Chapter 2 - Class, Poverty, and Economic Inequality Chapter 2 of Social Problems.

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Chapter 2 Class, Poverty, and Economic Inequality
Economic inequality: large differences in income and wealth across individuals and groups within a society; differences in
the economic power of nations
Sociological take: poverty and inequality are important public issues
o Become named problems, with supposed causes and effects, through the efforts of claims-makers
It takes a sociological imagination to see how poverty and inequality connects to issues of ideology, governance and power
Marx introduced the notion of social class
o Stressed that people always organize oppositionally around their relation to the means of production
o Those who own it will enjoy the greatest power: the control over available jobs
o The rest proletarians will have to sell their time and labour power to capitalists to earn wages that allow them
to survive
o Capitalists will pay the workers as little as possible and sell the product for as high a price as possible maximum
Classes are groups of people who share a common economic condition, interest or relationship to the means of production
(technology and capital)
Two main classes binary: fundamental to all social relations since these two classes are forever locked in conflict
High prices, low wages and poor working conditions are not good for workers
o So they struggle through unions, co-operatives, legislation, and other means to improve their wages, working
conditions, job security and the prices they have to pay for food, shelter, and health care
People in the same relation should band together
o Workers to protect their wages and working conditions
o Employers to protect their profit and control
o For this to happen, the people must:
develop an awareness of their common interest,
commit themselves to working together for common goals and
come to see their individual well-being as connected to the collective well-being of their class
capitalist class system will produce monopolies of wealth and ever-increasing inequality, globalization and imperialism,
overproduction and recurrent financial crisis
those at the bottom will be impoverished, desperate and willing to do almost anything to survive
employers may prevent formation of unions or discussions of worker concerns
legislators may make laws that give the employers more power in the event of a conflict
police/military may be used to break strikes
unions and representatives may not agree on how best to promote workers’ interests
workers may suffer from ‘false consciousness’: an acceptance of the discourse and value of the dominant class and thus a
willingness to believe arguments that promote individualistic solutions to problems or that blame the poor and
unemployed for their problems
workers may also be ‘alienated’ from politics – cannot trust unions
oppressed classes can bring about change only after they become aware of their position in relation to the ruling class and
their historic role
however, it is no longer necessary to own a business to control the means of production and the working class, today, is
international, a result of global ownership and economic competition
functional theory of stratification (Davis + Moore) maintains that most people in most industrial societies agree about the
relative social value of particular roles (eg. A doctor is worth more in society than a store clerk)
o however, this theory fails to consider:
why the different between top-paid and bottom-paid workers is wide
why the range of salaries is much wider in one capitalist society than it is in others
why some people get high salaries regardless of whether they confer a social benefit (movie stars)
not all inequality is due to exploitation in the form that Marx imagined; some are the:
o result of unregulated market forces (inadequate laws governing the finance industry)
o result of the tax structure which enables more or less wealth to be redistributed from poor to rich redistribution:
a result of the connection between state and ruling class
Marx recognized that, in general, all classes rest on inequality and that all inequality rests on social differentiation;
however, not all differentiation leads to inequality which doesn’t result in classes
Class formation required the growth of class consciousness:
1. Identifying themselves as members of an exploited class
2. Seeing that owners of the means of production are their enemy
3. Realizing that everything is at stake in the battle for equality
4. Recognizing that societal change is possible through conflict
John Porter’s The Vertical Mosaic there is some opportunity for people cross class lines at the highest occupational levels
Social mobility: the movement of individuals from one social class to another during the course of one’s lifetime
o Has its limits; little chance of entering the ‘upper class’ (top 1%) from below and vice versa
o There is more opportunity to enter the top income decile (top 10%) and more opportunity to escape the bottom
income decile -> rare
o In the middle (80% of all income earners) plenty of intergenerational mobility
o Educational credentials are the key to social mobility
o More socially mobile likely to interact with higher social classes
o Educated people are also more likely to interact with lower classes
o People with more education have larger, more diverse social networks (partly because of exposure in school)
Measuring Poverty
Can view poverty in two ways:
o Absolute poverty: lack of the basic necessities (food, shelter, medicine) for basic survival (eg. Starvation)
o Relative poverty: survival, but far below the general living standards of the society or social group in which the
poor live; affects people’s live in dramatic ways
