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Are you just into white guilt? Government programs come and go as political parties swing us back and forth between stock answers whose only effect seems to be who gets elected. If anything, the problems get worse, and people feel increasingly helpless and frustrated or, if the problems don’t affect them personally, often feel nothing much at all. As a society, then, we are stuck, and we’ve been stuck for a long time.
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One reason we’re stuck is that the problems are huge and complex. But on a deeper level, we tend to think about them in ways that keep us from getting at their complexity in the first place. It is a basic tenet of sociological practice that to solve a social problem we have to begin by seeing it as social. Without this, we look in the wrong place for explanations and in the wrong direction for visions of change.
Consider, for example, poverty, which is arguably the most far-reaching, long-standing cause of chronic suffering there is. The magnitude of poverty is especially ironic in a country like the United States whose enormous wealth dwarfs that of entire continents. More than one out of every six people in the United States lives in poverty or near-poverty. For children, the rate is even higher.
How can there be so much misery and insecurity in the midst of such abundance? If we look at the question sociologically, one of the first things we see is that poverty doesn’t exist all by itself. It is simply one end of an overall distribution of income and wealth in society as a whole. As such, poverty is both a structural aspect of the system and an ongoing consequence of how the system is organized and the paths of least resistance that shape how people participate in it.
The system we have for producing and distributing wealth is capitalist. In part, then, poverty exists because the economic system is organized in ways that encourage the accumulation of wealth at one end and creates conditions of scarcity that make poverty inevitable at the other. But the capitalist system generates poverty in other ways as well. In the drive for profit, for example, capitalism places a high value on competition and efficiency. These kinds of decisions are a normal consequence of how capitalism operates as a system, paths of least resistance that managers and investors are rewarded for following.
But the decisions also have terrible effects on tens of millions of people and their families and communities. Even having a full-time job is no guarantee of a decent living, which is why so many families depend on the earnings of two or more adults just to make ends meet. To these social factors we can add others. A high divorce rate, for example, results in large numbers of single-parent families who have a hard time depending on a single adult for both childcare and a living income. Clearly, patterns of widespread poverty are inevitable in an economic system that sets the terms for how wealth is produced and distributed. A classic example of the conservative approach is Charles Murray’s book Losing Ground.
Murray sees the world as a merry-go-round. He reviews thirty years of federal antipoverty programs and notes that they’ve generally failed. Instead, Murray argues, poverty is caused by failures of individual initiative and effort. People are poor because there’s something lacking in them, and changing them is therefore the only effective remedy. AFDC, Medicaid, food stamps, unemployment insurance, and the rest.
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The confusion lies in how we think about individuals and society, and about poverty as an individual condition and as a social problem. On the one hand, we can ask how individuals are sorted into different social class categories, what characteristics best predict who will get the best jobs and earn the most. If you want to get ahead, what’s your best strategy? Based on many people’s experience, the answers come fast and easy: work hard, get an education, never give up. There is certainly a lot of truth in this advice, and it gets to the issue of how people choose to participate in the system as it is. Sociologically, however, it focuses on only one part of the equation by leaving out the system itself. In other words, it ignores the fact that social life is shaped both by the nature of systems and how people participate, by the forest and the trees.
Changing how individuals participate may affect outcomes for some. Imagine for a moment that income is distributed according to the results of a footrace. All of the income in the United States for each year is put into a giant pool and we hold a race to determine who gets what. The fastest fifth of the population gets 48 percent of the income to divide up, the next fastest fifth splits 23 percent, the next fastest fifth gets 15 percent, the next fifth 10 percent, and the slowest fifth divides 4 percent. They didn’t run as fast as everyone else, and if they ran faster, they’d do better. This prompts us to ask why some people run faster than others, and to consider all kinds of answers from genetics to nutrition to motivation to having time to work out to being able to afford a personal trainer.
But to see why some fifth of the population must be poor no matter how fast people run, all we have to do is look at the system itself. It uses unbridled competition to determine not only who gets fancy cars and nice houses, but who gets to eat or has a place to live or access to health care. It distributes income and wealth in ways that promote increasing concentrations among those who already have the most. But there has to be a bottom fifth so long as the system is organized as it is. Learning to run faster may keep you or me out of poverty, but it won’t get rid of poverty itself. To do that, we have to change the system along with how people participate in it.
48 percent, 23 percent, 15 percent, 10 percent, and 4 percent, for example, we might divide them into shares of 24 percent, 22 percent, 20 percent, 18 percent, and 16 percent. People can argue about whether chronic widespread poverty is morally acceptable or what an acceptable level of inequality might look like. But if we want to understand where poverty comes from, what makes it such a stubborn feature of social life, we have to begin with the simple sociological fact that patterns of inequality result as much from how social systems are organized as they do from how individuals participate in them. Focusing on one without the other simply won’t do it.
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The focus on individuals is so entrenched, however, that even those who think they’re taking social factors into account usually aren’t. This is as true of Murray’s critics as it is of Murray himself. Perhaps Murray’s greatest single mistake is to misinterpret the failure of federal antipoverty programs. He assumes that federal programs actually target the social causes of poverty, which means that if they don’t work, social causes must not be the issue.
But he’s simply got it wrong. If antipoverty programs have failed, it isn’t because the idea that poverty is socially caused is wrong. Or they understand it but are so trapped in individualistic thinking that they don’t act on it by targeting systems such as the economy for serious change. The easiest way to see this is to look at the antipoverty programs themselves. They come in two main varieties. The first holds individuals responsible by assuming that financial success is solely a matter of individual qualifications and behavior.
