Unruly Domestication: Poverty, Family, and Statecraft in Urban Peru

Excerpt from Unruly Domestication by Kristin Skrabut

Unruly Domestication investigates how Peru’s ongoing, internationally endorsed “war on poverty” shapes politics, intimate identities, and urban space in Lima. Drawing on a decade of embedded, ethnographic research in Lima’s largest and most recently founded “extreme poverty zone,” Kristin Skrabut demonstrates how Peru’s efforts to fight poverty by formalizing property, identity, and family status perpetuate environmentally unsustainable urban sprawl, deepen discrimination against single mothers, and undermine Peruvians’ faith in public officials and in one another.

The only full-length ethnography written about Lima’s iconic and policy-inspiring shantytowns in thirty years, Unruly Domestication provides valuable insight into the dynamics of housing and urban development in the Global South, elucidating the most intimate and profound effects of global efforts to do good.

Read an abbreviated excerpt from the introduction of the book below, and get your copy of Unruly Domestication: Poverty, Family, and Statecraft in Urban Peru; it officially publishes this month!

Praise for Unruly Domestication

Kristin Skrabut is a skilled ethnographer, whose fieldwork interweaves accounts from residents, community leaders, and others, showing how individuals have agency but also are caught up in processes beyond their control. She pays attention to the complex nuances of terminology and explains her own choices. Her fascinating observations will be welcomed by many scholars. 

—Susan Bibler Coutin, University of California, Irvine, author of Exiled Home: Salvadoran Transnational Youth in the Aftermath of Violence

A beautifully written and richly detailed book that boldly reconceptualizes the complex dynamics of poverty and gender, governance and relatedness. Unruly Domestication offers much for anyone concerned about the impact of state power on individual lives.

Krista E. Van Vleet, Bowdoin College, author of Hierarchies of Care: Girls, Motherhood, and Inequality in Peru

Abbreviated excerpt from Unruly Domestication


Extreme Lives

In Pachacútec, poverty and development are inscribed in the landscape and can be felt in your joints, your muscles, your lungs. In 2010, this twenty-square-kilometer settlement marked the north-western edge of metropolitan Lima-Callao. Marisa and I had been traversing the giant sand dune all morning. We began at 7:30 a.m., tumbling down from Marisa’s house on the sandy hillside through an open-air market already thick with street vendors trying to catch buyers on their way to the main avenue where the asphalt, installed with great fanfare only a year earlier, was already wearing thin. Buses and passenger vans spewed exhaust and kicked up dust, creating a world in sepia that prematurely aged the concrete exteriors of franchise restaurants and pharmacies that lined this strip of prime real estate.

At the avenue we turned right. As we walked along the undulating hills of rutted, packed dirt on the side of the road, Marisa and I spotted new houses edging toward the dune’s summit. Overnight, people had dragged esteras (straw mats) and plywood panels up the sand dune,1 fashioning these materials into makeshift structures that they could use to lay claim to an apparently vacant stretch of littoral desert. My mind flashed to a recent conversation with a woman named Laura in which she described her first few nights in Pachacútec. She and her husband laid down some cardboard and blankets, precariously enclosed the small area with straw mats and, in the cold damp of winter, slept one on top of the other for warmth “como sapos,” like toads, she explained.

Marisa dialed Pablo’s number, then hung up after a single ring to avoid being charged for the call. He called back immediately, and she told him about the new invasión (invasion, illegal land occupation) we had just identified on the periphery of the neighborhood known as sector K. Pablo said he already knew. Marisa was the third person to call him that morning. It sounded like a complaint, but I knew Pablo was proud that he was so many people’s first call and was thus kept apprised of large gatherings, invasions, and any other site where politics might happen. While he awaited instructions from higher-ups about how to handle the new settlement, Marisa was to continue with the district mayor’s latest business formalization campaign, encouraging people to register their businesses with the municipality and to reap whatever rewards and suffer whatever consequences might come with this new political visibility.

