Much sociological theory is directed at understanding social change. Social theorists throughout history have rarely talked about poverty as such, but nonetheless their insights into the economic ordering and structure of society offer valuable ideas for understanding poverty. Marx and Engels, writing in Victorian Britain, pointed to the stark divide between the impoverished working classes who had nothing to sell but their labour and the capitalist classes who, by virtue of owning the means of production, were able to exploit this labour to their profit.
Sociologist Max Weber, writing around the turn of the 20th century, pointed to the importance not just of economic factors in producing and sustaining inequality, but also the influence of power, status and prestige in perpetuating dominant relations. Emile Durkheim, on the other hand, emphasised the functional necessity of social inequality for the well-being of society. Echoes of these early theoretical ideas can be seen in sociological thinking, to a greater or lesser degree, right up to the present day.
This review analysed sociological theories and concepts on the causes of poverty, focusing on how to understand poverty from a sociological perspective.
Poverty and the ‘undeserving poor’
Much sociological thinking on poverty, especially in the 1970s and 1980s, has revolved around the relative importance of social structures and individual agency in explaining the prevalence and perpetuation of poverty over time. The social and political propensity to mark out some people as being somehow responsible for their own hardship has a long history. In many accounts, particularly popular and political ones but also some academic studies, the emphasis has been on the supposedly ‘undeserving poor’, citing individual behaviours, supposed fecklessness or moral failings as key causes of poverty.
More recently, it has been argued that the welfare system is responsible for encouraging and supporting claimants into welfare dependency. Further recent variations of these ideas point to ‘cultures of worklessness’, ‘troubled families’ or families who have never worked as key explanations for poverty. Sociologists have been keen to use empirical evidence to challenge these dominant, individual and often psychological explanations for poverty. They point to the importance of the broader context and the kinds of opportunities open to people as being more important than individual behaviours and choices in explaining and understanding poverty.
The close association made between poverty and individual behaviours means that it can sometimes be difficult to disentangle poverty from related issues such as unemployment or receipt of welfare. This is especially the case in some current popular and political discourse, which ignores the fact that not all unemployed people are poor and nor are all of those experiencing poverty out of work. The tendency to conflate poverty with other social issues such as unemployment, welfare receipt or substance abuse, or to uncritically cite these conditions as explanations of poverty, is tied up with the tendency to portray poverty as a problem created by those experiencing it. It is also indicative of a more general tendency to downplay the significance of poverty altogether.
The ‘cultural turn’, consumption and social class
Sociologists use the concept of social class extensively in their research, and most agree that social class has an economic base. In recent years, some have argued that social class distinctions have become more complex and fuzzy and less significant for lifestyles and life experiences. It has been suggested that opportunities for identity formation have opened up and become more reflective of individual choice than they were in the past. It is argued that individuals now have greater control over their own destinies. Consumption practices (what people buy and consume) are often cited as a key mechanism by which people can demonstrate their individuality and create their own individual identities.
Consumption, however, has also become an increasingly important element of distinction and stratification. Those experiencing poverty often find it difficult to partake in expected consumption behaviours. Furthermore, wider society often subjects the spending habits and patterns of those in the greatest poverty to stigmatisation.
So, while access to consumption might seem to open up opportunities for people to construct their lifestyles and identities in ways reflecting their own individual preferences and choices, it can also reinforce and support social class divisions and distinctions. Furthermore, social class positioning continues to be an important influence on many, if not all, aspects of people’s lives, including educational attainment, jobs and leisure activities.
Poverty, stigma and shame
Poverty and material deprivation are important drivers of stigma and shame. The depiction of those in poverty as ‘the other’ often occurs through the use of particular language, labels and images about what it means to be in poverty. These processes take place at different levels and in different sections of society. Those working in welfare sectors, for example, might negatively – and mostly mistakenly – point to individual character traits and behaviour when explaining the key reasons for unemployment. This is a process of negatively stereotyping those who are disadvantaged. While these labels are often applied from the top down, towards those experiencing poverty by those who are not, people in poverty can also buy into and perpetuate such stereotypes and stigmatisation. This is the consequence of the pressure those in poverty face to disassociate themselves from the stigma and shame associated with poverty.
