nations situated in the Caribbean and the rest of the world, must fight the culture of poverty to become a rich and prosperous nation. That culture of poverty was impregnated during the colonial era where the colonists took everything while leaving little for future generations.

Fresh out slavery, Toussaint Louverture, Jean Jacques Dessalines and Henry Christophe preached and practiced the concept of wealth accumulation. They did not last long enough as rulers for this acculturation to become solidly entrenched into the ethos of the new citizens.

By contrast those presidents who inspired the culture of poverty onto the land, Alexander Petion and Jean Pierre Boyer, remained in power for half a century. Haiti was and is defined as the nation that wasted its human and natural resources for the benefit of others or for ostentation.

Looking deeper into the concept of the culture of poverty, we must uproot Oscar Lewis, who before J.D Vance posited the issue of the destructive effect of poverty on the characteristics of the individual. Like the bourgeois values, the culture of poverty transcends boundaries, genres and nationalities. You will find the same traits in Harlem, Haiti or Harare: lack of discipline, order or stability, machismo, sexual abuse, alcoholism, usury lending and conspicuous consumption.

In Haiti, the culture of poverty runs the gamut from the ghetto dweller to government officials. A major portion of the Haitian budget is spent on make believe projects and luxury vehicles by government officials, while the true needs of the Haitian people are neglected. Electricity, even in the capital, is provided only at night; I have been fighting with the water company DINEPA to receive regular running water daily for the past seven years while paying continuously my monthly bill.

We are living in a world in Haiti of fake institutions and medieval infrastructure, while the government elite enjoy all the perks of the most successful nations.

Lewis’ study in Mexico and in Puerto Rico represents one of the most comprehensive studies of the lives of the poor and how some of the traits ingrained in their lives can prevent any redemption towards wealth creation. The sad part of the story is the culture of poverty is used by the rulers to maintain the poor from ever becoming rich. Louis Vuitton and Moet are only too happy that the poor man took a usury loan to wear his gadget or drink his champagne.

The culture of poverty is a commodity exported from the black and Puerto Rico ghettos of the United States to the Caribbean, Africa and to the rest of the world. It has invaded the poor as well as the rich families, making the children the last generation of hard and resilient workers.

This conversation, for the sake of our future, should be the talk of those who cogitate for a better world for all!
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