Chapter 2: Poverty
• Other wealthy democracies provide much more funding and many more services for
their poor than does the U.S., and their poverty rates are much lower than ours.
• Many politicians and much of the public blame the poor for being poor, and they
oppose increasing federal spending to help the poor and even want to reduce such
Poverty expert Mark R. Rank says "poverty affects us all" for two reasons:
• 1. The U.S. spends much more money than it needs to because of the
consequences of poverty. Poor people experience worse health, family problems,
higher crime rates, and more, all of which our nation spends billions of dollars
annually to address. If we had the same poverty rate as other democracies, billions
of tax dollars and other resources would be saved.
• 2. The majority of Americans can expect to be poor or near poor at some point in
their lives, with about 75% in the 20-75 age range living in poverty or near poverty
for at least one year in their lives. Because so many people experience poverty,
everyone should want the U.S. to do everything possible to reduce poverty.
• Sociologist John Iceland adds two additional reasons for why everyone should care
about poverty and want it reduced.
• 1. A high rate of poverty impairs our nation's economic progress: When a large
number of people cannot afford to purchase goods and services, economic growth
is more difﬁcult to achieve.
• 2. Poverty produces crime and other social problems that affect people across the
socioeconomic ladder. Reductions in poverty would help not only the poor but also
people who are not poor.
2.1 The Measurement and Extent of Poverty
• Poverty line: The government's measure of ofﬁcial poverty, based on the cost of a
minimal diet for a family that is then multiplied by three.
• We still use that poverty line but it is out of date. Many expenses such as heat and
electricity, child care, transportation, and health care now occupy a greater percentage
of the typical family's budget than was true in 1963.
• Poverty line fails to take into account regional differences in the cost of living and a
family's noncash income from beneﬁts such as food stamps and tax credits.
• Families with incomes between the poverty line and twice the poverty line (twice
poverty) are barely making ends meet, but they are not considered ofﬁcially poor.
• Twice-poverty data - family incomes below twice the poverty line
• Analysts use twice-poverty data to provide a more accurate understanding of how
many Americans face serious ﬁnancial difﬁculties, even if they are not living in ofﬁcial
The Extent of Poverty
• Episodic poverty: As deﬁned by the Census Bureau, being poor for at least two
consecutive months in some time period. The problems in the ofﬁcial poverty measure that were noted earlier have led the
Census Bureau to develop a Supplemental Poverty Measure.
• This measure takes into account the many family expenses in addition to food; it also
takes into account geographic differences in the cost of living, taxes paid and tax
credits received, and the provision of food stamps, Medicaid, and certain other kinds
of government aid.
• The ofﬁcial poverty rate in 2010 was 15.1%, equal to more than 46 million Americans.
• About 1/3 of the US population, or more than 100 million Americans, have incomes no
higher than twice the poverty line.
2.2 Who the Poor Are: Social Patterns of Poverty
• Census data reveal that the most typical poor person is white (non-Latino).
• 42.4% of poor people are white (non-Latino), 28.7% are Latino, 23.1% are black, and
3.7% are Asian
• The higher poverty rates of people of color are so striking and important that they have
been termed the "colors of poverty".
• Women are more likely to be poor than men.
• The high rate of female poverty is called the feminization of poverty.
• The poverty rate for US children is the highest of all wealthy democracies.
• Children living in families with incomes below twice the ofﬁcial poverty level are called
low-income children, and their families are called low-income families.
• 9% of people aged 65 or older are poor.
• South US is poorest, followed by West, Midwest, and then the Northeast.
• Poverty rates are higher in families with one adult
• Poverty much higher for family headed by only a woman (lower income)
• Regardless of race or ethnicity, children living just with their mothers are at particularly
great risk of living in poverty
Labor Force Status:
• 80% of the poor were either working, looking for work, too young or too old, disabled,
or in the armed forces. Only the remaining 20% were lazy and lacked motivation to
work. 2.3 Explaining Poverty
• Social stratiﬁcation - Rankings of people based on wealth and other resources a
Functionalist view: Stratiﬁcation is necessary to induce people with special
intelligence, knowledge, and skills to enter the most important occupations. For this
reason, stratiﬁcation is necessary and inevitable.
