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Cultural deficiency refers to a theoretical argument that the cultural attributes or practices often associated with historically disenfranchised racial/ethnic groups (specifically, blacks and Latinos) have prevented them from assimilating and attaining social mobility within U.S. society. Examples of cultural deficiencies include limited outlooks and attitudes toward the future, a failure to internalize the work ethic, instant gratification behavior, a lack of parent involvement in schools, low intellectual abilities, an emphasis on masculinity and honor, and an aversion to honest work. Other so-called deficiencies, as identified by Stanley Eitzen and Maxine Baca Zinn (2006), may include early initiation to sex among children, female-headed households, a fatalistic attitude toward life, and a limited interest in education. The cultural deficiency argument also posits a causal linkage between certain cultural attributes and upward socioeconomic mobility. It identifies the attributes of economically and socially successful middle-class whites as the mechanisms that enable success (e.g., emphasis on achievement, education, and independence) vis-à-vis legal or institutional structures and social ideologies.

The manner in which cultural characteristics operate forms another significant component of cultural deficiency. Culturally deficient groups are viewed as developing certain cultural qualities so as to adapt to poverty, particularly over time. Such characteristics are passed on from one generation to another, making it difficult for individuals to escape poverty. Thus the identified deficiencies have a cyclical impact; moreover, even with the elimination of many legal barriers to social mobility, these qualities are seen as having created new impediments.

Cultural deficiency has been used since the mid-1900s in academic discourse and in various fields, at times referred to as the “culture of poverty” or “culture of deprivation.” Some sociologists have applied the discourse of cultural deficiency to analyses of limited social mobility. Education specialists have used cultural deficiency arguments to explain why differences in academic performance exist and persist among racial/ethnic minority groups. The following is an overview of the operation of cultural deficiency within the discourse of race and ethnicity and that of education.


In the field of education, cultural deficiency was used to explain the differences among racial or ethnic groups in academic achievement. Before the 1960s, it was also used as a justification for separate schools. For example, as Carlos Blanton notes in a 2003 article, from the 1920s to 1940s Mexican-American students were tested for intellectual abilities as a basis for separate classrooms. Many theorists employing the cultural deficiency argument maintained that the low academic performance of Latinos was a consequence of their deficient cultural practices. In this view, familial and community practices suppress the development of low-income, minority children in terms of the linguistic, cognitive, and affective skills necessary for successful school functioning. For example, in 1966 Celia Heller asserted that Mexican-American upbringing “creates stumbling blocks to future advancement by stressing values that hinder mobility— family ties, honor, masculinity, and living in the present—and by neglecting the values that are conducive to it—achievement, independence, and deferred gratification” (pp. 34–35).

Other theorists of cultural deficiency pointed to the perpetuation of patterns of cultural socialization from one generation to the next. Oscar Lewis (1961) argued that low-income Mexicans and Puerto Ricans self-perpetuated a culture of poverty that included violence, an inability to defer gratification, and political apathy. These cultural practices, according to Lewis, became embedded in the behavior of low-income Mexicans and Puerto Ricans by the age of six or seven and continued even if the economic status of the community improved.


Cultural deficiency arguments within academia have had significant staying power. Policy makers have taken up the arguments and applied them to many policy agendas, one of the most significant being the War on Poverty campaign of President Lyndon B. Johnson during the 1960s. The campaign was institutionalized with the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, which led to the creation of the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO). Programs such as VISTA, Job CORPS, and Head Start emerged from this campaign. The premise of many such programs was to end the cyclical nature of poverty by altering the attributes of low-income minority groups. The emergence of such a policy initiative testifies to the far-reaching significance of cultural deficiency as a theoretical explanation.

The term maintains some academic and policy significance. Although much of the research on cultural deficiency emerged during the mid-1900s, there continue to be significant discussions as to whether identifiable cultural attributes among low-income black and Latino groups explain their persistent underperformance in schools and minimal social mobility. In addition, welfare policy continues to rely on elements of the cultural deficiency argument to explain why some low-income, ethnic minority groups are unable to move out of the cycle of poverty.

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