Poverty is a difficult concept to define. In societies where there are few resources, most of the members of the society are poor and deprived. When a surplus exists, then it is possible for some people to accumulate more than others. Those with the least in society can then be defined as poor. Thus, poverty does not refer to a deprivation of resources alone, but to an uneven distribution of the resources available. Defining poverty becomes even more difficult when we try to specify what a “minimally acceptable lifestyle” is. There are currently three widely used definitions of poverty today.
Absolute Poverty. This definition tries to establish a level below which people are unable to achieve the necessities of life. The problem comes in trying to define what is a necessity. Is a car, television, cell phone or microwave considered a necessity? Despite this difficulty, this definition tries to define it in terms of a diet, clothing, housing, and medical care. This definition establishes a fixed economic level below which people are considered poor. The use of the poverty line in the United States would be an example of absolute poverty. Government programs for the poor in the United States such as heating assistance are based on how lose one is to the poverty line.
Relative Poverty. According to this definition, people are poor relative to some standard, and that standard is partially shaped by the lifestyles of other citizens. This definition applies to both the past and the present. The lack of indoor plumbing today would be a sign of poverty. However, for people one hundred years ago, that was the norm. In the present, people look around and notice what others have and compare their lives to what others possess.
Cultural Poverty. This definition of poverty views poverty not only in terms of how many resources people have, but also in terms of why they have failed to achieve a higher economic level. Using the cultural definition of poverty, the poor are identified as those who are permanently and unwillingly poor. These are people who are likely to remain poor for a long time, possibly generations. It is this group of people that poverty programs should be focused on. But this definition would exclude people such as college students, who although they might be suffering for a short time, are not to be viewed as a societal problem because they will likely improve their situation.
The Extent of Poverty
The official poverty level in the United States is based on the absolute definition of poverty. The first official U.S. poverty measure was developed in the mid-1960s, when President Lyndon Johnson launched the “War on Poverty,” with the understanding that poverty must be assessed and quantified if it is to be reduced. During the mid-1960s, Mollie Orshansky, an economist and statistician at the Social Security Administration (SSA), began publishing articles with poverty statistics for the United States, using a poverty measure that she had developed. Like any poverty measure, Orshansky’s had two components—a set of poverty lines or income thresholds, and a definition of family income to be compared with those thresholds.
Orshansky developed her poverty thresholds by taking the cost of a minimum adequate diet for families of different sizes and multiplying the cost by three to allow for other expenses. (The minimum diet she used was the Economy Food Plan, the cheapest of four food plans issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The factor of three was derived from a 1955 Agriculture Department survey.) Poor families were those whose yearly income was below the threshold for a family of a given size. She intended that the method be used for research, not to determine eligibility for antipoverty programs. The official poverty rate for the entire United States is based on data from the Current Population Survey Annual Social and Economic Supplement (CPS ASEC).
The most commonly used measurement is the poverty line. The poverty line is the level of income below which a person or a family is considered poor. The poverty line is defined in absolute terms: it is based on the cost of a minimal diet multiplied by three because low-income families spend about one-third of their income on food. Once the poverty line has been established, then the poverty rate can be found by dividing the number of poor people by the number of people in the country. The poverty rate declined during the 1960’s and 1970’s but went back up during the recessions of the 1980’s and early 1990’s. It is approaching all-time highs since the economic crisis of 2008 began. Click on the link below to see the poverty guidelines for the current year.
The poverty line is used by the government to make social policy decisions, such as who is eligible for various government programs. The use of the poverty line and the poverty rate have some shortcomings. A person with an income $1 below the poverty line counts, and so does a person whose income is $5,000 below the threshold. Second, the poverty rates is actually computed by comparing a family’s cash income from all sources to the poverty line. Cash income includes cash payments from Social Security, unemployment compensation, and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). Cash income for the poor does not include noncash transfers, called in-kind transfers. In-kind transfers are government payments in the form of goods and services, rather than cash, including such government programs as food stamps, Medicaid, and housing. A final problem is that the assumptions for establishing the poverty thresholds were defined in the 1950s and 1960s based on family consumption patterns and basic needs of that era, and things have changed since then. for example, the poverty index relies on the purchase of food in determining the poverty level. However, for some poor people, especially in urban areas, other expenses such as housing or child care can consume a larger share of the family income than they do for the average family in the United States. However, the poverty cutoffs are still based on the old assumptions. Economists predict that today’s poverty line would have to be as much as 25% higher to be comparable to the standards established in the 1960s. Exact figures on the number of poor are difficult to determine. Many poor are likely missed by the U.S. Census Bureau. Transients of any kind may be missed by the census. Also, there are several million immigrants in this country illegally who avoid the census. The inescapable conclusion is that the proportion of the poor in the United States is underestimated because the poor tend to be invisible, even to the government.