We turned left and walked briefly along the creamy black pavement that led to the governmental center of Pachacútec, the settlement’s first three concrete buildings, before spilling farther down the sand dune to the lower residential groups. This was Marisa’s zone; it was the area where she, as a “promoter” for the municipality, was responsible for spreading the word about various district government campaigns, building relationships with residents, and otherwise expanding the mayor’s political network. We passed women sweeping morning dust out of brightly painted plywood homes and took turns picking up small rocks and hissing “¡Tss tss, fuera!” (Get out!) to intimidate rogue dogs that barked and lunged at us as we walked by. Upon reaching a house along Pachacútec’s lower avenue, we dropped off a birthday card from the mayor. These cards were part of an ongoing project his administration used to construct personal relations with residents while simultaneously keeping tabs on who was actively inhabiting and participating in the community. We then wended our way back up the dune, stopping at any home that seemed to double as a store or restaurant to tell proprietors about the mayor’s latest one-time formalization campaign: “Act now, and a single payment will formalize your business for life!” Paying the fee would render it a politically visible and proper enterprise. Most people regarded us with suspicion, took a flyer, and sent us away.

By 2 p.m. we were tired and hungry, on edge from the barking dogs, and dizzy from the fog that had swirled about us for most of the morning. We made our way to an unassuming restaurant frequented by promoters like Marisa because the owner let them eat on credit and pay for their meals at the end of the month or whenever the municipality got around to paying them. Other promoters—Elisabet, Oscar, Julia, and Irma—were already sipping warm chicken soup when we arrived. We sat and chatted absently about the work of formalization until the television screen glowing on the counter grabbed our attention.

“Next time on Vidas Extremas!” a booming voice overlay a tinny guitar playing minor progressions as a montage of crumbled adobe, barren deserts, and piles of garbage eventually led to a Peruvian celebrity huddled in a dark corner giving a tearful testimonial about the day’s hardships. From 2008 to 2012, this popular reality TV show, Extreme Lives, sought out the poorest of the poor, those living in the direst circumstances, and sent Peruvian celebrities to live among them for three days. Pornographic displays of everyday suffering, followed by charitable donations and a dash of celebrity gossip, proved a winning formula. When I asked my companions if they watched the show, their collective and unequivocal response was “Every Saturday night.” Their opinions of the program, however, were mixed, and my inquiry incited a full roundtable discussion. Elisabet responded,

It has various messages, good and bad. You know, they [the celebrities] also make money from this. I was naïve at first, but a friend of mine who works at the channel told me But I did admire Viviana Rivasplata [Miss Peru 2001] as a participant because she committed herself to that family and still helps them. She has come down here [to Pachacútec] and given that woman rice and sugar. She put up their storefront, and she keeps helping them. She’s even paying for one ofthe daughters to get a technical degree.

Marisa chimed in, “Sure, she was good, but I hated the one from sector D4, the one that Tula went to.” Sighs of disgust erupted around the table. I remembered the episode well. Tula Rodriguez, a Peruvian showgirl turned actress, came to Pachacútec to experience the “extreme lives” of a shoeshine boy and his mother. The episode was originally meant to feature the boy’s father, who, the episode insinuated, had died suddenly of AIDS. Making the best of the situation, the show’s producers began the episode with footage of the father’s burial in Pachacútec’s clandestine cemetery and followed thirteen-year-old Pedrito as he struggled to learn his father’s shoeshine trade and support his impoverished family. During her three days with them, Tula shined shoes and tried to teach timid Pedrito how to attract customers and compete with the hundreds of other children struggling to make a living on the street just as he was. In accordance with the show’s formula, the three-hour episode ended with a tearful reunion between Tula and the family, followed by donations to the family on behalf of local politicians and the show’s corporate sponsors. These gifts, which spoke volumes about how poverty and appropriate poverty relief were conceptualized, included: a certificate of property possession from the regional government that would support the widow’s efforts to obtain legal title to her land; a wooden modular home with a tin roof to replace the house of straw and plastic sheeting that allowed Pachacútec’s thick winter fog to collect in bulging overhead pools and spill onto the dirt floor; a street cart and vendor’s license so the widow could sell mazamora morada (sweetened purple corn gelatin) nearby and earn a living while remaining close to home; and scholarships to technical institutes for Pedrito and his sister. “Yes, I hated that one,” Marisa continued, “because that woman they helped didn’t deserve it. That woman never loved her kids, and she never loved that man.”