Capitalism and the changing labour market
For a long time, successive governments have lauded work as the best route out of poverty. Yet the changing face of the labour market and work itself means that employment is no longer a guaranteed passport away from poverty, if indeed it ever was. In the current context, working conditions for many have worsened, public sector jobs have rapidly declined, unemployment and underemployment have been increasing, and low-paid and part-time work have proliferated. Low-paid work, or ‘poor work’ as it is sometimes referred to, is now an integral and growing aspect of the contemporary labour market. It is a particular problem for those countries which have followed an economy based on aggressive free-market principles. As a result, in-work poverty is an increasingly important explanation for contemporary poverty.
Sociology provides a powerful tool for thinking about poverty. ‘Thinking sociologically’ can help us to better comprehend social issues and problems. It allows us to understand personal troubles as part of the economic and political institutions of society, and permits us to cast a critical eye over issues that may otherwise be interpreted simplistically or misinterpreted. In looking at poverty, myths and misconceptions dominate both popular and political discussions. Sociological thinking can be helpful in trying to disentangle poverty from a range of related concepts and largely pejorative discussions about a variety of social problems.
Some attention has recently been devoted to the discussion of rising inequality. In the current context, economic inequality is getting more extreme, with those at the very top growing ever richer while the majority are finding life increasingly harsh and poverty rates are increasing. Much of the sociological evidence reviewed in this study has been concerned with the reproduction of (social class) inequalities over time. Research has shown that the majority of the British public accept that wealth can buy opportunities, but conversely most also believe in the notion of a meritocracy and that hard work is the best way to get on in life. Yet evidence shows that true equality of opportunity simply does not exist.
Using a framework of inequality (and equality) allows scope to think more closely about issues of class perpetuation and their relationship with poverty. It is not happenchance that countries with low rates of relative income poverty tend to have a strong focus on equality. Sociological theory can alert people to how a growing emphasis on individual responsibility and behaviour might make class inequality and the importance of opportunity structures less obvious. Despite this, it remains the case that where people start out in life continues to have a significant influence on where they are likely to end up. Starting out life in poverty means a greater risk of poverty later on in life.
About the project
This review analysed sociological theories and concepts on the causes of poverty and ways to understand poverty from a sociological perspective. The review was necessarily only partial, as the size of the field under consideration did not allow for a systematic review of all relevant literature. Hence, the review concentrated on what the authors deemed to be the most relevant debates for understanding poverty sociologically.
Poverty at a Glance
There is a diversity of faces and voices that define people that are currently living in poverty. If you seen them on the street would you know them? Who are these unfortunate people? Do you think you could point them out? Where do they come from? While some impoverished people are apparent -many are hidden and walk amongst us everyday, fighting to survive, playing the societal game, and hoping to rise up and leave behind a life of poverty and despair. The impoverished is made up of people from all aspects of life with differences in age, race, color, and ethnicity. This group also includes fallen power elitists; impoverished by greed or over consumption of addiction. The issues of poverty and homelessness go hand and hand. The two are so closely intertwined that we often fail to see that they are in reality one problem, and that the homeless, excluding the handicapped, the aged, and the mentally ill, is merely the most severe expression of it. Charity and handouts do not solve the problems, although they often soften the blow. The impoverished continue to fight their battle to survive, and hope, and pray that the next day will be better then the last.
When we speak of the poor, we speak as though they are an unchanging and faceless group to be pity despised or feared. To talk of the "poverty problem" is to talk of some depersonalized permanent fixture on the U.S. landscape. The poverty is people, it's people standing in welfare lines, it's people standing in soup kitchen lines and unemployment lines. It's people living in rat-infested projects and people sleeping on the streets. It's people struggling to acquire things that the rest of society takes for granted. It's people coming up short in their quest for the American Dream. It's 13% of the American population that came up short of the American dream in 1999 (U.S. Census Bureau, 1999).