The official poverty rate is an outdated measure of poverty that does not take into account the impact of many programs that were introduced in the 1960’s, like food stamps and free school lunches, as well as the Earned Income Tax Credit. The updated supplemental poverty measure (SPM), which the Census Bureau created in 2011, paints a very different picture concerning poverty. According to a 2013 study from economists at Columbia University, the SPM poverty rate has fallen about 40 percent since war on poverty programs were implemented, from 26 percent 1967 to 16 percent in 2012.
Social Characteristics of the Poor
There are many characteristics that affect the poor. The list below focus on the main influences.
Race and Ethnicity. Looking at each racial group separately, nonwhites are more likely to be poor than whites. Although 25% of African Americans and 23% of Hispanic Americans are below the poverty cutoff, only 8% of whites are. There are many reasons for racial and ethnic differences in poverty levels, but at the core is oppression and discrimination. Whether African American, Hispanic, or Native American, each minority group has suffered through unique problems that have contributed to their poverty rates, from slavery to discriminatory laws, to the reservation system.
Children. 35% of the poor are children under the age of eighteen, and more than half of these children live in single-parent families headed by women. Poverty rates among children are as high today as they were thirty years ago. A major reason for the persistently high poverty among children is changes in the family structure in the United States: higher divorce rates more children born to unmarried women, and more female-headed families. Parents of poor children today are younger- the U.S. teenage pregnancy rate is far higher than that in most other industrial nations. Younger workers today earn less than younger workers in the past. This means that poor children today have fewer resources available to them and live in worse circumstances than in previous generations. The younger the child is, the greater the probability of living in poverty. Children in poverty are more likely to suffer from stunted growth, score lower on tests and be held back in school, suffer from lead poisoning, and suffer a host of other problems. Here is a link that looks at child poverty rates by state:
Elderly: Poverty among the elderly is relatively low- compared to the non-elderly and previous generations. The poverty rates for non-white elderly are higher than for white elderly. The number of poor elderly varies greatly by state. Elderly women are more likely than elderly men to be living in poverty.
Place: Regionally, the South has the highest poverty rates, with the Northeast having the lowest. Counties with poverty rates over 20% are found largely in rural areas. forty percent of the poor live in central city areas.
Gender: Women are more likely than men to be poor. The trend towards more women making up the ranks of the poor is called the Feminization of Poverty. The Feminization of Poverty refers to the phenomenon where half of all families headed by women live in poverty. Women are found disproportionately in lower paying jobs with fewer benefits. With the high rate of divorce and the large number of never-married women with children, coupled with the cost of child care, housing, and medical care, there has been an increase in the number of female-headed families (with no husband being present) being poor (28.7%, compared to 5.5% for married-couple families and 13.8% for male-headed families. In 1959, 23% of families in poverty were headed by women; today, this figure has grown to 50%. Young men today are over twice as likely to earn poverty-level wages compared to men in the 1980’s, and are thus less able to support a wife or children, many men have departed the family leaving women alone to raise their children. The poverty rate among women was 14.6 percent in 2011. The “extreme poverty rate” among women was the highest ever recorded, climbing to 6.3 percent in 2010. “Extreme poverty” means that your income is below half of the federal poverty line—and by 2010, more than 7.5 million women had fallen into that dire category.
What all those statistics add up to is that more than 17 million women in 2010, compared with 12.6 million men. As usual, things were worse for older women; twice as many women over 65 were living in poverty, compared with men. And those numbers just represented the population-wide average. For Hispanic and black women, the poverty rate increased even faster and rose higher—to 25 percent for Hispanic women and to 25.6 percent for black women.
