Theoretical Approaches to Poverty
1) Functionalism – contemporary functionalists assert that inequality is a cultural universal because it is
beneficial to the operation of society.
- Kingsley Davis and Wilbert Moore argue that some jobs are more important than others. In order to
motivate people to fill positions that require more training and talent, it is important to offer greater
rewards (including higher income, greater prestige, and more power) to these positions. Davis and
Moore argue that an egalitarian society would be inefficient because it would not encourage people to
- Davis and Moore see society as a meritocracy, a system of social inequality in which social standing
corresponds to personal ability and effort.
Criticisms of the Davis-Moore Thesis:
1) How do you measure the importance of a position?
2) Is the relationship between the importance of a position and its rewards as straightforward as the
3) Why isn’t society a meritocracy? That is, why are many positions not awarded on the basis of merit?
4) Is inequality actually functional for society?
- Herbert Gans argues that inequality exists because people benefit from it; inequality performs a
number of functions:
1) The poor are willing to perform unpleasant tasks
2) They are willing to purchase things that no one else wants
3) They remind others that it is important to work hard
4) They serve as scapegoats for many of our social problems
5) They create work for the rest of us (e.g., social workers, pawn shop owners, less qualified doctors and
2) The Conflict Perspective views social stratification as avoidable, unnecessary, and not promoting the
optimal functioning of society.
• Stratification is created and maintained by classes and powerful groups in order to protect and
enhance their interests; focuses on competition over scarce societal resources (e.g., power, wealth, and
• The risk of poverty is far greater for certain groups of people—racial minorities and women—than
others. Single mothers, for example, are ten times more likely than single fathers to be poor.
3) Symbolic Interactionism focuses on the meanings that people attach to those who are poor. • William Ryan described the process of blaming the victim, where one finds the cause of a social
problem in the behavior of people who suffer from it. Blaming the victim comes easily in a society that
stresses individual responsibility. This process of blaming involves four steps:
1) Pick a social problem (e.g., poverty)
2) Decide how people who suffer from the problem differ from everyone else (e.g., dress, language,