However, what truly defines poverty? Is it a lack of money, or lack of food or even lack of proper hygiene? Although these characteristics alone or combined can often define people living in poverty, the truth is that these are only perceptions. To live in poverty means that your income falls below the official poverty line for a given family size. In a broader sense, the living conditions of the poor are difficult to measure, both because annual cash income is only one factor related to living conditions, and because the poor are quite heterogeneous (Federman, Garner & Short, 1997). The perceptions or "myths" that the population has about poverty are distinguished by a "high degree of constancy" across generations and by an "equally pronounced capacity for evolution", adapting to changes in knowledge and social circumstance (Blumenburg, 1995 pp.34). Society buying into these myths and some impoverished adhering to the myths feed the fuel for society's beliefs and perceptions.
So why is there a need to change society's view of those living in poverty? The truth is that these perceptions and myths aren't just generalizations about the mass of impoverished because most of them "fit" the mold. While the belief is that the impoverished are homeless, the fact is that 48% own their own homes, compared to 78% of those not living in poverty. Typically, these home are three-bedroom houses with one-and-one-half baths. The average values of these homes are $65,000 (Goldman 1999). Not only does a good percentage of the impoverished own their own home; they also own the amenities to go along with it. Ninety-two percent of the impoverished own a color television, with nearly half of that population owning two televisions (Bartlett, 1998). Three quarters of the population of those living in poverty have VCR's, microwaves, telephones and even a car in the driveway (Bracey, 1997). Their homes are in good repair and are not overcrowded. Moreover, by their own report, the poor are not hungry -and even have sufficient funds to meet all essential needs (Susser, 1997). While life is not opulent, it is far from what the popular consensus understands by poverty.
Poverty is the inability to secure for onesself the benefits of 'civilization': necessities, comforts, pleasures. What are the causes of this 'shortage'? What was formerly done by human hands is now done by machines (technology). These machines are owned by the minority (the rich) and are worked by the majority (the poor) for the benefit of the minority (the rich). The minority also own the land. The majority must pay the minority for the 'priviledge' of being permitted to live in the place of their birth. Generally, the majority works hard and lives in poverty so that the minority may live lives of luxury without working. Poverty is caused by Private Monopoly; landlordism, employerism, ownership.
Until recently, poverty has never been simply the existence of poor people. It was that, combined with a set of understandings about how poor people fit into the overall scheme of things, how economic destitution and its possible eradication relate to ideas about divine providence, human nature, and the ideal society (Russel 1997). These larger meanings inspired the non-poor to take an interest in poverty and to commit their selves to do something about it. Today, however, the idea of poverty has been reduced to a drab, predominantly economic issue. It is a social problem encompassing other social problems --drug abuse, violence, panhandling, children having children--inspire few visions of opportunities to enhance compassion, equality, and justice (Bracey, 1997; Goldman 1999; Russel 1997; Susser, 1997). Their vileness is stark, encouraging the rest of society to block out poverty and retreat to its own more comfortable and intelligible world.
In these circumstances, increasing numbers of non-poor are opting for an alternative posture. Lacking confidence in and commitment to the proposition that poverty can be eliminated, we at least can order where we live, where our children go to school, what we read, and whom we encounter in such a way that we insulate ourselves from contacting or even thinking about the poor with their sordid lives and criminal tendencies. This is the coming solution to the problem of poverty: to make it go away by the cheap and simple expedient of refusing to acknowledge it (Bracey, 1997; Goldman 1999; Susser, 1997).
The impoverished meaning of poverty, and the resulting indifference toward it, enables and encourages politicians to join the rest of us in turning our backs on the poor. The structure of our society is not condolent to helping those in poverty or to improve their situation (Bartlett 1998; Gibbs 1995; Goldman 1999; Susser, 1997). While the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, it seems that if you bend down to help someone up, there is someone else there to kick you down.
Poverty is a disease of "The Money (Profit) System" (Susser, 1997). The smallest group "the rich " does little or nothing and enjoys the abundance of things made by the largest group - "the poor "- who live lives of semi-starvation and misery. The newspapers (just one of many devices invented and fostered by those who are selfishly interested in maintaining the status quo) are full of accounts of 'crimes' committed by the impoverished ('theft of trade' mainly).
When people in mainstream America think of violence, they also think of poverty: the deviant, defiant, dangerous "underclass" or "undeserving poor" (Federman, Garner & Short, 1997). Such stereotypes contain a grain of truth amid their untruths; the typical American stereotype of an impoverished person is one that is marked by numerous defiant behaviors. Though often seen as drug using, welfare abusing, baby making, jobless minorities, this is rarely the case.