• Conﬂict theory view: Stratiﬁcation results from lack of opportunity and from
discrimination and prejudice against the poor, women, and people of color, It is neither
necessary nor inevitable.
The Functionalist View:
• 1. Some jobs are more important than other jobs. A brain surgeon is more important
than a shoe shiner.
• 2. Some jobs require more skills and knowledge than other jobs.
• 3. Relatively few people have the ability to acquire the skills and knowledge that are
needed to do these important, highly skilled jobs.
• 4. To encourage the people with the skills and knowledge to do the important, highly
skilled jobs, society must promise them higher incomes or other rewards.
• EX: If a brain surgeon and a shoe shiner both earn $150,000 a year, why would a
brain surgeon spend years getting an education and paying for college when he could
just start being a shoe shiner at 16 yrs. old?
• Reasons It Is Difﬁcult To Compare the Importance of Jobs:
• 1. Which is more important - brain surgery or mining coal? Coal lets our society
function. Both are important in different ways.
• 2. Functionalist explanation implies that the most important jobs have the highest
incomes and the least important jobs have the lowest incomes. But a professional
athlete earns more than the president.
• 3. Functionalist view assumes that people move up the economic ladder based on
their abilities, skills, knowledge, and their merit. But based on race, gender, etc.,
some people have less opportunity to acquire the skills and training they need.
• This functionalist view argues that poverty exists because it serves certain positive
functions for our society:
• 1. Poor people do the work that other people do not want to do
• 2. The programs that help poor people provide a lot of jobs for the people
employed by the programs
• 3. The poor purchase goods, such as day-old bread and used clothing, that other
people do not wish to purchase, and thus extend the economic values of these
• 4. The poor provide jobs for doctors, lawyers, teachers, and other professionals
who may not be competent enough to be employed in positions catering to
wealthier patients, clients, students, and so forth
The Conﬂict View: Explanations for poverty assume that stratiﬁcation stems from a fundamental conﬂict
between the needs and interests of the powerful, or "haves," in society and those of
the weak, or "have nots".
• Conﬂict theory attributes stratiﬁcation and thus poverty to lack of opportunity from
discrimination and prejudice against the poor, women, and people of color.
Speciﬁc Explanations of Poverty:
Poverty arises from problems either within the poor themselves or in the society in
which they live.
• Individualistic explanation: Poverty results from the fact that poor people lack the
motivation to work and have certain beliefs and values that contribute to their poverty.
• Structural explanation: Poverty results from problems in society that lead to a lack of
opportunity and a lack of jobs.
• The explanation for poverty we favor presumably affects the amount of sympathy we
have for the poor, and our sympathy, or lack of sympathy, in turn affects our views
about the government's role in helping the poor.
• Individualistic explanation: The belief that poor people are poor because they lack e
motivation to work and have other failings.
• Culture of poverty theory: According to the theory, the poor generally have beliefs and
values that differ from those of the non-poor and that doom them to continued poverty.
• Poor employed adults work more hours per week than wealthier adults and in surveys,
they say they value education for their children at least as much as wealthier parents.
These and other similarities in values and beliefs lead critics of the individualistic
explanation to conclude that poor people's poverty cannot reasonably be said to result
from a culture of poverty.
• Structural explanation - The belief that poor people are poor because of various kinds
of discrimination and lack of jobs and opportunity.
• Problems that lead to a lack of equal opportunity and a lack of jobs:
• Racial, ethnic, gender, and age discrimination
• Lack of good schooling and adequate health care
• Structural changes in the American economic system (departure of manufacturing
companies from American cities in the 1980s and 90s that led to the loss of
thousands of jobs)
2.4 The Consequences of Poverty
• In general, poor children are more likely to be poor as adults, more likely to drop out of
high school, more likely to become a teenaged parent, and more likely to have
employment problems Family Problems:
• Poverty can change the way the brain develops in young children. The major reason
for this effect i