The Working Poor: Despite popular misconceptions, many adults below the official poverty level actually work for a living. Which means having a job is not a guarantee out of poverty. Nearly two-thirds of the 33 million people living in families below the poverty line have at least one family member working in 2011, according to figures from the Census Bureau. The number of people working full-time in the lowest income group, those earning less than $20,262 a year, soared 17.3% in 2011. This was by far the largest increase for any income group. The poverty threshold for a family of four was $23,021 last year. But more than 30% of people who owe no income tax escape the levy because of credit for the working poor and children. Nearly 9 million have income of less than $40,000. The vast majority have their income tax liability erased by the earned income tax credit, which is designed to encourage the poor to hold down jobs
The New Poor: In the past few decades, millions of blue-collar workers have lost their jobs because factories closed or through automation. White-collar workers have also seen their unemployment rates increase. The new poor refer to people long accustomed to the comforts of middle-class life who are now relying on public assistance for the first time in their lives — potentially for years to come. Large companies are increasingly owned by institutional investors who want swift profits, a feat often achieved by cutting payroll. The declining influence of unions has made it easier for employers to shift work to part-time and temporary employees. Factory work and even white-collar jobs have moved in recent years to low-cost countries in Asia and Latin America. Automation has helped manufacturing cut 5.6 million jobs from 2000 – 2010— the sort of jobs that once provided lower-skilled workers with middle-class paychecks. The new poor are different from the “old” poor. The old poor had hopes of breaking out of poverty. If they didn’t, then they believed their kids would. This hope was based on a rapidly expanding economy. The new poor are becoming more trapped in poverty.
The Near Poor: The near poor are people with family incomes at or above the poverty threshold but below 150% of the threshold. The near poor are one accident, one illness, one job loss away from severe poverty. The near poor are Americans living paycheck to paycheck, often without access to health care, many behind the middle-class exterior of a suburban home. According to the data, some 51 million Americans receive incomes that are just 50 percent higher than the official poverty line. Roughly half of the people who fall into the “near poor” category live in the suburbs, and half live in households headed by a married couple. A sizable number—28 percent—work full time.
The Severely Poor: This category looks at people who are living on incomes below half the poverty line. The Census Bureau reported that in 2009, 6.3% of the U.S. population was severely poor. Over 17 million Americans are classified as severely poor. Typically, the severely poor must use at least 50% or more of their income for housing. The number of severely poor has increased significantly since the late 1970’s. This is because many of the severely poor live in rural areas that have prospered less than other regions, a decline in marriage resulting in more single mothers and unattached men, and a decline in public assistance benefits.
Costs to Poverty
Over 46 million people were officially poor in the United States in 2011. There are costs to those who live right at or below the poverty line. Those social costs are outlined below.
Crime: One of the social consequences to high poverty rates is a corresponding high crime rate. Two social factors stand out in explaining the high crime rate in the United States: the high rate of poverty and the high rate of inequality. A high unemployment rate leads to higher rates of property crimes, homicides, and alcohol and drug abuse. Half of male prisoners were unemployed when arrested.
Family Problems: Poverty creates problems for families. Jobless people are three to four times less likely to marry than those with jobs. Two-thirds of teenagers who give birth come from poor or low income families. Poor couples are twice as likely to divorce as more affluent couples. Poor young parents who are raising young children have an elevated risk of using the most abusive forms of violence toward their children, as do poor single mothers.
Health Problems: What does it mean to a person’s health if they are poor? It means less money which means less nutritious food, less heat in winter, less fresh air in summer, less distance from sick people, less knowledge about illness or medicine, fewer doctor visits, fewer dental visits, less preventative care, and above all else, less first-quality medical attention when all these other deprivations take their toll and a poor person finds himself seriously ill. In 2011, the Census Bureau reported that 48.6 million Americans did not have health insurance. Poor people without medical insurance can have expensive medical bills push them deeper into poverty. A recently published report states that families with lower incomes had higher rates of obesity. More than 33 percent of adults who earn less than $15,000 per year were obese, compared with 24.6 percent of those who earn at least $50,000 per year. Food options in poor neighborhoods are severely limited. Low-income workers may also have less time to cook their own meals, less money to join sports clubs, and less opportunities to exercise outside. Location of families plays a big role in their health because of the lack of good quality grocery stores in poor areas. If they do have access to grocery stores, the prices of healthy food soar way above fatty foods. And if they are poor they are going to get as much food as they can for their money and these cheap foods are loaded with fat, sugar, and empty calories. The combination of the burden of poverty linked to a poor diet leads to weight gain. The burden of poverty also causes a variety of mental health issues for the poor.
