What are the main reasons Americans are poor?According to a sociologist's point of viee.

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chimeric eNotes educator| Certified Educator

One reason why so many Americans are poor is the idea of a "poverty trap."

Basically, a poverty trap describes a situation where the poor become dependent on government benefits which are reduced by an equal amount for any money earned thus negating any improvement in their situation and thereby removing all motivation to even try to make such improvements.

When it becomes acceptable in a culture to subsist entirely on government subsidies like welfare and the like, then the very idea of self-support becomes foreign to that culture. Ideas like personal pride in earning one's way become uheard of. Additionally, a feeling of entitlement sets in where the new generations of recipients honestly believe that the government owes them their living and that they should not have to do anything to earn it; if the government denies them benefits, it is in effect stealing from them.

When a person is born into a society where such thinking is not only present, but the norm, any means of breaking out of the poverty trap cannot be seriously considered unless the perceived pay-out is both large enough and comes quickly enough to more than overcome any loss of benefits.

Thus, the only methods that are usually imagined as acceptable under these conditions are to become rich and/or rich and famous through gambling (as in playing the lottery) as a sports figure or performer or to turn to crime.

The chances of winning the lottery are dismally low. The chances of being struck by lightning are much better! If a person spends all his or her money on the lottery or other gambling pursuits, that person ends up mostly throwing good money after bad and ending up even worse off than if he or she had done nothing at all.

If all of your efforts are dedicated to sports or the performing arts, then simple numbers mean that only a small percentage of only the very best actually succeed, while the rest end up just wasting their time.

If instead one turns to a life of crime for fast, easy money, then invariably this means being arrested and imprisoned--again, sealing oneself and one's children ever further into poverty and government dependence.

So, in a welfare state such as most western countries have, it is almost guaranteed that there will be a large percentage of the population on welfare and doing so generationally.


Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Not to be flippant, but I would have to ask, “And other nations are not?” In the end, the poverty that is in America is something present in all nations that subscribe to a capitalist, free market system.  There will always be an underclass in such a configuration.  This is not something unique to America, as capitalism only survives when there are distinct “winners” who can post profit in this economic setting and “losers” who are not able to do so.  The former end up becoming part of this number of the poor.  There are other sociological explanations for this that relate to different variances.  However, the sociologist would have to examine the role of an economic system within a social setting as a major reason why there is poverty and why there are individuals who are not “making it” as successful people.  The sociologist would also examine how the replication of this economic order helps to continue this cycle of poverty and which people always seem to be in it.  There would also be examination of why this is.  All of these avenues come from a critical distillation of the economic system in a particular nation, in this case, capitalism.


chimeric eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Akannan points out that:

the poverty that is in America is something present in all nations that subscribe to a capitalist, free market system.  There will always be an underclass in such a configuration.

With which I agree, but only to the point that I acknowledge that capitalism is a human-created economic system and as such will have flaws inherent in it. Much of my teaching career was spent in former Soviet Union/Communist states. Additionally, I spent some time in some of the Western-European social democracies. I can say without reservation that each system, capitalist/free market, socialist, or modified social/free market has a clearly identified poverty class. The main difference in a free market economy is a larger, more stable middle class rather than the presence of a poverty class.

pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This is a matter of a great deal of controversy.  Here are a couple of opposing viewpoints.

First, there is the idea that the poor lack opportunities.  People who believe this idea say that the poor grow up in places where the schools are worse than middle and upper class schools.  They are not exposed to the same sorts of chances to go to camps and on educational vacations, things like that.  Because of that, they are not able to compete with other Americans.

Second, there is an idea that the poor have a "culture of poverty."  This school of thought argues that the poor have a culture that does not value hard work and other things that would allow them to get out of poverty.  This approach says that the poor must in some way be given different values so they can get out of poverty.

brettd eNotes educator| Certified Educator

We can't overgeneralize and say that America is a poor country.  We are a very wealthy country overall, but with a significant, even unbelievable poverty rate.  1 in 6 Americans live in poverty according to the US Census Bureau, a number that might have increased since the recession started to take hold in 2008.  Poverty rates in Europe and Japan are much lower.  This suggests that our economic system in the US, one which emphasizes low taxes and individual freedom to succeed or fail, has always had a relatively large poor population.  We also had a history of immigration and slavery, suggesting that our economic system depends on a percentage of people being poor enough to want to work for little money in dangerous conditions in order for a relative few to live in opulent wealth.

Lori Steinbach eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I'm with #4.  Although we certainly have some poverty, America as a country is not poor.  We are rich and blessed and capable of more in almost every area of life.  If you're asking why some Americans are poor, that's another matter.  You've already gotten some great answers for that. Lack of opportunity, lack of motivation, lack of resources all contribute to poverty in America.  What there is no lack of, it seems to me, is opportunity, though the other factors I've mentioned can certainly impact opportunity.  

litteacher8 eNotes educator| Certified Educator
People are poor for many reasons. I don't think you can paint all poverty with the same brush. People are poor because they are born poor, or they fall from grace. Not everyone who is poor "deserves" to be poor. Poverty is not just based on bad choices, it also comes from bad breaks.
jacqueline-homan | Student

We have poverty because we have capitalism — a zero-sum game. There has to be a lot of "losers" in order for there to be a few "winners" and a middle class buffer between the two that serves to keep the poor down and in their place to ensure middle class comfort within the capitalist hierarchy.

Capitalism is based on entitlement, and as you go up the economic ladder, attitudes of self-importance and entitlement increase. But we never talk about the culture of greed and getting ahead at all costs that is so prevalent among the middle and upper classes who think they have a “divine right” to come first.

The past three decades of abusive social and economic policies justified by the “culture of poverty” amount to one sordid continuum of human rights violations against the “undeserving” poor.

We don’t have a “culture of poverty.” We have a culture of capitalism that promotes, perpetuates, and maintains classism — the least challenged bigotry that is responsible for the most social harm. I would suggest the book Classism For Dimwits as further reading on the harm done to the poor because of classism.

krishna-agrawala | Student

It is not quite correct to say that Americans are Poor. When viewed at global level the USA and its people rank among the few nations with the highest income levels. However, when viewed within the country, we may say that a large percentage of people has income level much lower than the people with highest income level. But again the disparity in income level in the USA is not as high as in many other countries.

Anyhow, we can say that the present level of income of people in any country is influenced by several factors. These include:

  • The natural resources of the country.
  • Population of the country, in relation to its natural resource.
  • Historical development of the economic activities and the capital base of the country.
  • Current performance of the economic activities. This includes the efficiency and effectiveness of the economic activities including industry, farming, service sector, and the labour productivity.
  • Government policies and practices.
  • Competition from other countries.

Among the above six factors, the USA fares very well in the first three. In any case not much can be done to change them. It is the last three of the influencing factors that can be held responsible in lower than desirable income levels for the country. Performance of the USA in these three area may be open to question.  It is quite clear that USA has been facing increasing competition from other countries. However, different views exist about the current levels of efficiency and effectiveness of economic activities. Similarly, there is no clear evidence to suggest that government policies and practices in the USA are faulty.