This tutorial will cover the topic of poverty, through the definition and discussion of:
There are three forms of poverty, or three ways sociologists commonly distinguish poverty and the state of being poor:
1. Relative Poverty
Relative poverty is when you are poor relative to somebody else.
If you live in a neighborhood that's predominantly composed of wealthy people, but you only make $25,000 a year, you might feel quite poor comparatively. Yet you're also rich relative to somebody who has no savings, no job, or is homeless.
Therefore, relative poverty simply depends on your perspective and the relationship you have with someone else--it’s more of a psychological condition than a physical need.
2. Absolute Poverty
Absolute poverty is a form of poverty that's so extreme that it's dangerous for survival, meaning 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 a major impact on life expectancy, which is dramatically lower if you're living in absolute poverty, because you could be malnourished, for instance. Therefore, this is a form of poverty so extreme that it can threaten your life.
3. Functional Poverty
Functional poverty is a form of poverty in which you're getting by--you're functional--but you're just meeting your basic needs, food and shelter. You have no other money or other savings; you're essentially living by meeting your basic needs. It’s very difficult for people in functional poverty to get out of poverty. They can survive, but it's hard to do anything else.
Who are the poor in the United States? What kind of categories do they belong to?
If you have $100,000 of student debt, yet you're working as a restaurant server, you won’t be able to effectively pay off your debt.
Our country is also experiencing what is called the feminization of poverty, which is to have more women relative to men become poor, or to increase the percentage of women becoming poor through time. This means that now, more females are poor than males. This is likely due to the fact that more and more women are heads of households, heading up single families of women and children, which helps to explain the feminization of poverty.
In addition to the categories of people who suffer from poverty, such as racial categories, women, children, and young people, poverty generates broad problems in society, like homelessness. The U.S. has a major problem with homelessness--the condition of not having a home. It includes people who might have to live on the street, or in a car, or in a homeless shelter.
Some estimates state 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 containing all of their possessions or sleeping on park benches is rather outdated, because there now exists the ‘new homeless’--people who have lost their jobs due to structural reasons in the economy or who have lost their homes due to the 2008 financial crisis. The bank has foreclosed the home and they've lost the mortgage, so these people become homeless.
In a recent documentary about homeless people who live in cars, they were able to retain their cars and they spend their money on gas, and drive around from parking lot to parking lot, locations where they think it will be safe to sleep.
These people are simply trying to regain a foothold in the normal economy and a structured, normal working life. One woman even worked a job while living in her car and trying to save money--she didn't have a bank and had keep all of her cash in her car, which isn’t very safe. Homelessness in the United States is a real, undeniable problem.
How does society deal with poverty? It's a problem that has many adverse consequences and effects, so how does society mitigate these effects? There are two overriding responses to poverty in society, both funneled through welfare or helping out people:
1. Individual Welfare
Individual welfare is aid given directly to individuals through reduced taxes, reduced grocery or school lunches, daycare, commuter expenses (e.g., bus passes), to name a few examples. The idea of individual welfare is that it goes directly to the individual.
2. Corporate Welfare
Corporate welfare, on the other hand, is when you give support and aid directly to private businesses with the hopes that this will improve the economy, create more jobs, and infuse more spending in the economy, so that everyone functions better.
This is typically called ‘trickle down economics,’ or Reaganomics, after Ronald Reagan, who pushed for this strategy. Corporate tax breaks are given to private businesses with the hope that they will use that money to hire new workers, who will, in turn, be able to get a paycheck, spend money, and improve the economy overall. From the top down, support and aid will trickle down, and society will become better.
Corporate welfare is commonly the Republican strategy to welfare. Democratic candidates stereotypically claim that Republican candidates don’t care about the poor, that this strategy only benefits the wealthy.
Conversely, proponents of individual welfare say that money is given directly to individuals in need, so that they can spend it today, rather than having to wait for some corporation that may or may not hire somebody. Also, how is the person in need going to even get to that job opening up across town? Therefore, responses to poverty differ along political lines.
You’ve explored poverty within America, yet it’s also important to look at poverty in a global and historical perspective. Why are there some countries more likely to have problems with poverty than others? Why are some countries richer than others?
If a country is richer, it follows that the citizens of that country are more likely to be richer, on an individual level. What does history have to do with this? Two ideas explain the global and historical take on poverty: imperial power versus colonial power. These terms are commonly thought of as synonymous, but they are distinct.
1. Imperial Power
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, or the imperial seat. You might venture out to a nation and exploit it for its natural resources, yet you’re 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 they can be used in your economy at home. In this process, you enrich yourself and impoverish the others in that territory, integrating them into a world economy in a dependent position.
2. Colonial Power
Colonial power is power derived from establishing a colony in another area. The U.S. did this when we settled in America, by displacing the native population and establishing the position of dominance over them, and deriving power.
The French also did this in Algeria, where they established a colony and derived power. Native Algerians were more likely to be impoverished, rather than the French colonizers.
Therefore, imperial power and colonial power help to explain why some nations and, it follows, the people within them, are more or less likely to be poor or rich today.
Today you learned about the forms of poverty and categories of the poor, as well as some of the negative and adverse effects of poverty in this country, such as the feminization of poverty and homelessness. You also explored welfare, society’s response to poverty, and the global perspective on poverty, including imperial power and colonial power.
Source: This work is adapted from Sophia author Zach Lamb.
Power gained through colonial settlement.
Power gained through imperial expansion, through establishing economic control over a territory for the purpose of exploitation or resource extraction.
A social phenomenon describing members of society who do not have adequate housing.
Aid or tax breaks to corporations with the hopes that they create jobs which trickle down to individuals.
Aid to individuals directly.
A shift in the demographics of poverty in which we see a higher proportion of females in poverty than before.
A form of poverty in which a person can only meet their basic, functional needs of food and shelter with little else.
A form of poverty that is so extreme that individuals suffering from absolute poverty live in danger.
A form of poverty where one person is poor relative to another.