Center on Assets, Education, and Inclusion

May 5, 2015

The poverty rate rose during the recent recession and remains particularly high among children (19.9% in 2013 according to the U.S. Census Bureau).  High child poverty increases concern that children raised in poverty will still be in poverty as adults.  These children certainly have strikes against them; recent research reveals that even brain structure can be influenced by the experience of growing up poor. To prevent poverty from being passed on to the children, we need to know how it is transmitted. 

The culture of poverty argument – developed by Oscar Lewis in the 1960s – suggests parental values and behaviors are passed on to children and, then, prevent them from escaping poverty.  Despite the significant advances in knowledge and considerable changes in U.S. society and economy since the origin of this idea, it has staying power; indeed, a 2010 New York Times article noted that cultural explanations for poverty are back. 

There are a lot of problems with this culture of poverty perspective. It blames poverty’s victims, ignores poor families’ middle-class preferences (Magnuson and Votruba-Drzal 2009; Duncan et al. 2014; Lamont and Small 2008), and renders political actors impotent; if cultural explanations for the transmission of poverty are correct, then policies have limited potential to help children escape poverty in adulthood.  The recent recession has placed child poverty back on the policy agenda, raising important questions. Are policy efforts to reduce poverty transmission worth the cost and effort?  Do cultural explanations of poverty hold up under rigorous tests?

Some of my recent research investigates these questions using information from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health.  If financial standing is culturally transmitted, children’s parental exposure – through mutual activities – should strengthen the intergenerational transmission process, increasing the likelihood that children who experienced poverty will end up there as adults. In other words, if parents are the problem, more time with parents should be worse for these poor children’s chances to leave poverty.

A key difficulty in testing culture of poverty arguments is that parental behaviors tend to be associated with other parental characteristics related to child outcomes. It becomes hard to isolate the variables of interest, but sibling comparisons help address this inequality between families.  Traditional comparisons between families may simply reflect parental differences in parenting style, education, income, or wealth, among other things.  Full siblings have the same family and parents, so differences should reflect something other than parental characteristics. 

When accounting for differences between families, results contradict the culture of poverty expectation.  Specifically, among sibling pairs living in households above poverty as teens, parent-child activities yield no significant advantage in adult income.  Among siblings near poverty, however, parental activities significantly increase adult household income (about $1,600 per month for each additional activity).  Thus, interactions with parents near poverty tend to improve adult financial outcomes and facilitate intergenerational mobility.  If child interactions with poor parents pass on any type of culture, therefore, they appear to convey a “culture of mobility”, not the reverse.

Overall, parent-child interactions seem to be important for positive socioeconomic outcomes, particularly at the lower end of the distribution of parental socioeconomic status.  Poor parents are more dependent on labor income and face strong time constraints, often forced to work long hours or even multiple jobs in order to make ends meet.  Despite these challenges poor parents face to spend time with their children, evidence suggests this is time well spent. Far from limiting their children’s upward progress, these low-income parents may be a critical part of the solution to preventing persistent poverty. Facilitating and subsidizing parent-child interactions may help reduce the intergenerational transmission of disadvantage.


Duncan, Greg J., Katherine Magnuson, and Elizabeth Votruba-Drzal. 2014. “Boosting Family Income to Promote Child Development.” The Future of Children 24(1): 99-120.

Magnuson, Katherine and Elizabeth Votruba-Drzal. 2009. “Enduring Influences of Childhood Poverty.” Focus 26(2): 32-37.

Lamont, Michele and Mario Small. 2008. “How Culture Matters: Enriching Our Understanding of Poverty.” In The Colors of Poverty: Why Racial and Ethnic Disparities Persist, A.C. Lin and D.R. Harris (Eds.), pp. 76-102. New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation.