Explaining Poverty in the United States1
In the previous lecture we discussed the class system. The focus of this lecture
will be the bottom part of the class system. Specifically, we will examine poverty in the
United States. We will first look at the data on poverty, and in the second part of the
lecture, I will present various theories of poverty.
I. Poverty Demographics
In this section I will focus on the demographics of poverty. I will begin by
defining poverty; then I will look at the kinds of individuals and families most likely to
Let’s first look at how the federal government determines the poverty line. The
poverty line, or poverty threshold, is defined as the annual income that a household must
be at or below to be considered poor. The poverty line is determined by calculating the
annual cost of food that a family of a particular type and size will need and multiplying
that number by three. The cost of food is multiplied by three to cover the cost of other
necessities such as clothing and housing. The poverty calculation is actually a bit more
complicated than that, but that is roughly how they do it.2
We need to be careful when interpreting the poverty numbers. Though the poverty
calculation includes direct cash aid, it does not include noncash benefits such as food
stamps, MediCal (health insurance for the poor in California), or subsidized housing.
Noncash benefits can be substantial. Who is counted as poor is also determined before
Lecture notes are written as lecture notes and therefore are not cited as would be required for
publication. Please do not reference these notes outside of this class.
For more information on the calculation of the poverty line, go to
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taxes are taken out or income tax credits are received. Tax credits in the form of the
earned income tax credit (EITC) can be substantial. In the 2015 tax year, the maximum
credit for a family with three or more qualifying children was $6,242, and for a family
with two qualifying children, it was $5,548.3 So a family counted as below the poverty
line can actually have a substantially higher level of income.
In 2014, for a family with one adult and two dependent children (this is the typical
family receiving welfare), the poverty line was set at $19,073.4 Since poverty is
calculated by household, all members in a household below the poverty threshold are
So, how many people living in the US are poor? The poverty rate (the percent of
individuals that are poor) has fluctuated from about 11 to 15 percent since the mid-1960s.
In 2014, the poverty rate was 14.8 percent. The number of people living in poverty was
46.7 million. The figure below shows how the poverty rate has fluctuated since 1959.
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Let’s now talk about the kinds of people that are more likely to be poor. In 2014,
children were more likely to be poor than adults. 21.1 percent of all children under 18
years old were poor. This compares unfavorably to 13.5 percent of all 18-to-64-year olds
and to 10 percent for all seniors aged 65 and over. Notice in the figure below that in the
1960s, the poverty rate for seniors was much higher than for children or adults. Recall
that in 1964, President Johnson began a War on Poverty
(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/War_on_Poverty). A great deal of the reduction in the
elderly poverty rate is due to the impact of Social Security, Medicare and other such
programs. Why do you think the poverty rate of children is so high today? Post your
comments to our discussion board.
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When we look at poverty by race and ethnicity, we find that racial and ethnic
minorities are much more likely to be poor than non-Hispanic whites. In 2014, people
that reported Black as their only race had a poverty rate of 26.2 percent, and people of
Hispanic origin had a poverty rate of 23.6 percent. These percentages compare
unfavorably to 10.1 percent for non-Hispanic whites and 12.0 percent of Asians.
Poverty also varies by family type. Individuals that live in female householder, no
husband present families are more likely to be poor than any other family type. The
Census reported that female householder, no husband present families had a poverty rate
of 30.6 percent in 2014. This compares unfavorably with male householder, no wife
present families with a poverty rate of 15.7 percent and very unfavorably with marriedcouple families with a poverty rate of 6.2 percent. Some people have argued that the
solution to poverty is marriage. The problem with that idea is that though poor women
want to get married, the men in their lives are like the jobs in their lives, lousy. On the
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other hand, we know that when men get married, they start to act a little more responsibly
and are a little less likely to get into trouble. What do you think? Is marriage the solution
to poverty? Post your comments to our discussion board.
Also, though most poor adults do not work, many of them do. In 2014, 16.4
million poor individuals 18-64 years of age did not work even one week. However, 10.2
million poor individuals 18-64 years of age did, and 3.1million of those worked full-time
year-round. So even though most poor adults do not work, significant numbers of them
do, many working full-time and year-round.
And as might be expected given our discussion on intergenerational mobility in
the last lecture, research has shown that there is about a 0.40 correlation between fathers’
and sons’ income. For those near the bottom of the class system, about one in four who
were consistently poor before age seventeen were still poor at ages twenty-five to twentyseven. For African Americans, the odds were worse; about one in three were still poor at
ages twenty-five to twenty-seven; this is compared to one in twelve for whites.
Poverty also seems to be difficult to permanently avoid once you have
experienced it. When measuring poverty on an annual basis (the most common way),
about half of those who end poverty spells return to poverty within four years.
Approximately 50 percent of black and 30 percent of whites who fall into poverty in
some year will be poor in five or more of the next ten years.