Elisabet agreed. “She never loved that man, and he was the one who worked his fingers to the bone. She had already left him and was pregnant with another man’s baby I know the woman, only by sight, but I know her.”

I asked if they were suggesting that the woman wasn’t “truly needy,” drawing on a phrase often used in Peruvian media to critique poorly targeted assistance programs. Marisa corrected me. “Of course she’s needy. We’re all needy here. But it’s a shame that a similar case didn’t ” She trailed off and decided to explain the issue a different way.

I’ll give you an example. You’ve got your partner, and he’s needy. But you left him. You went off with another man. Then he [the former partner] dies, and you come back to cry about it, ‘Oh my husband is dead.’ The television program discovers you, and you go on TV with Tula to shine shoes, pretending you’re this poor little thing that’s really needy. Your partner was the one who really needed the help, but he’s dead, and you’re más viva [livelier, craftier], and so they give all the benefits to you, and you run off to spend it with another man. But who knows about this? No one except us who live here in Pachacútec. We know and it’s infuriating. That’s why Elisabet says that there are good and bad messages. That woman is going to get everything when she never really loved her kids or that man.

When I suggested that the show must attend to real cases too, Marisa corrected me again:

They are all real cases, Kris. They are all real cases. But there are cases that need stuff just like there are cases that have gone from needing to not needing. But as I say, they make you pity them and from this pity they grab you, “Oh, poor little thing, she’s poor,” when she doesn’t have anything to do with the man who died And the woman doesn’t even love her kids because she left them and went off alone with another man. . . . And you know what? After the show she left again. I think now her kids are staying with some relative.

All told, I spent almost a decade (2007–2017)2 exploring how Peru’s ongoing lucha contra la pobreza (war on poverty) played out in Pachacútec and other officially designated “extreme poverty zones.” Up until the Covid-19 pandemic hit Peru in March 2020, the country had experienced one of the largest and most sustained poverty declines in Latin America, with official poverty rates plummeting from approximately 58 percent of the population in 2004 to just over 20 percent in 2019 (World Bank 2020). Critics, meanwhile, countered these sunny statistics; they argued that the stats were being rigged, that help wasn’t getting to the “truly needy,” and that the poor didn’t feel any less poor than they had a year before.

Yet for all the time I spent scrutinizing statistics, poring over news reports, interviewing officials, shadowing program promoters, attending community meetings, and cooking alongside participants in communitymanaged food assistance organizations like comedores populares (dining halls serving low-cost lunches) and Vaso de Leche branches (Glass of Milk, a low-cost breakfast program that targets children), I consistently returned to this moment as one that crystallized the complex dynamics surrounding Peru’s perpetual war on poverty. For my interlocutors who lived and worked in Pachacútec, it seemed that true need was ubiquitous and yet hidden behind its own prevalence. These interlocutors described poverty as something they could see; it was embedded in the landscape and reflected in the news and reality TV programs that caricatured their lives, yet they also cautioned that looks can be deceiving. In these frameworks, poverty was clearly spatial and aesthetic and thus could be attributed to everyone who lived in Pachacútec, including the promoters themselves. However, through the language of the truly needy, “los que verdaderamente necesitan,” and the exceptional claims that such a language makes on others, poverty was also tied to time, to circumstance, and critically, to the supposedly private realms of family, intimacy, and affect. It is in part because of these entanglements—between the static spaces and fleeting times of poverty, between faith in poverty’s self-evidence and a pervasive mistrust of appearances, between poverty’s public politics and its manifestations in private life—that I describe the phenomena presented in this book as the unruly domestication of poverty.

