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Poverty, Welfare and Power

Poverty, Welfare and Power

Author: Zach Lamb

Identify the various types of poverty, welfare, and power, and their impact on society. 

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Poverty, Welfare, and Power

Source: Intro Music by Mark Hannan; Public Domain

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[MUSIC PLAYING] Hello. Welcome to sociological studies. I hope you're having a great day. Thanks for tuning in. In this lesson, we're going to discuss poverty, as well as some of the negative and adverse effects of poverty, specifically in this country, as well as we will deal with poverty globally.

There are three forms of poverty and three ways sociologists commonly distinguish poverty and how one can be poor. And those are relative poverty, absolute poverty, and functional poverty. I will distinguish them.

Relative poverty is where you're pour relative to somebody else. So if you live in a neighborhood that's predominantly made up of wealthy people, but you only make $25,000 a year, you might feel very poor comparatively. You might feel very poor relative to them. But you're also rich relative to somebody who has no savings, doesn't have a job, or is homeless. So relative poverty just depends on your perspective and the relationship you have with someone. It's more of a psychological condition than a physical need.

Absolute poverty is a form of poverty that's so extreme that it's dangerous for survival, that you might die because you're so poor. One fifth of the world's people-- 1.4 billion people-- live in absolute poverty. It has effects on life expectancy-- it's dramatically lower if you're living in absolute poverty-- you could be malnourished. So this is a poverty so extreme that it can threaten your life.

Finally, functional poverty is a form of poverty where you're getting by, you're functional, but you're just meeting your basic needs-- food and shelter. You really have no other money, no other savings, nothing. You're just living meeting the basic needs.

And it's really difficult for people in functional poverty to get out of poverty. They can survive, but it's hard to do anything else. So functional poverty is a third way we distinguish poverty sociologically.

Who are the poor in the United States? Who are these people? What kind of categories?

People of color, because of racial prejudice and systematic exclusion from labor markets by the dominant white majority for centuries, are three times as likely as white people to live in poverty. Also, elderly people historically have been thought of as a poverty and victims of poverty, but now, over the last several decades, we've had advances in the caliber of our retirement savings programs, such that we've been able to lift many seniors out of poverty.

And now, in fact, people under 25, young people, are more likely to be living in poverty. There's a trend right now, a student loan debt bubble, where many, many students have lots of loans that they can't afford, because the economy is so bad, they don't have jobs. So this is a problem. If you have $100,000 of student debt, but yet, you're working as a waitress, and that doesn't get you that much money. So this is a problem.

Our country's also experiencing what we call the feminization of poverty. Feminization is to have more women relative to men become poor, or to increase the percentage of women becoming poor through time. This means that more females are now poor than males. And this is likely due to the fact that more and more women are heads of households, heading up single families of women and children. So this helps to explain likely the feminization of poverty.

In addition to these categories of people who suffer from poverty, which is racial categories, women, children, young people, in addition to these categories, poverty generates broad problems in society, like homelessness. The US has a major problem with homelessness. It's a condition of not having a home.

You might have to live on the street. You might have to live in a car. You might have to live in a homeless shelter. Some estimates are that as many as 1.6 million people in a given year will spend some portion of that year homeless.

The old stereotype of people pushing around shopping carts with all of their possessions or sleeping in bushes or on park benches is kind of outdated, because we have what we call a new homeless, or new homeless people, who've lost their jobs due to structural reasons in the economy or who have lost their homes due to the 2008 financial crisis. And the bank, then, has foreclosed the home. And they've lost the mortgage. So these people, then, become homeless.

I've seen a documentary recently about homeless people who live in cars. They were able to keep their cars and they spend their money on gas, and they drive around parking lot to parking lot, where they think it's going to be safe to sleep. And these people are just trying to get a foothold back into the normal economy and a structured normal working life.

