Poverty is a social issue and is part of the landscape in most countries. However, one must question how can poverty co-exist with wealth in one of the most affluent countries in the world? There is enough wealth in the United States so that no one should go hungry or face homelessness. However, when the system which dictates or promotes wealth is capitalism, most understand that capitalism’s scales and starting point have never been level or equal. Even though many believe that hard work and determination will eventually pay off with a successful life and career, it does not always work out that way for everyone. The study of poverty and why it continues to exist is at the heart of many sociological studies. It is a complex problem; it involves many people and can be a continuing situation from generation to generation. Some suggest that poverty is somewhat self-inflicted and is a condition resulting from passive behavior and a lack of determination and motivation to succeed. Others are convinced that social stratification plays a significant role in perpetuating the cycle of poverty. Systematic poverty has a multitude of contributing variables such as deficit behavior patterns, institutions that promote a co-dependent environment, political resistance, and a general lack of empathy.
In 1959 the United States developed a method for calculating the poverty level per family. It is taking the minimum cost of food and multiplying it by three. This amount is adjusted based on the family’s size and inflation. According to the United States Census Bureau, in 2012 fifteen percent or 46.5 million people are living in poverty (How Census Measures Poverty). As of 2010, the Census Bureau instituted a secondary method for measuring poverty and it includes accounting for families that receive government aid and tax expenses, using this method the percentage of families living in poverty increased to sixteen percent. However, this method is not all-inclusive as it does not include other expenses such as education, medical expenses, life insurance, child care and other common expenses that attribute to income deprivation. In addition, these statistics do not include the homeless population and others who were not a part of the census statistics. Therefore, most sociologists agree that the actual number of Americans living in poverty or in significant poverty is understated. Though sociologists have varying reasons for poverty, most agree the primary reason is the inability to gain sustained financial footing (Wolf, 2007). Those in poverty suffer from an overall dire lack of money.
Solutions for attacking poverty are multifaceted as there are numerous reasons why poverty exists. The causes of poverty in large urban populations are particularly difficult to decipher. Jennifer Wolf in her article, “Sociological Theories of Poverty in Urban America” focuses on poverty in the inner city. She cites social disposition or standing as one of the contributors that impact poverty (Wolf). Isolation from other people and communities, continued racial profiling, and economic disparities are reasons why poverty does not dissipate in these communities. Those who have studied this phenomenon believe that prolonged exposure to these types of circumstances eventually affects social skills which change behavior and the ability to see a better future (Wolf). This encourages the on-going trend of generational poverty. Poverty is the expectation and accepted as normal and the behavior to support this belief is seen as people drop out of school, become involved in gang violence, and have unplanned pregnancies. Moreover, a low sense of self-value or self-worth contributes to this deficit behavior pattern. How to remedy such a complex issue remains a problem.
In the poverty statistics from the United States Census Bureau, in their secondary method of measuring poverty, it included federal and state aid to low-income families. If a family received federal or state assistance such as grants for food, child care, medical insurance, utilities or housing, these were given a cost value thereby increasing the gross income of families (How Census Measures Poverty). This resulted in an overstatement of income for families who would have ordinarily fallen below the poverty line. Charles Murray in Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950-1980 states that this type of social policy actually works against eliminating poverty as it gives the “incentive to fail” (Murry 154). The poor become dependent on system generated aide to help them manage everyday living expenses. This could be seen as a negative versus a positive result. Perhaps if better-defined criteria, systematic case follow-up, accountability, budgeting classes, and career change programs were implemented this might help people make better economic choices. However, since incomes have not kept up with inflation government assistance may be unavoidable.
Not only do federal and government agencies assist the poor, but so do institutions such as Catholic Charities and other private organizations. Public opinion, which is sometimes divided by the political party people belong to, is that enough is being done for America’s poor. Some are simply not concerned about poverty. They do not feel it is an issue, even though the poverty rates in the twenty-first century are higher now than they were in the 1990s (Abramsky). This sense of empathy leaves those who are in poverty very vulnerable to possible decreases in services such as food and shelter assistance. “With the exception of Romania, no developed country has a higher percentage of kids in poverty than America. Similarly, America also has a remarkably high percentage of people living in what is called “deep poverty,” at less than half the official poverty rate” (Abramsky 2). This is an embarrassing statistic considering the overall wealth of American citizens. The problem seems to be that those who are wealthy want to keep it that way and critical remedies to poverty are handicapped by this attitude.
There are several contributing factors to poverty. Some are self-inflicted because of an innate inability to make better personal decisions and systematic behavior patterns that unfortunately foster the poverty mentality. Other contributions to poverty are the attitude that it is not important and does not exist substantially as a problem that must be addressed, and it does not have the political backing to fully support elimination. However, the programs which are currently in place, though they may need refining, should continue. Poverty is a real issue and to ignore it would be a crime. Those that are most affected by it, feel disempowered to do much about it. One solution to eliminate poverty is to eliminate prejudices toward the poor. The poor must believe there are other options and that they are valuable and capable human beings.
Abramsky, Sasha. "America's Shameful Poverty Stats." The Nation 18 September 2013: 1-3. Web.
How Census Measures Poverty. 2013. <http://www.census.gov/how/infographics/poverty_measure-how.html>.
Murry, Charles. Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950 - 1980. New York: Basic Books, 1984. Print.
Wolf, Jennifer Price. "Sociological Theories Of Poverty In Urban America." Journal Of Human Behavior In The Social Environment 16.1/2 (2007): 41-56. Web. 18 March 2014.