Social Theories of Poverty Research Paper Starter

Social Theories of Poverty

(Research Starters)

Poverty remains as elusive a topic to define as it is to address. Theories abound about its causes. Economists may cite a lack of fiscal resources, and political scientists may suggest political under-representation. Then again, even within disciplines, there is very little uniformity in theoretical constructs concerning the roots of poverty. This paper takes a look at some of the sociological theories that have been offered pertaining to the causes and perpetuation of an issue that has vexed the international community for millennia.

Keywords Inequity; Poverty; Racism; Stratification; Suburbanization; Upward Mobility

Social Theories of Poverty

Stratification

Overview

In the world of art, one of the most familiar names is that of Spaniard Pablo Picasso. The man who introduced Cubism to the world, not to mention his blue period works and images of the Spanish Civil War, is an icon among art lovers and casual museum-goers alike. Amazingly, however, many visitors to his home in the south of France were surprised to find that he displayed none of his own works on his walls. When asked by one visitor if this dearth of Picasso works was due to the fact that he did not care for his own pieces, he replied, "I like them very much … It's just that I can't afford them" ("Bare necessity?," 2008).

While Picasso was burdened by economic "hardship" that precluded him from being able to afford his own works, a great many others are mired in inability to pay for food, heat, and housing. Indeed, poverty is a condition suffered by hundreds of millions of people around the globe. Lacking access to even the most basic amenities, theirs is a day-to-day existence.

Poverty remains as elusive a topic to define as it is to address. Theories abound about its causes. Economists may cite a lack of fiscal resources, and political scientists may suggest political under-representation. Then again, even within disciplines, there is very little uniformity in theoretical constructs concerning the roots of poverty. This paper takes a look at some of the sociological theories that have been offered pertaining to the causes and perpetuation of an issue that has vexed the international community for millennia.

The Social Face of Poverty

According to the World Bank, in 2010, an estimated 2.4 billion people lived on less than $2 US per day (World Bank, 2013). The World Health Organization reported in 2011 that 25,000 children under age 5 die each day as a result of their impoverished status (Partnership, 2011), and some 57 million poor children of primary school age were not in the classroom in 2013 (UNESCO, 2013). Virtually every nation (and indeed every international governmental organization) expresses concern about this issue, even if it does not identify it as a top priority. Still, as of 2007, 80 percent of the world's population lived in nations in which income differentials are widening, signifying that antipoverty efforts have yet to have a significant impact (Shah, 2013).

Defining poverty has always been something of an arbitrary undertaking, relative to the field in which it is being studied. For the purposes of analyzing poverty from a sociological standpoint, for instance, poverty may be defined as the state in which an individual lacks the resources or capabilities to participate in and contribute to a society. This approach is distinctive from economic definitions, which center more on the individual's income and expenditures (such as the measurements of impoverishment employed by the World Bank) as the target for analysis. The sociological approach to examining the causes of poverty stem from a review of the external elements that affect the individual's status; poverty, therefore, is relative to the geographic location in which the individual lives as well as the context in which that individual lives within the society (Smeeding, 2002).

Sociological theories about poverty generally fall into two ideological frameworks. Liberal-leaning thinkers tend to view poverty as the product of systemic failure to provide the needed resources and tools for citizens to avoid falling into (or to reemerge from) poverty. Conservatives, on the other hand, see poverty as the result of individual choice or misstep, failing to take advantage of the resources and tools they need to get out of poverty.

Prejudice, Racism

In the 1960s, President Lyndon Johnson declared a "war on poverty" shortly after assuming the presidency. Assembling the Kerner Commission, Johnson sent a team of experts to review what was a significant issue in the United States. Their first report focused not on a wide range of social groups suffering from poverty, but instead on a single social group — blacks. The report assessed crime among black communities and a legacy of discrimination rather than the overall economy or the other factors that can contribute to continued impoverishment ("Economic, social and family factors craft inner city hurdles," 2008). By doing so, critics have since argued, the Johnson administration missed an important opportunity to address a broad-reaching issue.