Another concern that sociologists that study poverty have is the spatial
concentration of poverty in American cities. In the 19th century the poor were generally,
with some exceptions in large cities, clustered into pockets and alleyways near the homes
of the affluent. However, beginning in the 1920s with improvements in transportation and
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the rise of the automobile industry, which made the suburban lifestyle more accessible,
spatial segregation by race and class began to emerge. After World War II, middle-class
whites moved in significant numbers to the suburbs. The Code of the Street illustrates the
problems associated with the geographical concentration of poverty in the inner city.
Finally, the experience of poverty seems to be a bit more common than what you
might expect. A relatively high proportion of people have experienced poverty at one
point or another, even though the majority of poor individuals remain poor for only short
periods of time. One study found that one in three Americans experienced at least one
year in poverty between 1979 and 1991.
Now that we have a sense of the numbers in poverty, I want to now examine how
poverty can be explained.
II. Theories of Poverty
In this section we will discuss six theories of poverty: the biological approach, the
functionalist approach, the cultural capital approach, the social structural approach, and
the culture of poverty approach. Let's begin with the biological approach.
A. Biological Approach
One of the earliest and most influential theories of poverty is social Darwinism.
Social Darwinism is a misapplication of Charles Darwin's evolutionary theory. From this
perspective, inequality is natural—those who prove themselves superior in the
competitive struggle are superior from birth and their strength lies in their genes. Herbert
Spencer (1820-1903, English philosopher) was the major social Darwinist during his
time. He popularized the term "evolution" and coined the now-ubiquitous phrase,
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"survival of the fittest." He and the social Darwinists of the 19th and early 20th century
believed that the poor were poor because they were biologically less “fit” than others.
Though few sociologists today believe that deficient biology adequately explains poverty,
this was a quite popular understanding of poverty in the 19th and early 20th centuries.5
Later eugenicists extended social Darwinism by arguing that evolution could be sped up
by selective breeding. In the United States, these ideas were in part the motivation for
anti-miscegenation laws and the severe restrictions placed on immigration from Southern
and Eastern Europe.6 There are still some today that believe in the biological basis for
Spencer believed that the less intelligent will become extinct and the more intelligent will survive.
However, this beneficial evolutionary process will be fatally upset if government intervenes to help
the poor. Aiding the weak and idle and providing welfare interferes with the laws of nature.
Blind to the fact, that under the natural order of things society is constantly excreting its unhealthy,
imbecile, slow, vacillating, faithless, members, these unthinking, though well-meaning, men advocate
an interference which not only stops the purifying process, but even increases the vitiation . . . And
thus, in their eagerness to prevent the really salutary sufferings that surround us, these sigh-wise and
groan-foolish people bequeath to posterity a continually increasing curse. ("Poverty Purifies Society,"
orig. pub. 1851)
If it was true that through the process of evolution the human race is improving itself, could this
process be sped up? That's what the eugenicists believed. Eugenics is the study of human genetics
and of methods to improve the inherited characteristics, physical and mental, of the human race.
Sir Francis Galton (1822-1911, English scientist, founder of eugenics, introduced the term
eugenics, cousin of Charles Darwin) emphasized the role of factors under social control that could
either improve or impair the qualities of future generations. According to this perspective, there
are some individuals and groups that are inferior to others and therefore, should not be allowed to
reproduce. The first half of the 20th century saw extreme coercive application of eugenic
principles by governments ranging from miscegenation laws and enforced sterilization of the insane
in the United States and other nations to the Holocaust of Nazi Germany. Since blacks were
considered genetically inferior, intermarriage with genetically superior whites should not be
allowed. The same argument was used to drastically limit the numbers of immigrants that came
from Eastern and Southern Europe (since they would degrade the racial stock of the country).
Regulated eugenics continues in some parts of the world; China enacted restrictions on
marriages involving persons with certain disabilities and diseases in 1994. In the United States in
recent years, interest in eugenics has centered around genetic screening. It is known, for example,
that hemophilia, albinism, and certain structural abnormalities are inheritable. Family gene maps,
called pedigrees, can help families with serious diseases avoid having children with the same
diseases through genetic counseling, and, increasingly, prospective parents can be tested directly
for the presence of undesired genes. If conception has occurred, tests such as amniocentesis and
chorionic villus sampling can be used to detect certain genetic defects in the fetus.
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stratification, for example, the late Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, in the book
the Bell Curve.7
B. The Functionalist Approach
Another approach to understanding poverty is the functionalist approach. Herbert
Gans argues that the poor serve positive functions, and therefore they are necessary. In
his discussion of the positive functions of the undeserving poor, he is actually making
two points. First, the poor are necessary because they serve positive functions, and
second, labeling the poor as undeserving serves positive functions.