Poverty line: represents a usual standard of living and differs across countries; definition of poverty varies by society, within
societies and also over time -> elastic
Statistics Canada measurement strategies:
1. Low-income cut offs (LICOs): measures relative poverty based on the percentage of income devoted to daily necessities
(food, shelter, clothing) and determined both regionally and by population
2. Low-income measures (LIMs): a set of figures representing 50% of the median ‘adjusted family income; actual incomes
are compared with LIMs to determine whether or not a family can be considered ‘low-income’; these measure are
categorize according to the number of adults and children present in families
3. Market-basket measure (MBM): a way of measuring income and poverty; based on an imaginary basket of marker-
priced goods and services and on the income needed to purchase the items in the basket; the determination of what
goes into this imaginary basket tends to exclude all but the absolute essentials of bare survival
a. Implicit in this approach is the idea that our obligations to low-income people consist of a particular basket of
goods, not a share of Canada’s wealth
b. What goes in the basket is determined by bureaucrats or right-leaning think-tanks who exclude transportation
and expenditure on entertainment
Measuring Well-being and Inequality
The United Nations Development Program monitors social and economic progress through a broad measure known as -
Human Development Index (HDI): a combined measure of achievement in three basic areas of human development life
expectancy at birth, literacy, and GDP per capita
may not accurately reflect the extent of important differences among the world’s most developed countries;
o thus these countries are measured by the human poverty index
o HPI: assesses relative deprivation in these same dimensions: vulnerability to premature death (likelihood at birth
of not living to 60), exclusion from reading and communications (adult illiteracy), a deprived standard of living
(percentage of population living below income poverty line), social exclusion (rate of long-term unemployment)
Canada provides a very high standard of living that is not equally distributed across all levels of society
Systematic measures of social inequality: Gini coefficient: 0 reflects total income equality across a society; 1 reflects total
income inequality
Poverty in Canada
Face of poverty and economic inequality in Canada has been described as ‘racialized, destitute and young’
On the rise in urban areas; especially in Quebec
More common among racial minorities: non-white visible minorities and Aboriginal communities
Recent immigrants earn much less than their Canadian-born counterparts because they are unable to gain acceptance of
their foreign credentials
Aboriginals: a lack of employment opportunities combined with a sense of cultural isolation has resulted in economic, social
and health conditions that are in some instances a bad as or worse than those found in the least developed countries of the
o Likely explains the higher incidence of substance abuse, high rates of imprisonment and of such disease as
Two forms of joblessness: out of work but seeking employment or out of work and not seeking employment
Structural mechanisms ensure the poorest Canadians remain poor
Large numbers of Canadians move in and out of poverty
Two reasons to view it as a social problem:
1. For the few who are chronically, desperately poor, only a change in social policies can save them
2. The many who at some point have experienced poverty will readily see the merit in fixing a system that is so patently
Poverty as an Urban Problem
Most serious problems: lack of affordable housing for low-income families and individuals, reasons being:
o The ownership of rental housing is being concentrated in the hands of a few property owners
o Developers stand to make larger profits by investing in housing solely for the middle and upper classes
Affordable housing is often found in city neighbourhoods that are economically stagnant and physically decayed (high rates
of crime, violence and drug use)
The Homeless
Most low-income families are renters, not homeowners
So when rent prices increases or owners change rental units into owner-occupied condos, many are forced onto the streets
Study of homelessness: it has been growing almost 6x faster than the overall population
Homeless are a varied mix of single men and women, young people, families, Aboriginals, people with serious health issues,
even kids who run away from abusive parents
Research: families of runaways tend to give their children less support, supervision, and acceptance than other families;
evidence also suggests that the parents themselves ran away when they were children suicide attempts are common
Thus, a principal reason that runaways remain on the street, refusing to return home or try foster care, is their stated belief
that family conflict is inevitable
Homeless adults with higher than average rates of criminal behaviour, substance abuse and other forms of deviant
behaviour tend to report more abusive and deprived childhoods
Theoretical Perspectives on Poverty
Structural Functionalism
Argues that society consists of a connected network of groups, organizations, and institutions that work together
to maintain the survival of that society
Everything has a purpose/function; when fulfilled, allows society to continue
Argues that poverty and inequality may serve important functions in society
o eg. Threat of poverty motivates people to work hard to move up the ladder
o jobs at the top of the ladder require education and effort -> work harder for longer
Conflict Theory (Marx and Weber)
The bourgeoisie/capitalist own the means of production and can set the terms of employment
The latter group resort to selling the only commodity they possess: labour power