There are many competing theories about the causes of poverty in the United States with mountains of empirical evidence to justify support for each. Calculating who's poor is not only tricky, but controversial business. The official government data published by the United States Census Bureau shows that, “In 2012, the official poverty rate was 15.0 percent, or just over 46.5 million people”(U.S. Census, 2012, p.14). It's an endless argument whether the actual number is more or less than that, but it's clear that tens of millions of Americans are poor and the numbers are rising due to the Great Recession. And even as the economy gains upward momentum, the prognosis for poor people is grim. In this paper, I will compare and contrast two theories of poverty: culture of poverty theory and a Marxian or Conflict Theorist perspective, which views poverty as the result of economic, racial, and gender discrimination.
Culture of Poverty theorists maintains that poverty and poverty traits are transmitted inter-generationally in a self-perpetuating cycle. It is influenced by Social Learning Theory, of which Albert Bandura created in 1977. It theorizes that behavior in learned from the environment through the process of observational learning of role models, which includes family members and peers. Culture of Poverty theorists argue that poverty is largely the result of social and behavioral deficiencies in individuals that make them less economically viable within society. This suggests that individuals create, sustain, and transmit to future generations a culture that reinforces the various social and behavioral deficiencies (Parrillo, 2000).
In the 1960’s the writings of two men—Daniel P. Moynihan and Oscar Lewis—sparked an intense debate that continues to resonate today. “Oscar Lewis coined the term culture of poverty in his 1961 book The Children of Sanchez. Lewis based his thesis on his ethnographic studies of small Mexican communities. His studies uncovered approximately 50 attributes shared within these communities: frequent violence, a lack of a sense of history, a neglect of planning for the future, and so on”(Parrillo, 2000, p. 110). Many years later, the premise of the culture of poverty paradigm remains the same: that people in poverty share a consistent and observable "culture”, which is characterized by hopelessness, alienation, apathy, and a lack of participation in or integration into the social and economic fabric of society.
During the height of the civil rights movement, Lewis and Moynihan came under heavy criticism during the 1960s and 1970s. According to Vincent Parrillo, “While Lewis was a leftist and understood the structural forces of poverty, it later came to be associated with laying blame for poverty either on the poor themselves or on a government that keeps them dependent. Along these lines, it is the deficient character of the poor along with their deviant behavior and the resultant self-reinforcing environment that restrict their access to economic viability and success” (2000, p. 110). This type of “blaming the victim” mentality is often associated with a conservative perspective, which puts all the responsibility for economic success on the individual. According to Karger and Stoesz “Critics argue that Culture of Poverty theories divert attention away from the real structural conditions and discrimination causing poverty and that supposed characteristics of the COP are also evident in the middle and upper classes”(2000, p. 111).
Unlike neo-conservatives, a Marxist or Conflict perspective does not see social problems and poverty as the result of individual fault. A German Sociologist by the name of Karl Marx, is the father of the social conflict theory. He published numerous books during his lifetime, the most notable being The Communist Manifesto (1848) and Das Kapital (1867–1894). “Marx's theories about society, economics and politics – collectively known as Marxism – hold that human societies progress through class struggle: a conflict between an ownership class that controls production and a dispossessed laboring class that provides the labor for production (Mullaly, 2007, p. 140). Marx called capitalism the ‘dictatorship of the bourgeoisie,’ believing it to be run by the wealthy classes for their own benefit; and he predicted that, like previous socioeconomic systems, capitalism produced internal tensions which would lead to its self-destruction and replacement by a new system: socialism (Mullaly, 2007).
According to Bob Mullaly, “Marxists believe that by focusing on the victims inequality, oppression, and alienation and calling them criminals, drug addicts, or poor people, we are actually labeling them as troublemakers. Consequently, we neglect the social conditions of inequality, powerlessness, and institutional discrimination and violence that forms the basis of our troubled society”(2007:148). A Marxist analysis shows that social problems or poverty are the result of structural issues of inequality, oppression, and alienation.
For example, a Marxist analysis of poverty shows that poverty will never be resolved or eliminated in a capitalistic society because capitalism needs it. Poverty carries out an assortment of functions for capitalism such as keeping wages down and profits up. When people are poor, they will accept low wages to purchase basic necessities (Mullaly, 2007). Not only are poor people exploited for their labor, they are forced to compete with each other for low paying jobs and out of desperation work for lower wages. Many Americans work in jobs that barely keep them above water. “About one- fourth of workers earn poverty-level wages, wages at or below the wage a full-time, full-year worker would need to earn to reach the poverty threshold for family of four, which was $22,314 in 2010” (Michel, Bivens, Gould and Shierholz, 2012, p. 419).
In The State of Working America, a number of social theorists revealed several macro trends in the economic system and how they have contributed to the rising tide of poverty and growing social inequality between the rich and the poor. The book offers a detailed discussion of rising economic disparity as evident in growing inequality of wages, incomes, and wealth in America. “As income inequality increases, poverty becomes less responsive to overall growth because too little of that growth reaches individuals and families at the lower end of the income scale” (Michel, Bivens, Gould and Shierholz, 2012, p. 419). This trend is just as Marx predicted—the private ownership of the means of production would inevitably result in a concentration of economic power in the hands of the capitalistic elite, while the poor continue to loose their human rights and grovel for minimum wage jobs that offer no security or benefits.