Problems in School: Children of families that are driven into poverty by recession are 15 percent less likely to finish high school and 20 percent less likely to finish college than the non-poor. According to the American Psychological Association, children who live in poverty experience a lack of quality nutrition and access to quality foods, which has a direct and significant impact on neurodevelopment. Parents living in poverty tend to have to work a greater amount of hours, and in many cases, more than one job. As a result, the parents of children in poverty cannot always be around to help continue the learning process at home, such as by helping with homework. Schools in the poorest communities tend to be the most underfunded, especially in the wake of recent budget cuts. There have been over the years a great deal of criticism of American schools and how they compare both nationally and internationally. A recent study done by the Department of Education showed the influence of poverty on the reading performance of fourth graders. schools were classified into five categories on the basis of the percentage of students in the school eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. The percentage of students eligible and the average reading score in each category are as follows: less than 10 percent (605), 10 to 24.9 percent (584), 25 to 49.9 percent (568), 50 to 74.9 percent (544), and 75 percent or more (520). In all cases, children from schools with a lower level of free lunch eligibility had a higher average score than children from schools with a higher level of free lunch eligibility. Compared with 2001, the U.S. average score was 14 points higher in 2011 (542 in 2001 vs. 556 in 2011).
Economic Costs: In economic terms, the cost to poverty are high. A study in 2007 found that the costs to the United States associated with poverty total about $500 billion per year. These costs stem from reduced productivity and economic output by the poor, increased criminal behavior, and poor health. If poverty were eliminated through jobs that pay a living wage, and adequate monetary assistance the entire society would prosper from the increased purchasing power and the larger tax base.
Below is a brief description of some of the antipoverty programs.
Social Security. The technical name is Old Age, Survivors, and Disability Health Insurance. This a program geared mainly for the elderly or surviving family members. Workers may retire between the ages of 65 and 67 and receive full benefits, or at age 62 and receive partial benefits. Each worker must pay a payroll tax matched in equal terms by an employer. Most of the money is used on a “pay-as-you-go” basis to pay current benefit recipients. It also provides unemployment compensation and benefits to workers for on-the-job injuries.
Unemployment Compensation. This government program pays income for a short time period to workers who have recently become unemployed. This unemployment insurance is financed by a payroll tax on employers, which varies by state and according to the size of the firm’s payroll. Although the federal government largely collects the taxes and funds this program, it is administered by the states. Any insured workers who becomes unemployed, and did not just quit his or her job, can become eligible for benefit payments.
Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). This program provides temporary assistance to parents and guardians who do not have the financial resources to support their children. Benefits for this program vary from state to state. The federal government, does however, restrict benefits for no longer than sixty months. Unwed teenage parents must stay in school and live at home, and people convicted of drug-related felonies are banned from receiving TANF or food stamp benefits. In addition, nonworking adults must participate in community service within two months of receiving benefits and must find work within two years.
Food Stamps. This government program began in 1964 and administered by state governments. It is one of the more heavily criticized components of the American welfare system. A food stamp recipient may exchange food stamps or coupons for needed goods, such as food. In 2011, the number of Americans receiving food stamps reached a record high of nearly 40 million people, or 1 in 8 Americans.
Medicaid. A government program that provides medical services to poor people under the age of 65 that have passed a means test. Generally, Medicaid goes to people who meet the means test for other public-assistance programs, such as TANF. It is financed by general tax revenues.
Housing Assistance. The federal government, through the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), has a number of programs to provide affordable housing to poor people. Recipients pay less than the market value for apartments and therefore receive an in-kind transfer.
Causes of Poverty
From the functionalist perspective poverty persists because it performs some functions for society, even if it is for some groups over others. The existence of poverty ensures that society’s “dirty work” gets done. There are many underpaid, undignified, and dangerous occupations that most people would prefer not to do unless they were paid high wages or had no other choice. The poor have little choice and are essentially coerced into taking these “dirty” jobs. Poverty subsidizes the activities of the affluent because the poor are willing to work for low wages. For example, the poor do domestic work and housecleaning for the affluent, which frees the affluent to professional and leisure activities. Poverty creates jobs for those people who serve the poor, such as social workers. Poverty creates a market for inferior goods and services that others won’t buy, such as day-old bread, used automobiles and secondhand clothes.