While the myth is that the vast majority of the poor are blacks and Hispanics, the fact is that forty-eight percent of the poor are white, 27% are African Americans, and 22% are Hispanics (Bracey, 1997). Another common belief is that most people are poor because they do not want to work, but, facts show that 7.5 million poor adults work at least 27 weeks out of the year (Hale, 1999). What also must be taken into consideration is that 60% of the poor in the U.S. were not able to work due to their age (to young or to old), or due to disability. This can further be broken down as: 40% were to young 10% were over 65 with the remaining 10% as disabled (Federman, Garner, & Short, 1996). A myth held by many is that most poor get welfare so they aren't really suffering and once they are on welfare they stay on for long periods of time and make no effort to improve the situation. However, most poor citizens do not receive aid from the government, either because they are not eligible, not willing to apply, or do not know that they are eligible. For those families receiving welfare most did not receive aid for more than two years at a time (Thomas, 1997). It is believed by many that:
"Welfare mothers are promiscuous. Most are morally weak and undeserving. If women do not want to be poor they should make different choices, and change their behavior. This is the myth of the "culture of single Motherhood"" (Thomas, 1997 pp. 351).
Women on welfare are shown to have fewer births in comparison to the rest of the population (Hale 1999). Most welfare recipients are not teenage moms as the media hype and recent myth-driven welfare reforms tend to indicate. In fact, no more than 7% of the U.S. welfare families are headed by teen moms (Thomas, 1997). Another, strongly held myth about the poor is that they are heavy drug and alcohol abusers, statistics show that one out of every four people living in poverty is a substance abuser, many of these are included in the 25% who are mentally ill (Corcoran, 1995).
However, the truth is that bad apples exist in all classes, from muggers among the poor to manufacturers of defective products among the wealthy. Either street crime is primarily caused by poverty and unemployment, or it is not; this need not be a matter of permanent debate. After all, the middle and upper classes do not mug. The crimes that the middle and upper class commit are rarely the crimes that are exploited day in and day out on television, newspapers or media in general. This is due to the fact that the upper classes control society's views, interests and biases. There is historical bias in the law that favors the power. The power of the powerful interest groups in society determines who and what are deviant by using the power of social control (Corcoran 1995). Social control is used to punish or neutralize organizations or individuals that deviate from society's norms, especially the poor (Corcoran 1995). However, the only real crime that the poor as a society commit is that they are unable to fill in the gap between the goal of success and the means to attain it. With the biases in hand, the only real and lasting solution to changing the relationship between the poor and the deviant is to radically transform society.
The following is a personal journey to Gods Kitchen to learn more on how the poor and impoverished live:
My journey to God's Kitchen was a true eye opening experience. I was surprised to see all the hungry people inside, surprised to see all the hungry people standing in line and surprised to see all the hungry people outside . . . and surprised to see that many of them look like you and I. While many people don't take a second look at the man on the street begging for change, I took a second look while I was at God's Kitchen. This person could be my neighbor, a co-worker or even a fellow churchgoer. I found it most ironic that in a place called God's Kitchen, you couldn't see the difference between the impoverished and your fellow man. The feeling that I got inside from helping these people far outweighed any joy or excitement that I ever received from a material object. From this event, I was able to close some of the biases that I had against the poor and impoverished and learned that we could share the same goals, beliefs and ideas. The real tragedy I feel is that mainstream America appears to be unwilling to give the poor a chance at decent full-time jobs. They need a means to fill the gaps in their search and many are not only willing, but also able to fill various available positions. Without these jobs, the lure of the streets will be too strong, and the incentive to move into seemingly secure and well-paying criminal occupations too great.
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Russel, C. (1997). Who's poor. American Demographics, 18 8-12.
Susser, I. (1997). The Construction of poverty and homelessness in u.s. cities. Annual Review of Anthropology, 25, 411-435.
Thomas S. L. (1997). Women, welfare, reform and the preservation of a myth. The Social Science Journal, 34 (3). 351-368.
U.S. Census Bureau. (1999). Federal poverty guidelines (WWW document). URL www.census.gov/hhes/poverty/povmeas/falstp.html
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