This is all to evident in the larger social trend that Sociologist refer to as the Middle Class Slide, which explains the worsening inequality between the elite 1 percent of super-rich Americans and the rest of the U.S. populace. The once-dominant middle class is struggling to hold onto descent careers and slipping security. A study released by the Pew Research Center highlights diminished hopes for the roughly 50 percent of adults defined as middle class, with household incomes ranging from $39,000 to $118,000. The report describes this group as suffering its "worst decade in modern history," having fallen backward in income for the first time since the end of World War II (Pew Research, 2012, p.45). According to Pew Research Center “Three years after the recession technically ended, middle-class Americans are still feeling the economic pinch, with most saying they have been forced to reduce spending in the past year. And fewer now believe that hard work will allow them to get ahead in life. Families are now more likely to say their children's economic future will be the same or worse than their own” (Pew Research, 2012, p. 45).
As Karl Marx revealed in the early 1800’s, capitalism needs a workforce that will perform its dangerous work and carry out its menial tasks. People living in poverty often have to perform these menial task and minimum wage service industry jobs just to survive. And a disproportionate number of African Americans, Hispanic Americans, and poor white people are on the front lines in fighting America’s wars. What is even more tragic is the way we treat Mexican immigrants. While right-wing American politicians rail against illegal Mexican migrants and propose a border barrier fence costing billions of dollars for ‘security’, these same migrants do the dirty and dangerous jobs that others refuse.
As noted by several social researchers in The State of Working America, “Poverty is even higher among certain demographic groups. “In 2010, the poverty rates of Hispanics (26.6 percent) and of African Americans (27.4 percent) were more than two and half times the poverty rate of whites (9.9 percent). Minority children fared even worse: In 2010, close to half (45.8 percent) of young black children (under age 6) were in poverty, compared with 14.5 percent of white children (Michel, Bivens, Gould and Shierholz, 2012, p. 419).
The connection between poverty, racism and social policy was clearly revealed by Leslie Alexander in her book The New Jim Crow. She shows how institutional discrimination against African American’s is alive and well as we see large percentages of African American men and women incarcerated in the prison system. Leslie writes, “An extraordinary percentage of black men in the United States are legally barred from voting today, just as they have been throughout most of American history. They are also subject to legalized discrimination in employment, housing, education, public benefits, and jury service, just as their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents once were” (2007, p. 16). Leslie claims that the Drug War is the New Jim Crow in America, as it has greatly exacerbated incarceration rates, not to mention the number of African American’s with Felonies hanging over their head. Having felony makes it nearly impossible to find a job and get social services when they get out of prison. Leslie reveals that the discrimination that is happening today is a different form of racial caste in America—it isn’t the blatent forms of discrimination of the past; rather, it is a more subversive form that is more difficult to put your finger on.
What is even more troubling about social inequality and the exploitation of the poor is the ways in which poor people are often used as scapegoats for societal ills. Not only have poor people been dealt a bad had in life, they have to deal with the negative stigma and shame that comes along with receiving social welfare. Jason DeParle clearly reveals this stigma in his book The American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation’s Drive to End Welfare. This quote by De Parle clearly sums up the double edge sword of social welfare--“It offers the needy to little to live on and despises them for taking it” (DeParle, 2004, p. 91).
De Parle shows how this negative stigma is reflected in a long history of conservative politicians who have falsely blamed government deficits on the high cost of social welfare programs that were needed because poor people were too lazy to work. And a large percentage of the poor consist of women, children and minorities who have been oppressed for many generations as a result of institutionalized discrimination. I recall an astonishing quote by DeParle regarding the relatively low cost of welfare on the total federal budget, he writes, “Even when it’s federal costs peaked at 16 billion a year, AFDC accounted for only about 1 percent of the total federal budget. That was nothing like the $477 billion the country on Social Security and Medicare” (2004, p. 92). And when you consider how much of the federal budget goes to military expenses and subsidies, the cost of AFDC is minor in comparison.
De Parle also demystifies this illusion of “laziness” as he documents the lives of several African American women in poverty as well as the generations that came before them. He clearly shows that all the women worked at various times in their life because they couldn’t afford to live on welfare alone. And when they were required to train for a job in the Welfare to Work Program, the jobs that were offered them were minimum wage service industry jobs with no benefits.
De Parle reveals the ways in which the system of welfare clearly failed to solve the problem of poverty, he writes, “Even as benefits peaked in 1972, the average package of cash and food stamps left a mother with two children in poverty, and over the next two decades, the value of the typical check fell more than 40 percent. Despite some offsetting growth in food stamps, by 1992 the average package of cash and stamps came to just $7,600 a year, nearly $4,000 below the poverty threshold—hence the need for boyfriends and off-the-books work” (2004, 92). Not only did these women have to bend the rules in order to survive, they had to take several minimum wage jobs in order to survive on welfare.