For the conflict theory perspective, the focus is on inequality. They believe that people gain desirable positions through coercion, exploitation, and inheritance. Once a favorable position is acquired, people work to preserve it. For example, employers seek the cheapest labor possible because this increases their profits. The dominant group can convince the subordinate groups that the unequal distribution of resources is “natural” or preferable. The schools and the media can be used to teach that anyone can be successful if they apply themselves. The implication is that poverty is caused by one’s not having worked hard enough, not the system being rigged in the favor of the affluent. Read the quote below to see how a wealthy person in society tries to explain to the society at large (with an emphasis on the poor) that they have to just accept income inequality and poverty as a fact of life and just the way things are.
“We have to tolerate the inequality as a way to achieve greater prosperity and opportunity for all,” Brian Griffiths, who was a special adviser to former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, said October 20, 2009 at a panel discussion at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. The panel’s discussion topic was, “What is the place of morality in the marketplace?” The financial industry awarded itself a record $140 billion in total compensation for 2009. Goldman, Sachs all by itself passed out $23 billion in bonuses.
The global economy pits large and powerful corporations against poor people who view themselves as powerless. The search around the world for higher profits and lower labor costs means persistent poverty. For the United states, this loss of good paying jobs has been one of the reasons for the growth of the poor.
For the symbolic interactionists, they focus on how people define themselves through day-to-day interactions with others. This has led to the culture of poverty theory. This theory states that the values and attitudes of people can be shaped by the conditions of poverty. People who live in poverty adapt to their life circumstances in ways that allow them to feel good about themselves. Elements of this cultural orientation can make it more difficult for poor people to improve their circumstances. The conditions of poverty tend to emphasize fatalism and powerlessness, feeling that they have little control over their lives. Poor people may despair of ever improving their lot. They may see little point in making efforts to change their circumstances because they believe their fate is out of their control. The culture of poverty theory has been criticized because it seems to blame the victim. Poor people are blamed for their own difficulties by arguing that poverty is due to the character flaws or lack of effort by those affected.
Social mobility refers to the movement of people from one social position to another in the social class system. Sociologists have classified social mobility into three categories. The first is intergenerational mobility. Intergenerational mobility refers to changes in social class from one generation to another. For example, recent immigrants may live their lives in the working class, but their sons and daughters may rise up to the upper middle class. Structural Mobility refers to movements up or down the social class ladder due to structural changes in society, not individual efforts. An example of upward structural mobility would be individuals who have made millions in new internet companies. An example of downward structural mobility would be those who lose good paying factory jobs and have to take lower paying service jobs. Exchange Mobility refers to people in one area move up, while people in another area move down. A balance is maintained. For example, many people with computer jobs may move up the social ladder, but an equal number of people who lost high paying factory jobs might move down the ladder. It is important to remember that people can move up or down the social ladder.
Generally speaking, the rate of upward social mobility is higher in industrial and post-industrial countries than in pre-industrial countries. Social mobility for men has been proven, but it has been difficult to prove for women. Many women have remained employed in specific job clusters, and so the research is unclear. Within a single generation, social mobility is uncommon. The old “rags to riches” story is rare.
Although social mobility stills exists today and was widespread in parts of United States history, recently it has been harder to achieve. The opportunities for the children of poor families to experience upward mobility has not improved in many decades. The “American Dream”, where someone can work hard to achieve success has become increasingly difficult. Wages, incomes and good paying jobs have all declined.
Myths of the Poor
Much of the debate by politicians and citizens over poverty and how much assistance should be provided to the poor is based on faulty assumptions and misperceptions. These myths are discussed below.
Refusal to Work: The first myth is the notion that poor people refuse to work. 10.5 million individuals were among the “working poor” in 2010. The working poor are persons who spent at least 27 weeks in the labor force (that is, working or looking for work) but whose incomes still fell below the official poverty level. Many of the poor hold menial, dead-end jobs that have no benefits and pay the minimum wage. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (welfare reform) made assistance to the poor temporary and cut monies to supplemental programs such as food assistance. It shifted welfare programs from the federal government to the states. It mandated that welfare recipients find work within two years. It limited welfare assistance to five years. The misconception that the poor refuse to work ignores all those “invisible poor”, those who are working but not making it and those who work in the informal economy, not captured by the Census Bureau Statistics. Many work for money or exchange of services by cleaning, painting, etc…they just are not counted in the official economy.
