The Optimist

The Cultural Evolution

The baggage we carry from our ethnic and national backgrounds can keep people poor -- but it can also change, and faster than you'd think.

Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images
Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

As hundreds of same-sex couples swapped vows two weeks ago on the day that their weddings became legally recognized in New York, commentators took the opportunity to marvel once more at the dramatic change in U.S. public attitudes toward gay marriage over the past decade, with support climbing from less than one-third to more than half of the public in just seven years. It is usually thought that such rapid shifts in cultural values are very rare — which can be a problem when the cultural shift you’re talking about is a much-needed evolution in attitudes toward class or race, the sort of thing that can bring entire populations out of a discriminatory economic sinkhole. But actually, rapid cultural change isn’t nearly as unusual as people think.

Culture is intimately connected with development outcomes, affecting everything from the way people do business to the way they interact with disenfranchised groups. For example, groups that enjoyed high literacy rates and good political institutions in the 19th century are more likely to enjoy higher incomes in the 21st. The social and political traits of pre-colonial ethnic groups that dominated particular areas of Africa may matter more to current income levels in those areas than which modern country they are found in. That’s in part because culture can upset efforts to reform economic systems. When states try to impose institutions like land titling, for instance, in areas where there are strong traditional rules about how such things work, New York University economist William Easterly suggests the traditional rules often win out. And culture’s deep roots can have more pernicious effects as well: Economists Nico Voigtländer and Hans-Joachim Voth observe that if your ancestors persecuted Jews in the 14th century, you were more likely to be a Nazi in the 1920s and 1930s.

And then there’s India’s caste system, one of the world’s most powerful and oft-cited examples of culturally imposed inequality. The Dalit caste, traditionally known as "untouchables" and historically relegated to "unclean" work such as leatherwork and handling feces, makes up a little under one-sixth of India’s population. Discrimination on the grounds of caste was banned by the country’s 1950 post-independence constitution, and the government has created numerous programs since then to ensure low-caste political representation and improve Dalit social and economic status. But despite all best intentions, Dalits still remain less well-off across a range of measures.

Indians still overwhelmingly choose to marry within caste. Teachers given performance incentives based on student test scores spend less time trying to teach low caste students. Even low-caste teachers in India mark student tests lower when they know the students are low-caste, and Dalit students themselves perform worse on tests when reminded of their status beforehand. After they leave school, low-caste graduates with the same qualifications earn less money. And Dalits are disproportionately poor and in bad health.

The good news is that even cultures with 1,000-year roots can alter dramatically under the right circumstances. Research by development economists Devesh Kapur, Lant Pritchett, Chandra Bhan Prasad, and Shyam Babu suggests that discrimination against the low caste, while still potent, is considerably on the wane. A survey designed and led by members of the Dalit community in two areas of Uttar Pradesh found that attitudes and behaviors related to the low status of Dalits had been widely tempered or abandoned over the last 20 years. Dalit respondents report that since 1990, they are far more likely to sit next to high-caste guests at weddings rather than being seated separately, they are no longer expected to handle the dead animals of other castes, and non-Dalit midwives will attend births in Dalit households. They have moved in large numbers into nontraditional professions like tailoring and driving, and almost none still work as indentured servants for high-caste patrons, as was once common.

The changes are huge. In Bulandshahr district, less than 4 percent of Dalits said that non-Dalits would eat in their households in 1990, but nearly half said that they would today. In 1990, 73 percent of respondents suggested that only Dalits handled dead animals; that fraction in 2007 was one in 20. The proportion of the surveyed Dalit population that said most or all girls in the household went to school in 1990 was 7 percent. In 2007 it had climbed to 57 percent.

Economically, while Dalits are still worse off than other castes, they are considerably less so than they were in 1990. The proportion with a television in Bulandshahr climbed from seven in 1,000 to nearly one-half, and bicycle ownership leaped from around one-third to over four-fifths. Nonetheless, the researchers suggest that the transformation is far too dramatic to be accounted for by income changes alone — the shift is a cultural one, too. "This is not to suggest," they caution, "that caste has disappeared as a social construct. It is very much alive." Nonetheless, Dalits today are experiencing not just far greater prosperity, but also greater social acceptance.

It isn’t just castes in India, of course. You can’t explain the increase in female secondary enrollment in low- and middle-income countries from 42 to 50 percent over the past decade, or the halving in the average number of kids a woman has in the developing world from 5.4 to 2.7 between 1970 and today, without talking about rapidly, dramatically shifting values.

For all that culture might have a role in determining relative attitudes and perhaps even relative levels of development, then, it isn’t a dead hand blocking all progress. In fact, cultural change appears to be part of a global and historically unprecedented virtuous cycle of improving quality of life that encompasses growing incomes but spreads far beyond to things like lower crime and violence, more widespread education, improved health, and the increasing ubiquity of democratic values and respect for civil rights.

Indeed, to return to the 21st century phenomenon of same-sex marriage, discrimination against homosexuals is yet one more area where we are seeing signs of progress. Even while a married lesbian couple in India had to flee threats of honor killings in India last month, World Values Survey results find that the proportion of Indians saying homosexuality is "never justifiable" has halved in less than 20 years, from 89 percent in 1990 to 48 percent in 2008.

That discriminatory culture appears on the wane suggests two things. First, quality of life is heading in the right direction for minority groups worldwide. And, second, this change will be to the world’s great benefit in terms of improved development outcomes. It is not just Dalits and gays who should be happy about the way things are headed — it is all of us.

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