Poverty’s multidimensional and multivalent domestication was evident in the various ways the Peruvian state endeavored to understand and control poverty through individual households. Poverty was measured through household surveys and officially associated with specific features of the house and home, including building materials, infrastructural connections, number of rooms and occupants, number of children, and the gender and marital status of the household head. Poverty relief was likewise targeted to specific households and often took the form of efforts to shore up household boundaries and regulate their internal dynamics through property formalization, marriage campaigns, and education initiatives to teach women “proper” household governance strategies. Official and popular discourses also identified “precarious,” “broken,” and “disintegrating” households as the source of Peru’s intractable poverty. Like “culture of poverty” discourses in the United States,3 this framework tended to obscure poverty’s origins in global and local relations of inequality and encouraged people, especially women, to turn inward, identifying themselves as the source of Peru’s poverty problem and the site of any potential solutions.

Beyond this, efforts to fight poverty through housing since the mid-twentieth century have entangled the concept and experience of poverty with failing to obtain normative, state-sanctioned ideals of domestic life. Through public discourse, school curricula, tax code, and myriad mundane administrative policies and practices, the Peruvian state has generated a master narrative of the life course and encouraged individuals to map their identities and experiences onto that narrative (Creed 2000). These basic story lines help produce patterns of belonging that “form the basis for feeling . . . at home, in one place and not another,” while individual divergences from the prescribed narrative can prompt experiences of inadequacy, marginality, and out-of-placeness even when one is otherwise at home (Borneman 1992, 287). Moreover, Peru’s precedent-setting “progressive” and “self-help” housing policies, in which the state allows Peruvians to build homes on vacant land progressively as their means permit, have helped to spatialize and aestheticize these domestic life-course aspirations, refracting them onto landscapes where they can be photographed, mapped, and transformed into the purportedly objective criteria by which poverty is assessed, managed, and frequently misread.

The various ways Peruvian officials have sought to pin down poverty and fight it in and through domestic spaces have had unruly consequences that extend far outside the home, challenging the ordering capacities of the state and shaping everyday life in Peru’s urban settlements in paradoxical ways. Peru’s war on poverty has perpetuated and remade forms of moral precariousness and discrimination, created troubling disjunctures between expectations of technocratic development and the profoundly political ways development programs have been implemented in practice, enabled illicit livelihood strategies, and reproduced landscapes of poverty in the urban periphery. Paradoxically, it seemed that the more closely poverty was scrutinized, the harder it was to get a handle on; the more it was documented and defined, the harder those documents were to trust; and the more it was identified with the home, the more it spilled out onto the landscape, undermining official narratives of Peruvian economic development even as it refracted Peruvians’ pursuits of state-sanctioned development ideals.

Understanding how Peru’s war on poverty shapes lives and relationships within extreme poverty zones like Pachacútec requires several analytic moves. First, we need to unsettle conventional, universalizing definitions of poverty in order to think more critically about how poverty is assembled and experienced in specific contexts. Second, we must adopt an experience-near understanding of the state, scrutinizing how it is constituted in and through its ostensibly excluded margins and how state poverty-fighting technologies like formalization reproduce and recode long-standing race and class inequalities. Finally, we need to overcome hegemonic, modernist assumptions about neat divisions between personal and political spheres to explore the myriad ways politics are entangled with ideals of family, realities of kinship, and the intimate aspirations and insecurities that find physical expression in Peru’s urban peripheries. Together, these moves provide ways of thinking about the situated rollout of development policy that transcend this specific context and can inform analyses of how official policy frameworks might both misunderstand and shape social life in other sites.