One woman even worked a job while living in her car, trying to save money. She didn't have a bank. She had keep all of this cash in her car. You know, that's not very safe, if you're driving around an urban area, spending a lot of time in your car by yourself, and you've got loads of cash on you. So this is a real problem, homelessness in the United States.

How does society deal with poverty? It's a problem that has many adverse consequences and effects. Well, how does society mitigate these effects? There are two overriding responses to poverty in society, both done through welfare or helping out people. We can do it individually-- so individual welfare-- or corporate welfare.

Individual welfare is aid given directly to individuals through reduced taxes, reduced grocery or school lunches, daycare, commuter expenses, say, bus passes or something. These are just a few examples. But the idea of the individual welfare is it goes directly to the individual versus corporate welfare is when you give support and aid directly to private businesses with the hopes that this will improve the economy, create more jobs, get more spending in the economy, so everyone does better.

This is typically called trickle down economics, or Reaganomics, after Ronald Reagan, who pushed for this strategy. Corporate tax breaks are given the private businesses with the hope that they will use that money to hire new workers, who will, then, be able to get a paycheck, spend money, and we will all improve. We were all trickle down. From the top down, society will become better.

This is commonly the Republican strategy to welfare. You will hear this a lot from Republican candidates. Likewise, you might hear this strategy stereotypically more from democratic candidates. And it is why democratic candidates say republican candidates don't care about the poor. They say, this doesn't work, this only benefits the wealthy.

Whereas, proponents of individual welfare say we get that money directly to them, so they can go spend it today, not have to wait for some corporation that may or may not hire somebody. And how is the person in need is going to maybe even get that job opening up across town? So responses to poverty, then, differ along political lines.

So far, we've only been explaining poverty within a nation, within America, specifically I have been focusing on. But I'd like to finish by looking at poverty in global and historical perspective. So this perspective asks, then, why there are some countries more likely to have problems with poverty than others? Why are some countries richer than others?

So if a country is richer, the citizens of that country are more likely to be richer. So it gets down to an individual level. And what does history have to do with this?

Two ideas explain the global and historical take on poverty. Imperial poverty, or imperial powers, I should say, versus colonial power. And these are commonly thought of as synonymous, but they're not quite the same thing. Imperial power is power gained through imperial expansion, from establishing a domination over a territory or a nation for some purpose of enriching wealth back home at the center, back home at the imperial seat. So you might go out to a nation and exploit it for its natural resources.

You are not really that interested in settling there, so you're not going to set up a colony. You just want to exploit it and funnel all those resources back home, so you can use that in your economy at home. And in this process, you enrich yourself and impoverish the others in that territory, integrating them into a world economy in a depended position. So that is imperial power.

Likewise, colonial power is power derived from setting a colony, from establishing a colony over in another area. The US did this when we settled here. We displaced the native population and establish the position of dominance over them, and derived power.

The French did this in Algeria, right across the water there. They went into Algeria and established a colony, drive power. Then so negative Algerians were more likely to be impoverished then, rather than the French colonizers.

So these two things, imperial power and colonial power, help to explain why some nations and, thereby, the people within them are more or less likely to be poor or rich today. Well, I hope you enjoyed this discussion of poverty, both the national and global prospective. Have a great rest of your day.

Terms to Know
Absolute Poverty

A form of poverty that is so extreme that individuals suffering from absolute poverty live in danger.

Colonial Power

Power gained through colonial settlement.

Corporate Welfare

Aid or tax breaks to corporations with the hopes that they create jobs which trickle down to individuals.

Feminization of Poverty

A shift in the demographics of poverty in which we see a higher proportion of females in poverty than before.

Functional Poverty

A form of poverty in which a person can only meet their basic, functional needs of food and shelter with little else.


A social phenomenon describing members of society who do not have adequate housing.

Imperial Power

Power gained through imperial expansion, through establishing economic control over a territory for the purpose of exploitation or resource extraction.

Individual Welfare

Aid to individuals directly.

Relative Poverty

A form of poverty where one person is poor relative to another.