Welfare Dependency: One of the popular perceptions of the poor is that welfare benefits are too generous, that it is too easier to stay on welfare than to work, and that welfare encourages unmarried women to have children. Of the means-tested public assistance programs for the poor, food stamps have the broadest reach- some 46 million Americans (about 15% of the population, and an all-time high) were receiving food stamps in 2011. However, when most people talk about welfare moms, what they mean is the cash assistance and other meager benefits supplied (sometimes) under TANF. TANF support sometimes includes vouchers for childcare, clothing, and other needs along with cash assistance, but this varies widely from state to state. Only 1.9 million were actually receiving TANF in 2011. Since the welfare reform of 1996, participation by eligible families has plummeted: 84% of those families in need received ADC in 1995, dropping to 52% receiving TANF in 2000, and only 40% in 2005. Most poor moms, whether single or married, are not on welfare.
Welfare Mothers Having Babies to Receive Benefits: There is a belief that poor moms spend decades, or even lifetimes, on welfare. Since 1996, there has been a five-year lifetime cap on TANF assistance for adults. In 2006, the average length of time families received TANF assistance was 35.4 months and case closure data from 35 states indicated that less than one-half of one percent of cases were closed because families had hit the 5-year ceiling. In 2010, about 32% of single moms in poverty were working at least part time(compared to 17% of single dads in poverty) rising to 59% and 40% respectively, for near-poor single moms and dads. Poor and welfare moms rarely refuse to work, but are more likely to be laid off, to spend more time looking for work, and to be stuck in low-income, no-benefit jobs that make survival more difficult.
The Poor Get Special Advantages: There is a belief that the poor receive a number of handouts for which other Americans have to work. Concerning the larger system, we tend to assume that government monies and service go mostly to the poor in the form of welfare, when in fact the greatest amount of government aid goes to the wealthy (tax loopholes, mortgage interest deductions, bank bailouts, and subsidies to a number of industries such as agriculture, mining, and the media. The poor also pay more than the non-poor for many services. Hospitals routinely charge more for services to patients without health insurance compared to those covered by a health plan. Check cashing services, located largely in poor neighborhoods, prey on customers without bank accounts. Because many poor people do not have transportation to get to supermarkets, discount stores, or warehouse stores, they must buy from nearby stores, which have higher prices due to their monopoly power. When the poor pay sales taxes on the items they purchase, the tax takes more of their income than it does from the non-poor. Rather than receiving special advantages, the poor pay more commodities and services. Along with earning low wages and paying a large proportion of their income for housing, one can understand why some of the poor have a difficult time getting out of poverty.
The Criminalization of Poverty
Although many people, even those collecting benefits, perceive the welfare and criminal justice systems as separate, they have over time become systems that work in tandem. Poverty and homelessness have become a law enforcement concern, rather than a social issue. American society is moving towards viewing poverty as a crime. Since the Banking Crisis of 2008, many communities have passed laws targeting the poor. Las Vegas passed an ordinance forbidding the sharing of food with the homeless in public places. In Gainsville, Florida, a law was passed limiting the number of meals that soup kitchens may serve to 130 people in a day. Phoenix, Arizona has been using zoning laws to stop a local church from serving breakfast to homeless people.
Just as poverty in the United States is relative, so is poverty around the world. There are many definitions and debates about the number of poor in the world. One of the leading sources for information on poverty around the world is the World Bank. The World Bank distinguishes between two types of poverty.
Extreme Poverty. This category refers to people who live on an income of $1.25 per day. The World Bank estimates that in the year 2008, roughly 1.4 billion people were living in extreme poverty. People in this category cannot meet basic needs for survival. There is little or no access to education, health care, safe drinking water or sanitation. Most people in this category live in a rudimentary shelter with few possessions and are chronically hungry. A country as a whole is deemed to suffer from extreme poverty if the proportion of the population in extreme is at least 25 percent of the total population.
Relative Poverty. This category is defined as a household income level below a given proportion of average national income. Most of the poor in developed countries like the United States, fall into this category. These people are poor relative to the high income earners in their society. They have enough income to meet their daily needs, and perhaps a little extra for a few goods or services. But they still do not have access to quality health care, education, and other cultural goods that would allow them upward social mobility.
The elimination of poverty requires a commitment to that goal. In the United States it means the recognition that poverty can be eliminated by the efforts of the poor themselves, by the private sector of the economy, by charitable individuals and groups, and by the actions of federal, state, and local governments. Poverty is a national problem and must be attached by massive, nationwide programs.