Rethinking Poverty

Although poverty has been a perennial concern of policy makers since the dawn of the modern era,4 in the 1990s and early 2000s, attention to “global poverty” became especially acute (Gupta 2011; Roy and Shaw-Crane 2015). At that time, the consequences of economic structural adjustment programs that prioritized economic growth over social well-being had become starkly apparent, with many in the international development community arguing that the short-term costs of increased mortality, malnutrition, and unemployment were simply too high a price to pay for the promise of eventual capitalist prosperity (M. Davis 2006; Portes and Roberts 2005). Scholars and policy makers began seeking new ways to conceptualize poverty and development that might provide a better baseline than GDP for assessing and improving quality of life, particularly for the world’s poor. Global development organizations, along with interdisciplinary consortia at elite universities, began to develop multidimensional definitions of poverty as well as composite numerical indicators—such as the Human Development Index and the Multidimensional Poverty Index—that took health, education, and the possession and distribution of various assets into account when evaluating the poverty and development of different nations (Green 2006; Merry 2016; World Bank 2000). Economists worked to move beyond conflations of GDP with quality of life by focusing on particular aspects of the poverty experience and using randomized control trials to test the effectiveness of specific interventions (Banerjee and Duflo 2020; Cookson 2018). Finance scholars began looking more closely at the complex financial lives of the poor in order to better integrate them into global markets (Collins et al. 2009). Meanwhile, development sociologists endeavored to combine qualitative and quantitative approaches in a way that preserved local definitions of poverty while still facilitating cross-national comparisons (Kanbur and Shaffer 2007).

Much of this scholarship is innovative and thoughtful, and taken together, these initiatives have prompted important debates about how best to conceptualize the poor and the most effective and ethical forms of assistance.5 Nonetheless, I am wary of the political and ideological implications of many of these poverty identification and assessment practices. While there are arguably good reasons for global development practitioners to compare levels of poverty over time and across space, the fixation on universally applicable definitions and measures ultimately serves to reify poverty; it constructs poverty as an objective thing that exists “out there” rather than recognizing it as an effect of ongoing relations of inequality at multiple levels (Green 2006). Anthropologist Akhil Gupta (2011, 7) argues that defining poverty in a way that allows for global comparisons inevitably favors a “contextually thin” understanding of poverty likely to inspire universalistic solutions that cannot possibly take seriously the current development “mantras of decentralization, participation and empowerment.” More perniciously still, the fixation on defining “the poor” as a single global class united by some intrinsic quality—such as their meager earnings, low caloric intakes, or some quantifiable lack of opportunity— distances us from the very features most responsible for whatever we might understand as poverty on a global scale, “namely historically grounded inequalities [and] asymmetries of power” (Gupta 2011, 8).

Additionally, as a cultural anthropologist I believe that context and meaning are critical to understanding any aspect of human experience. Veena Das and Shalini Randeria (2015, S4) argue that there is “no Archimedean point from which the diverse, subtle, and often imperceptible forms of social marginalization and discrimination . . . can be reduced to measurable categories of absolute or relative poverty.” Grasping what poverty means for people requires exploring its tight alignment with other conditions of life in specific contexts, such as “the possibility of democratic participation, the erosion of infrastructure, the denial of citizenship . . . [or] the effect of race and policies of incarceration” (Das and Randeria 2015, S4). While poverty is often depicted as a force that reduces human concerns to basic needs and mere survival, anthropological research on topics as seemingly primal as famine and motherhood challenges the notion that any aspect of human experience is so vital, so close to naked biological life as to be beyond meaning (De Waal 2005; Gupta 2011; Scheper-Hughes 1992). Experiences of suffering are always social and contextual. They are governed by specific articulations of political-economic structures and historic inequalities that unevenly distribute life chances, informed by collective cultural models of how to undergo life struggles, and shaped by intersubjective interactions that affirm, deny, reinterpret, exacerbate, or ameliorate experiences of suffering (Farmer 2003; Kleinman and Kleinman 1996).

With these anthropological frameworks in mind, in this book I approach poverty in a way that will make it feel strange to most readers. I intentionally seek to estrange poverty from anxious imaginaries that alternately spur spastic reactivity and political paralysis,6 so that we might better appreciate the multidimensional lives and life projects of people too often flatly depicted as “the poor” while also gaining a better understanding of the work that the concept of poverty does in particular contexts. Thus, rather than beginning with a preformed understanding of poverty and fleshing out its meaning, I explore how the idea of poverty emerges and comes to have force in everyday life. I investigate poverty as a cultural construct, a category of administration, a language of politics, a site for everyday negotiations of entitlements, and an identity that fades in and out of view in the face of the many other networks and relations in which the urban poor necessarily participate (Das and Randeria 2015; Green 2006; Roy 2003).