Before getting into our discussion of how labeling the poor as undeserving serve
positive functions, let’s look first at how the existence of the poor serves positive
functions. Here are some examples: The poor serve as “hypothetical workers.” They can
be used to depress the wages of workers or to put pressure on unions to not make wage
and other demands. The poor do undesirable work. The poor will do the work that others
will not do (for example, sell drugs, prostitute themselves, and other jobs in the
underground economy). The poor will perform services that others want but few in the
middle class will do. The poor create jobs for the nonpoor. The mere presence of the poor
creates jobs for the better-off population, including professional ones (e.g., social
workers, drug treatment centers, police, judges, prison guards, sociologists, and charity
organizations). The poor serve as negative role models (E.g., the poor can be used to
encourage the children of the middle class to work hard and do well in school, because if
they don’t, they could end up homeless.). The poor benefit the economy by buying things
that the middle class will not buy, for example, dilapidated homes, old cars, and stale
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bread. To eliminate poverty, then, would be to lose many positive functions. So from the
functionalist perspective, poverty persists because it serves many positive functions.
Gans also notices that the poor are labeled as having deficient values and
attitudes. The stereotype of the poor as lazy, immoral, and criminal is old. For example,
in the first century BC, Cicero (106 to 46 BC) described the needy of Rome as criminals.
The labeling of the poor as undeserving, Gans argues, serves many positive functions.
One positive function of labeling the poor as undeserving is risk reduction.
According to Gans, by labeling the poor as underserving, we justify our avoidance of
them thereby reducing the risk associated with interacting with them. As we stay away
from the poor, they are less able to corrupt the morals of our children and less able to
steal from us or do physical harm to us.
Another positive function is scapegoating and displacement. By labeling the poor
as undeserving, we can blame the poor for many societal problems. Who is to blame for
the bad economy? It is the poor who are too lazy to get a job. Who do we blame for high
taxes? It is the poor who live off of welfare. Who do we blame for moral decay? It is the
poor single-parent mothers who have babies out of wedlock. But who is it that really has
those negative qualities? It is the middle class. Gans says that we displace our negative
characteristics and our hatred for those that have them onto the poor. Who is it that really
is lazy? It is us who spend hours hanging out with friends, texting, listening to music or
watching TV, or on the internet instead of studying or working. Who is it that really is
dependent on the government? It is the middle class. For example, this class you are
taking is mostly funded by taxpayers. Who is it that really has loose morals? It is the
middle class who often have sex without love or live together with our partner without
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being married. According to Gans, rather than hating ourselves, we displace our hatred of
ourselves onto the poor.
Another function of labeling the poor as undeserving is moral legitimation. By
labeling the poor as undeserving, we are able to justify the class hierarchy. As we believe
that we somehow worked hard and struggled to make it into the middle class, those that
have not are seen as less competent. By labeling the poor as underserving, we believe that
we deserve our middle-class status, rather than seeing the unfairness that perpetuates the
Another function of labeling the poor as undeserving is norm reinforcement. The
poor are seen as violators of middle-class norms. Their violations or perceived violations
help to reaffirm and reinforce middle-class norms. For example, when poor single
mothers are condemned, the two-parent family is strengthened as the ideal. Or for
example, when the poor is imagined as lazy, the protestant work ethic is affirmed.
Gans argues that labeling the poor as undeserving functions to push politics to the
right, what he calls conservative power shifting. As the poor are seen as underserving,
they loose their political legitimacy and therefore political influence. As the poor then are
unable to participate significantly in the political process, the political debate moves to
the right. As the poor lose political power, they are ineffective in advancing their views
on the welfare state, the criminal justice system, health care, and other issues that impact
Let me mention just one more positive function. By labeling the poor as
undeserving, they can be banished from work. The poor, as they are banished from
working, allows for the employment of immigrant workers, who may work for lower
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wages, are more deferential, and are more easily exploitable by being threatened with
The functionalist perspective, as argued by Gans, sees poverty as functional.
However, Gans does not believe that poverty should not eliminated because it serves
positive functions, rather, his point is that because it serves positive functions, it is very
difficult to eliminate.
C. Cultural Capital Approach
Another approach to understanding poverty is the cultural capital approach. By
cultural capital, what Pierre Bourdieu8 is referring to is the knowledge and skills that can
potentially be converted into material capital. Bourdieu argues that the chances for
economic success are not the same for everyone. Those with more capital are more likely
to succeed. However, there is a tendency to think of capital as only material capital,
material wealth. Those with more money are more likely to be able to make more money.
However, this is not the only kind of capital. There is another kind of capital that can be
later on converted into material capital. This is cultural capital.
Cultural capital that is valuable in the middle-class world would include speaking
in standard English and knowing the politeness norms of the middle class. Those that
only know how to speak in the black English vernacular or only know how to act “street”
would have difficulty interacting with others in the middle-class world. They have the
wrong kind of capital to succeed in the middle-class world.
But unlike money, cultural capital cannot be transmitted instantaneously. It takes
a great deal of time and energy to transmit. Thus middle-class parents will spend
Bourdieu, Pierre (1986). The Forms of Capital.
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considerable time with their children in transmitting this valuable cultural capital.
Children of the poor are left out since their poor parents do not themselves own the
cultural capital of the middle class. The more time a middle-class parent spends with his
or he ...
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