What ever solutions are arrived at, the programs need to address the three kinds of poverty. First, the unemployed or underpaid need adequate training, reliable employment and a guaranteed minimal income that is needed to provide necessities. Secondly, the disabled and incapacitated require government subsidies to meet their needs. Finally, the children of the poor need education and opportunities to break the poverty cycle.
The Problem of Inequality
The problem of poverty cannot be discussed and understood without also mentioning the corollary that some people in our society are doing great financially. The statistics put out by the Census Bureau each year seem to indicate a pattern. Over the last few decades, the rich in the United States have gotten richer, and the poor have seen their incomes decline. It is up to you as a student, to decide if the statistics on income distribution represent a social problem for our country.
Income inequality in the United States decreased from the 1930’s to the 1970’s. Then starting in the 1980’s, income inequality has increased. Why? Economists and sociologists cite many varied reasons for the gap in incomes. Age is one determinant. Older workers with more education and work experience generally make more money than younger workers. Another factor is differences in human capital. Talent and intelligence is not equally distributed amongst all members of society. Inheritance is another important factor. When individuals inherit cash, stocks, homes, or land, it makes it easier to generate income and to improve on one’s human capital. Finally, discrimination can influence income inequality. If particular groups (women, minority workers) are denied access to education, training, and jobs, then inequality will be passed on from generation to generation.
The factors listed above are constants that contribute to inequality in every generation. What are some of the factors that have contributed to the increase in inequality over the past few decades? They are:
1) Changes in tax law. Over the past few decades tax laws have been changed to reduce the amount of taxes that the wealthy pay. Many of these taxes are regressive in nature and have produced a tax shift from the wealthy to the poor.Over the past few decades, effective tax rates on US corporations and the richest 1% have fallen by about a third.
2) Decline in manufacturing jobs. Many in the middle and working classes worked at manufacturing jobs that paid well enough to support a family. Because of free market trade policies, many of these jobs have left to lower wage countries.
3) Decline in union jobs. As was mentioned above, union jobs typically pay more than non-union jobs. This is related to the decline in manufacturing jobs.Since 1970, the percentage of private sector workers in unions has fallen from 29% to 7%
4) Increase in illegal immigration. The past few decades has seen a spike in the number of illegal immigrants to the United States. This has had the affect of creating a surplus of workers, which depresses wages for middle and lower class workers.
5) A minimum wage that has not kept paced with inflation. Workers who collect a minimum wage have seen their purchasing power decline.
Income inequality in the US is no accident. It has conscious, deliberate origins, to be found in the policy initiatives of corporate America since the late 1970s, and the willingness of the politicians that Corporate America elects in Congress, Presidents, and at State levels—Democrat and Republican alike—to implement those policy initiatives.
There’s the tax restructuring in favor of the rich and their businesses, free trade agreements and offshoring, the erosion of the real minimum wage, the dismantling of real pensions and employer contributions to healthcare, the shift from full time permanent jobs to part time and temp work, the destruction of unions and higher paying union jobs, the displacing of higher paid jobs with technology, substitution of credit for lack of wage growth, failure to invest in the US by corporate America, etc…That’s why jobs, real wages, and incomes for the vast majority of American households have stagnated at best, and declined in real terms for most.
We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.” Louis D. Brandeis- former U.S. Supreme Court Justice
Below are a list of movies that exhibit sociological concepts learned in this unit.
1. The Joy Luck Club. There is a lot in this film regarding sociology. But in this unit, the concept of intergenerational mobility plays an important role.
2. Recycled Life. The dramatic and touching story of thousands of adults, children, and generations of families who live in a Guatemala City garbage dump.
Below are a list of books that exhibit sociological concepts learned in this unit.
1. Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, a New Urban World By Robert Neuwirth
3. Sex Trafficking: The Global Market in Women and Children by Kathryn Farr
4. Slavery: A World History by Milton Meltzer
5. The Working Poor: Invisible in America by David K. Shipler
6. Nickel and Dimed: On Not Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich
7. The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities For Our Time by Jeffrey Sachs
Eitzen, D. Stanley and Zinn, Maxine Baca 2012 Social Problems (Twelfth Edition) Boston: Pearson (Allyn and Bacon)
Sullivan, Thomas J.
2012 Introduction to Social Problems (9th Edition) Boston: Pearson (Allyn and Bacon)
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