I am certainly not the first to take such a critically distant approach to the analysis of poverty. Some of the oldest traditions of theorizing poverty have explained it not as some essential experience or identity but as a social and administrative category that establishes particular relations between those who give and those who receive assistance. In the early 1900s, sociologist Georg Simmel argued that being poor does not automatically place someone in the specific social category of “the poor.” Rather, Simmel contends, “it is only from the moment that they are assisted that they become part of a group characterized by poverty” (1965 [1908], 122); they become a group united by the collective attitude that society adopts toward them as recipients of ameliorative assistance. In the modern Europe that Simmel describes, the poor were given assistance not because they were entitled to it as rights-bearing citizens but to prevent them from becoming “dangerous enemies of society” (121). Poverty assistance was thus an “application of public means to public ends” (123). In this context, “the poor man as a person and the perception of his position in his own mind” were as irrelevant to public administration as they were “to the giver who gives alms for the salvation of his own soul” (121).

When the poverty concept began to be applied globally in the wake of World War II,7 it remained a category defined by the purveyors of assistance and helped to perpetuate long-standing hierarchies between the “developed” nations that gave assistance and the “underdeveloped” nations that received it (Escobar 1995). As donating institutions with different priorities proliferated over the course of the twentieth century, poverty emerged in different sites as a composite category forged by the diverse charitable organizations and statelike actors operating in a given context (Das and Randeria 2015, S11).

The specific ways the poverty idea is assembled in different times and places results from the ways diverse political technologies (such as surveys, maps, legal systems, and political discourses) and modes of representation come together in particular circumstances (Ong and Collier 2005; Roy and Shaw-Crane 2015). The general tendency among scholars and the discerning public is to treat statistics and narratives as opposing forms of representation. Statistics are depicted as cold, objective, aggregating, and flattening, while narratives are viewed as humanizing and individualizing but perhaps also partial and emotionally manipulative. Conversely, I find that these two forms of representation work in tandem to generate Peru’s “total poverty fact.”8 This total poverty fact is a contextually specific construct that is produced as mass-mediated numbers, maps, and dramatic testimonies mingle with the low-level buzz of individual poverty stories and suspicions. This production links the sensational to the sensory, creating a generic intimacy and a visceral common sense about the nature of Peruvian poverty and the country’s national reality.9 In a special irony, the naming, measurement, and mediation of a grandiose and impossibly precise “extreme poverty” in Peru enhance poverty’s unruly domestication. The extreme poverty imaginary radically limits the number of people who may make claims on the state, prompts a fixation on familial dimensions of poverty that distract from poverty’s political and economic causes, and encourages a deep mistrust of any specific poverty claim.

The definition and boundaries of the poverty category, which we may also interpret as the boundaries of the “deserving poor,”10 or to invoke the Peruvian category “los que verdaderamente necesitan,” are likewise asserted and maintained by those involved in the everyday work of poverty assistance and by anyone who engages in quotidian conversations about the distance between those who receive assistance and those who should receive assistance. In this way, the politics of poverty play out in routine negotiations over “entitlements,” that “complex system of claims . . . embedded within the social relations and practices that govern possession, distribution and use in society” (Kabeer 1994, 140). It is through these everyday discourses and practices that we see how understandings of poverty and the politics of need become linked to aesthetics, space, time, circumstance, and moral judgments about kin relations and intimate behaviors.

Importantly, to focus on poverty as a construct, a category, a discourse, or a politic does not deny the real experiences of human suffering that occur around the world or ignore the structural violence that unequally distributes life chances in different contexts. Rather, this ethnographic view of poverty, which “shifts attention from need to the discourse over needs . . . [and] from poverty to the politics of poverty” (Roy 2003, 74), helps us establish a critical distance from conventional poverty imaginaries that simultaneously trouble and comfort us in their familiarity (Fassin 2007; Roy 2011). In the process, this ethnographic view makes space for understanding the lived experiences of people conventionally categorized as poor while attuning us to the complex effects of being both subject to this category and engaged in its production. To appropriate a phrase from Michael Taussig’s 1984 analysis of the “culture of terror,” my goal in analyzing poverty this way is to “penetrate the veil while retaining its hallucinatory quality” (471), that is, to see past or through powerful imaginaries of poverty in a way that gets closer to people’s lived experiences while still attending to the real-world effects of these imaginaries.


