Cultural Theories of Poverty
There are a wide range of factors that can create poverty in a given society, and such contributors are not limited to the political or economic arenas. There are sociological forces at work, many of which may have cultural underpinnings. This paper explores many of these cultural factors within the broader context of the causes of poverty. In doing so, the reader will glean a more comprehensive understanding of the multifarious elements that foster and maintain poverty in the post-industrial international community.
Keywords Classism; Equity; Poverty Line; Subculture; Upward Mobility
Cultural Theories of Poverty
In his 1935 State of the Union Address, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt stressed the importance of helping Americans who had fallen into poverty and destitution. However, he also warned that aid to poor people whose plight remained largely unchanged over a long period of time could be dangerous for America. "[Continued] dependence on relief induces a spiritual and moral disintegration fundamental to the national fibre," he said. "To dole out relief in this way is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit … It is in violation of the traditions of America" (Roosevelt, 2004).
FDR's comments speak to two types of sentiment that have long been prevalent in American society. The first is that those who fall upon hard times and into poverty must be given every resource necessary to reemerge above the poverty line. The second is that no one should be complacent about their impoverished status - for the United States government to support those who do not seek to better their situation is akin to perpetuating their complacency, which is counter to the American dream. In other words, these two ideas stress a central point: Poverty is not a status Americans should embrace - should they fall into hardship, they should work diligently to return to economic health.
While Roosevelt warned the people of the dangers of eschewing the American tradition of hard work and persistence and, instead, enabling the poor to remain poor, there are those who believe that poor communities have their own "culture," one with values somewhat different from the "American dream" ideals proffered above by FDR. Among those who espouse this school of thought was anthropologist Oscar Lewis. Lewis suggested that poor people had created for themselves a "culture of poverty" which became ingrained among impoverished peoples. In fact, he argued, this "culture" was so deeply rooted in poor communities that it would be handed down from generation to generation.
Understandably, such theories created a storm of controversy, but also raised a valid point: There are a wide range of factors that can create poverty in a given society, and such contributors are not limited to the political or economic arenas. There are sociological forces at work, many of which may have cultural underpinnings. This paper explores many of these cultural factors within the broader context of the causes of poverty. In doing so, the reader will glean a more comprehensive understanding of the multifarious elements that foster and maintain poverty in the post-industrial international community.
What is Poverty?
Billions of people around the globe live in poverty, and yet there is no single, universally accepted definition of what this individual status is. There is a wide range of definitions, to be sure; encompassing the political, economic and sociological arenas. Indeed, painting a definitive picture of poverty is at best an arbitrary undertaking.
According to 2010 World Bank estimates, 21 percent of people in the developing world live below $1.25 a day. This number is down 43 percent from 1990 and 52 percent in 1981.
Arguably, the most popular of the definitions of poverty is along economic lines. Nations, as well as the international community, have largely embraced the establishment of an absolute "line" to distinguish a system's impoverished population. Those who earn less than about one US dollar (a determination based on the year in which the threshold was established - 1993) are considered "below the poverty line."
Then again, such rigid parameters are, as many scholars contend, flawed. Even the $1 US figure is subject to controversy. In fact, given the varying size of individual national economies, even those who introduced the $1/day concept to the World Bank have largely sought to update or replace it with a more complex (and realistic) figure that includes the economies of the nations in which incidences of poverty are more prevalent (The Economist, 2008).
In fact, there are a number of contributors to poverty rates, and not all are manifest in income levels. In some cases, the economy under which a society operates fails to provide development opportunities for the people. In other situations, political leadership does not provide the resources and institutions that enable the people to avoid falling in hardship.
In another arena, there are cultural elements that can contribute to poverty. In many cases, poverty is increased and the policy responses designed to mitigate the issue falls far short over the long-term, due in no small part not to limits in income but in limited appeal to certain social groups with distinct cultures and traditions. This paper will next turn to some examples of the theoretical causes of poverty in the international community.
In a 2007 study, a social service group experienced a number of failures in attempting to mitigate poverty in one community. Staff complained about the fact that clients rejected their efforts in strong fashion. Some felt insulted at the assumption that poverty and racial issues could be generalized across countries and cultures. Other staff members felt that they were not properly trained on the cultural and traditional norms of the region in which they would work (Vu & Austin, 2007).
It is the myriad of international, national and sub-national social groups and cultures, and the failure of service providers to appreciate the number and profile of such groups, that have led to situations such as those described above. Social service groups often fail to mitigate poverty because they do not appreciate the cultural forces that created it within the system. One researcher observes that many anti-poverty programs fail because the real experts on how to address the issue in a given system are the poor themselves. The study continued to note that some systems have seen small successes by enabling the people to help grow and appreciate the advances they had just taken part in (Xiaoyun & Remenyi, 2008).
The Role of the Family Unit
Such a statement finds particular veracity in studying the relationship between poverty and the family. The family unit is arguably the most important entity in any given culture. Social norms, traditions, religious ideals and other cultural elements are shared among parents, siblings and countless generations of relatives. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that many sociologists believe that life in poverty may also be one of the cultural elements imbued in the family structure.
This theory suggests that generations of individuals who had previously been subjected to impoverishment have a certain perspective of the world that is based on a life of poverty. Some of these values and traditions may be positive in nature, such as Roosevelt's espousal of an American tradition of individual effort to succeed without external help. Then again, many of those in whom this "bootstraps" ideal is ingrained are those who see the benefits of escaping poverty, either by examples set by close relatives or perceived role models. Others may have at one time in their lives lived above the poverty line and, as a result, aspire to return to that status.
On the other side of the coin are those who have no such inspiration. For many, poverty is all they may know simply because such a life is all that they have ever seen and experienced. The most glaring examples of such a "heritage" are seen in such places as sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia, but such a lifestyle exists in virtually every region on Earth, including rural and urban centers in many wealthy nations. Only when impoverished families are exposed to the elements and resources that may help facilitate upward mobility do some break away from the life to which they have become complacent.
In a recent study in the Philippines, two groups of Filipinos raised in poverty demonstrated identical perspectives on their status - they had never seen their basic needs met, had negative emotions about their way of life and attributed their respective states of poverty to family heritage. One of these groups did experience upward mobility, however. This elevation occurred...
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