Individual and structural attributions for poverty and persistence in family literacy programs: The resurgence of the culture of poverty

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Background/Context: Educational researchers have long sought to understand the factors that enable or constrain persistence in non-formal adult education and family literacy programs. Scholars typically posit three sets of factors influencing persistence: situational (learners' life circumstances), institutional (programmatic factors), and dispositional (learners' personal experiences and attitudes). This body of literature tends to emphasize institutional and dispositional factors such as program quality, learner motivation, and self-efficacy. Situational factors, such as lack of childcare, are often considered less influential and/or beyond practitioners' control. However, by focusing on individualistic and programmatic factors, scholars and educators risk overboking the ways in which social structures and community contexts shape educational participation and achievement, thereby underestimating the chronic socio-economic insecurity experienced by families in poverty. Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: The purpose of this article is to analyze how family literacy practitioners utilize individual and/or structural factors in explaining the determinants of adult persistence in family literacy programs and the causes of poverty for adult learners and other community residents. Research Design: This article is based on a qualitative study of persistence in family literacy programs across urban and rural contexts. The data are drawn from interviews with 30 family literacy professionals at 20 program sites across Pennsylvania, supplemented by interviews with 17 learners in three programs. Conclusions/Recommendations: The family literacy practitioners in this study tended to attribute learner persistence mainly to individual qualities such as motivation, and often described adult learners in terms consistent with the culture of poverty thesis, specifically, the failure to value education, lack of motivation, and the view that poverty is an intergenerational cycle perpetuated by the habits and traits of the poor. Contrary to culture of poverty stereotypes, family literacy participants characterized themselves as determined individuals who value education and want to make something of themselves. Individual-level explanations characterize the dominant understandings of poverty and educational persistence in the U.S., and thus shape practitioner thinking about adult learners' economic circumstances and the reasons they stay in or drop out of adult education. The pervasiveness of the culture of poverty thesis in professional environments and discourses helps explain why dedicated, compassionate practitioners frame persistence and poverty individualistically. This study contributes to a deeper understanding of the interrelationship between individual and structural dimensions of persistence, suggesting how a constellation of poverty-related factors disrupts program participation. We argue that motivation and other personal attributes are socially constructed, geographically distributed, and inextricably linked to structural factors such as the economic exclusion of the poor.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2280-2310
Number of pages31
JournalTeachers College Record
Issue number9
StatePublished - Sep 2009

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Education


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