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World: Analysis From Washington--Culture Trumps Cash

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 1 May 1997 (RFE/RL) - A study of poverty in the United States has reached a conclusion that calls into question some of the fundamental assumptions behind policies designed to overcome the economic crises in post-communist countries.

In a book entitled "What Money Can't Buy," University of Chicago sociologist Susan Meyer reports that simply putting more money in the hands of the poor will not by itself cure poverty.

Indeed, she finds that even when poor people get more cash, their children are unlikely to escape poverty in the next generation.

Instead, she says, children of the poor are more likely to rise into the middle class if their parents have relatively less money but seek to impart the values needed for success in the workplace.

Among these values are "diligence, honesty, good health, and reliability."

Western scholars have long pointed to the importance of such cultural attitudes in determining who escapes from poverty and why. And their findings have on occasion informed government policies in some Western countries.

But the notion that getting money into the hands of a poor population is the best way to ensure that its children will not live in poverty continues to influence much Western thinking about how to overcome the economic difficulties of post-communist countries.

Meyer's findings suggest that both these countries, and those in the West who are interested in seeing them overcome the difficulties they now face, should give more attention to cultural issues than to cash.

Many governments are reluctant to focus on culture either because they fear that talking about cultural differences will lead to invidious comparisons among peoples or because they are concerned that such discussion might suggest there is no quick fix to current problems.

But Meyer's conclusions are not so pessimistic as that. She notes that the cultural values that lead to success exist in all ethnic communities and the state can play a role in transforming the cultural attitudes of any social group.

The post-communist states face enormous challenges in this regard. The communist regimes weakened in some communities, and even destroyed in others, many of the cultural values needed for effective participation in a free market economy.

Some of the post-communist countries have done better than others not because they had more resources or more assistance but rather because they had retained more of these values than others.

The Baltic countries, for example, have done relatively better than the former Soviet republics, less because they were richer to start with in 1tter future, culture is likely to trump cash over the longer run. And that fact, demonstrated by Meyer's research, should guide both the governments of the region and those who want to help them.