In other words, if you just run faster, you’ll finish the race ahead of people who are currently beating you, and then they’ll be poor instead of you. We get people to run faster by providing training and motivation. The result is that some people rise out of poverty by improving their competitive advantage, while others sink into it when their advantages no longer work and they get laid off or their company relocates to another country or gets swallowed up in a merger that boosts the stock price for shareholders and earns the CEO a salary that in 2005 averaged more than 262 times the average worker’s pay. And so, individuals rise and fall in the class system, and the stories of those who rise are offered as proof of what’s possible, and the stories of those who fall are offered as cautionary tales.
The system itself, however, including the huge gap between the wealthy and everyone else and the steady proportion of people living in poverty, stays much the same. A second type of program seems to assume that individuals aren’t to blame for their impoverished circumstances, because it reaches out with various kinds of direct aid that help people meet day-to-day needs. Welfare payments, food stamps, housing subsidies, and Medicaid all soften poverty’s impact, but they do little about the steady supply of people living in poverty. There’s nothing wrong with this in that it can alleviate a lot of suffering. In relation to poverty as a social problem, welfare and other such programs are like doctors who keep giving bleeding patients transfusions without repairing the wounds. In effect, Murray tells us that federal programs just throw good blood after bad. In a sense, he’s right, but not for the reasons he offers.
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Murray would merely substitute one ineffective individualistic solution for another. Liberals and conservatives are locked in a tug of war between two individualistic solutions to problems that are only partly about individuals. Neither is informed by a sense of how social life actually works as a dynamic relation between social systems and how people participate in those systems. Because social problems are more than an accumulation of individual woes, they can’t be solved through an accumulation of individual solutions. We must include social solutions that take into account how economic and other systems really work. We also have to identify the paths of least resistance that produce the same patterns and problems year after year.
This means that capitalism can no longer occupy its near-sacred status that holds it immune from criticism. From The Forest and The Trees: Sociology as Life, Practice, and Promise, rev. 55 Responses to “Why Is There Poverty? What alternative do you propose or prefer? I understood your article and its arguments. I am one of those people on food stamps, medicaid as my secondary insurance, fuel assistance, and my mortgage is subsidized.
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I have owned my own home for 10 years, raised 4 kids and work 6 days a week running my small business for 6 years now. I am a single Mother and without these programs my family would be homeless, cold and hungry. I am completely grateful for these programs and yes they have kept my family from suffering. I have 5 children and I had the house for 12 years.
And if I die, they will be homeless. It’s great that you’ve taken the hard work to help those out there who are seeking out resources within this area. Your serious dedication to getting the solution out there appears to be quite useful and has allowed college students much like me to come to their objectives. Please know that this work means a lot to all of us. Your argument about capitalism has some weaknesses.
You disown your own 19th century version of competition as if it were an intolerable evil but fail to properly dismantle it. If you want to eliminate poverty, focus on education. I don’t believe our economy is a zero-sum game. The pie gets bigger, but the upper classes take most of it for themselves because they own the corporations. While elite incomes have soared, workers’ incomes have either been flat or gone down. Education increases the competitive advantage of individuals but only so long as others don’t do the same thing.
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If everyone had a college degree, we would have millions of people with college degrees living in poverty. It exists today primarily in the theories of university economists and others trying to defend against criticism of how capitalism actually works and what it does to millions of people’s lives. It has nothing to do with the ability of the workers. It has been the advances in technology and the investment of the owners of the corporations and stock holders that has made the workers more productive. The elite have given the worker the opertunity and the tools.
The argument is often made by defenders of modern capitalism that enlarging the pie is in fact the solution to poverty, but this has not and will not work for precisely the reasons that Bob describes in his comment. The free market is almost instinctual to human nature and allows the economy to be incredibly adaptable. However, it is also very exploitive and does not intrinsically benefit society as a whole. Certain needs of society will never be met by the private sector. What I don’t like seeing is politicians that believe the country should do less, or do nothing.
It’s like we’re purposely spending taxes to elect people that keep the government doing its job. This article has changed my opinions about how to approach the problem of poverty, it’s been a very enlightening read. I am certainly a proponent of getting a good education. 50,000 a year to support a family of three? We don’t have the job market to sustain a family of three.
With the rise in food, clothing, shelter, healthcare, purchasing a car, gasoline, EDUCATION to rise above poverty, tell me how do you manage this. This has prevented me from participating fully in the system. Should I be valued as a lesser component of society to the point where my health suffers even more because I can’t afford a decent home or healthy food? I cannot speak of your value as a lesser component in any way at all. If you are not healthy enough to work, we have a social safety net that exists to help you stay alive. If your point is that existing programs don’t pay enough for you to eat well and live in a clean safe home, then I agree with you.
In a civilized society, I thknk humans have a moral obligation to care for those who are not able to care for themselves. Your writing about those of us in poverty is both clearly articulated and profound. I was raised in poverty and still am entrenched in its clutches at 45. This, despite a bachelor’s degree that I earned as a single parent that left me a mountain of debt I will owe the rest of my life. Addressing both the health of the runner and the set up of the race is important. I have worked hard at overcoming personal issues that made me a poor runner. However, as you pointed out, there are only so many living wage jobs available, no matter how fast one can run.