One cannot deny that poverty levels are much higher on average among blacks and other minority groups than among Caucasians. In the United States, 25.8 percent of black Americans, 23.3 percent of Hispanics, and 27 percent of American Indians lived below the poverty line between 2007 and 2011; in comparison, only 11.6 percent of whites and 11.7 percent of Asians were living in similar economic conditions (Macartney, Bishaw & Fontenot, 2013).

Underlying Government Disparities?

The disparities among racial and ethnic groups living in poverty lead many scholars to assert that the government system in question distributes resources and services on an unequal basis. In fact, many conclude that undercurrents of racism lend to social stratification.

There is a considerable amount of evidence that might support such theories, spanning across a broad range of characteristics of poverty. One study of poverty in the United States suggests that monetary policy designed to bolster the labor markets falls short of protecting all social groups: An underlying theme of discrimination among policymakers leads to a lack of protections for various races, leaving them unprotected during times of economic downturn and likely to experience shorter tenures of employment (Rodgers, 2008). Another area of systemic inequality exists in housing disparities in the US — according to census data, 73 percent of whites were classified as homeowners in mid-2013 as compared to 42 percent of blacks and 46 percent of Hispanics (Callis & Kresin, 2013). One study revealed that three out of every four residents of neighborhoods of concentrated poverty were either black or Hispanic (Little, 2008).

International Examples

Of course, the issue of race and poverty is not localized in the United States. In Europe, a steady increase in immigration has brought myriad low-income racial and ethnic groups into major urban centers. To some, blame for the impoverished economic and social status of these groups rests on their intransigence. In one editorial, the author lamented that "Europe's current social problems stem, in part, from an increasingly Islamicized immigrant population that is ambivalent about integrating fully into secular French, Dutch, or German culture" ("A cure for Europe's ills," 2002).

In what has long been considered the clearest example of racial disparity, South Africa has taken great strides to undo the inequities put into place during the apartheid era. Since that government gave way to a democratic regime led by blacks in the early 1990s, there remains an overwhelming sense of inequity in income and labor markets. There is also a much lower rate of upward mobility among blacks than whites in the formerly segregated nation (Liebbrandt & Woolard, 2001).

Racism: A Cause of Poverty?

Is racism to blame for poverty in a multicultural/multiracial society? This question has been asked throughout modern history, with an equal number of reasonable studies exploring the issue on both sides. Certainly, the overwhelming majority of impoverished social groups in such systems around the world seem heavily populated by so-called minorities. In 1962, Michael Harrington suggested that long-standing structural and cultural racism in the United States played a role in stratifying society, with people of color and certain ethnicities on the lower end of the spectrum. In his seminal work, The Other America, he argued that racism has permeated society in such a way that poverty became something of a tradition, handed down from generation to generation (Wolf, 2007).

Then again, the fact that most industrialized nations are taking dramatic steps to undo the remnants of racism and ethnocentrism from their institutions and yet poverty rates have by and large only plateaued (in some locations, they continue to increase) suggests that there may be other factors at work. This paper next turns to a review of the heaviest geographic concentrations of poor in the world, offering evidence of other factors at play.

The Geography of Poverty

There is little argument that poverty occurs in every society, from underdeveloped nations to the wealthiest countries. Still, the study of poverty, at least from a sociological perspective, hinges on an important fact: Poverty usually can be tracked to a physical location or set thereof within a larger system.

The idea of geography as a major contributor to poverty (and for that matter, wealth) is not new. In the latter eighteenth century, Scottish economist Adam Smith postulated that the best way to develop a successful, healthy economy is to implement a free-market system. Smith's theory can be quickly supported, as nations of North America, western Europe, Australia, and East Asia, all free-market economies, are among the wealthiest in the world. In fact, of the top 1 percent of the wealthiest individuals in the world, half reside in the United States (Milanović, 2011). Conversely, those countries that have employed communist, totalitarian, or authoritarian regimes (such as those in the former Soviet...

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