  1. Estera is a term for a large woven reed mat commonly used in precarious and early-stage constructions in Peru’s coastal regions. These low-cost mats are often sold in sizes of 2 x 2 meters or 2 x 3 meters. Depending on their size, rigidity, and tightness of weave, they can be used as roofs or walls or bent over in a semicircle and used as a tent. A very early-stage house might be composed of five esteras, four as walls and one as a roof, minimally supported by wooden poles stuck into the ground. Whenever I use terms like “straw,” “straw hut,” or “straw mat” in this text, I am referring to esteras. Due to the symbolic and aesthetic significance of this construction material, when directly quoting interlocutors I generally opt to use the Spanish estera accompanied by the appropriate English translation.
  2. This consisted of several oneto three-month trips during academic breaks from 2007 to 2012, as well as a fourteen-month extended fieldwork trip from August 2009 to October 2010, when I conducted the bulk of this research. I then spent several years engaged in research and writing about these issues from abroad before reinitiating summer fieldwork in Peru for this and a related project from 2016 to 2019.
  3. The phrase “culture of poverty” is typically attributed to Oscar Lewis who, in the early 1960s, used the term to describe sociostructural, psychological, and behavioral similarities he identified in segments of low-income populations in the United States, Puerto Rico, and Mexico. He asserted that certain traits— such as limited participation in dominant social institutions, poor social organization, matrifocality, feelings of inferiority, a present-time orientation, and provincialism—began as common adaptations to common problems in certain capitalist societies but subsequently perpetuated themselves across generations as children were socialized into these orientations. Lewis (1966) qualified his assertions by distinguishing his “culture of poverty” from economic poverty and explaining that the majority of poor populations did not exhibit this so-called culture. Nonetheless, the term is frequently invoked to provide a scientific gloss to denigrating stereotypes about the poor and to blame the poor for their circumstances. Although there are similarities between the ways my Peruvian interlocutors depict the household heritability of poverty and the ways culture of poverty frames are invoked in the United States, the underlying logics of an ecologically tied cultural particularism, class associations of habits and mannerisms that Peruvians call educación, and theories of personality formation are distinctive enough to Peru that I do not engage US culture of poverty debates here. For a succinct discussion of these debates in the United States see Goode 2010.
  4. Numerous scholars have argued that the “modern era” is partly defined by the emergence of a particular kind of poverty (i.e., the widespread pauperization that results when capitalism spreads, existing community relations break down, and millions are deprived of access to land and other resources) together with a particular institutional approach to addressing it (Escobar 1995; Foucault 2007; Milton 2007).
  5. For instance, poverty-relief programs like conditional cash transfers versus universal basic income imply different understandings about the causes of poverty as well as different ways of thinking about the rational capacity of the poor and their relations to other citizens.
  6. See Didier Fassin’s 2007 discussion of W. H. Auden’s “Age of Anxiety.”
  7. See Escobar 1995 and Rist 2008 for thorough histories of the coevolution of “poverty” and “development.”
  8. See Comaroff and Comaroff 2006a and Zhang 2001 for similar analyses of the “total crime fact” in South Africa and the “floating population” in China, respectively.
  9. I draw the term “generic intimacy” from Comaroff and Comaroff’s (2006a) description of the “total crime fact” in South Africa.
  10. Celeste Watkins-Hayes and Elyse Kovalsky (2016, 199) describe the pervasiveness of tropes of the deserving and undeserving poor both in the United States and in international poverty frameworks, explaining that even though “politicians and policy makers generally do not use ‘deservingness’ explicitly . . . discourse and policies reflect the implicit boundary-drawing processes that parse worthiness.”