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The Culture of Poverty

J. Kevin Tumlinson

Let's get serious.

Recently I took a class designed to make educators more aware of cultural diversity in the classroom and in society as a whole. The class was extremely useful-in fact I recommend it to anyone who works with people on a daily basis. It pointed out to me that there is more to an individual's culture than ethnicity. There are subcategories, smaller groups that work like fine grain on sand paper to smooth the rough edges and give a person shape, definition, character. They're called "microcultures," and they can include anything from musicians to swing dancers to baseball card collectors. These microcultures are the defining elements in our lives. We determine who we are by the groups we belong to.

Knowing that, it suddenly becomes clear that to understand someone's motives we have to understand not just their culture in general but also the microcultures they belong to.

One microculture I see often is that of poverty.

Many of us have no real understanding of what poverty is. We may be broke most of the time, in debt, unsure of how we'll pay the phone bill. But those particular definitions can apply to middle class (believe me, I know!). Poverty is something else. Missed meals, a reliance on government aide, homes without power or telephone services-these are some of the earmarks of the culture of poverty.

And something else.

It's no stretch to assume that if you're reading this column you probably have some interest in current events. Possibly you have a preference for local events, or national, or international. But for those living in the culture of poverty there's no news more important then that of the immediate circle of family and friends. Who needs a place to sleep tonight? Who has food? Who was disrespected by someone? Who needs to be avenged.

Vengeance is a mainstay of the impoverished. "An eye for an eye" is not just some obscure biblical notion of justice; it is a fact of daily life. Those who insult you, who harm you by word or by deed, must pay a price. Vengeance must be served.

The circle becomes all important. Friends and family become all that matters, even above the self. The definition of the individual-who they are-comes from the culture that dominates them. They are defined by the poverty.

At least, that's the way they see it.

What these souls don't realize is how much is truly out there for them. They're imprisoned by their culture. They're locked behind the stone walls and hopelessness of poverty. Education, as always, is the key to unlocking their cells.

What's the solution to poverty? Money, of course. More money for better schools, better materials, and better resources. Money to finance trips to foreign places, so we can expose children to the wonders of the world. Money to invest in useful technology, so we can give the children the skills and tools they'll need for the rest of their lives.

I'll be asked where this money is supposed to come from. I don't have an easy answer for that one. But if I had to boil it all down, to say it with one word, I supposed I'd have to say "priorities." A lot of tax dollars come out of our pockets each year, surely a larger percentage of it can be freed up to pay for education. And if it can't, if the government says that's impossible, then we should know why. It's time to hold those who manage our money accountable.

It's time the government recognized the priority of education in this country. It's time that we eliminated the culture of poverty from our country and the world once and for all. It's time to get our priorities straight and create a new microculture-one to which the whole world belongs.


J. Kevin Tumlinson is a writer and a schoolteacher living in Lake Jackson, TX. He has no more words right now.


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