Policy Solutions to Poverty:
The U.S. social welfare state is a complex mix of programs, policies, and services. There are many different approaches to combat poverty such as the curative approach, the alleviative approach (public assistance programs) and the preventative approach (Social Security). The policies that emerged during Lewis’s day tended to take a more conservative, curative approach, which was hostile towards social welfare. The curative approach aimed to end chronic and persistent poverty by helping the poor to become self- supporting through rehabilitative changes in their personal lives, such as assisting the poor into employment (Karger and Stoesz, 2010).
Undergirding the conservative agenda in the 1960s and 1970s was a pervasive belief that if you worked hard enough, you would inevitably rise in social mobility. Those driven by the powerful American spirit of competiveness saw the inability of the poor to compete as a serious character flaw (this attitude is still pervasive even today). As a result, there is a considerable amount of hostility towards public assistance, not to mention many negative myths about it.
Some of the policies and programs that emerged as a result of a more liberal agenda were Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), which would later become Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). According to Karger and Stoesz “Originally called Aid to Dependant Children (ADC), the AFDC program was part of the Social Security Act of 1935 and was designed to provide support for children by dispensing aid to their mothers” (2010, p. 281). However, it is clear that these social welfare programs were merely Band-Aid solutions that attempted to ease the suffering of the poor rather than ameliorate the causes of poverty.
A number of studies have revealed the ways in which social welfare has been cut over the years despite the rising tide of poverty in the United States and globally. Some of the Social Policies that have emerged as a result of a conflict theorist perspective have attempted to further increase the safety net for the poor, but they have yet to fully implement a Marxian solution to social problems and poverty. The policies that have emerged are based on a liberal perspective as opposed to a truly conflict theorist perspective or a social democratic perspective, which is what the majority of European countries have moved towards.
The social safety net, namely Social Security, unemployment insurance, the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), and the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), have prevented more devastating outcomes for poor people. “The safety net in the United States has become weaker over time, and workers at the bottom end rely more heavily on wages and a strong economy to make ends meet. Unemployment insurance is particularly vital to countering increases in poverty in bad economic times. In 2010, unemployment insurance kept 900,000 children and 2.3 million non-elderly adults out of poverty even though one or more workers in these vulnerable households were laid off” (Michel, Bivens, Gould and Shierholz, 2012, p. 419).
Aside from policies, a Marxian perspective has been a catalyst for a number of social movements and policies, such as Affirmative Action and the Living Wage Movement, which is geared to produce living wages for Americans by raising minimum wage to the current cost of living. Very recently, President Obama expressed that he has plans to address the growing social inequality. The ominous gap between the privileged elite and the majority of Americans was the chief focus of President Obama's State of the Union address. Obama said, "Those at the top have never done better, but average wages have barely budged. Inequality has deepened. Upward mobility has stalled. The cold, hard fact is that even in the midst of recovery, too many Americans are working more than ever just to get by, let alone to get ahead. And too many still aren't working at all. So our job is to reverse these trends" (Gazette, 2014, editorial section).
President Obama outlined a series of goals to provide more opportunity for average families in years to come such as; expand college access, raise the minimum wage, boost pre-school for 4-year-olds, increase job training, extend unemployment support, change tax laws to reward corporations that bring jobs back to America rather than ship them overseas, guarantee equal pay for women, etc. In addition, the president said he would act on his own, without Congress, to set a $10.10 minimum wage for workers performing federal contracts, and also create new U.S. savings bonds for Americans who lack pensions from jobs (Gazette, 2014, editorial).
We know that the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans take home nearly 20 percent of our nations total household income -- representing a kind of inequality that is truly staggering. Addressing this inequality is at the heart of the many strides that have been made over the years by the Obama Administration--The Children's Health Insurance Program, the Child Tax Credit, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and Medicaid. All of these programs were created and strengthened by compassionate progressive liberals who understand the structural root of poverty and social problems. And while all these proposed policy changes are great, progressive liberals and radical humanitarians have their hands tied due to the corruption of our government, the demise of democracy, and corporate greed. It has been extremely difficult to improve social programs because the wealthy elite clearly doesn’t want to pay more taxes, despite the fact that American’s pay the lowest taxes out of any other country.
Compare and Contrast:
The debate among theorists is primarily divided between advocates who support cultural/behavioral arguments and those who support structural/economic arguments. This debate tends to manifest itself across political party lines with republicans supporting the cultural/behavioral thesis and democrats looking more to structural causes. These two theoretical lenses are analyzing the same problem, but from a different lens. They both acknowledge the ways in which poverty continues to manifest inter-generationally and needs to be solved. However, they differ in the ways they would go about solving poverty.
Having had grown up in poverty, I deeply understand the inculcation of “poverty consciousness” and internalized oppression. The learned behaviors and normalization of scarcity thinking, substance abuse, and non-conformist values definitely occurs amongst the poor. These learned behaviors inevitably shape one’s values, beliefs and behaviors, but they don’t necessarily have to determine one’s fate. A critique of both social constructionism and conflict theory is that they both tend to be deterministic and gloss over the transformative power of human agency to break out of the forces of social programming. I would also have to say that the culture of poverty is a superficial answer to a deeply complex problem, whereas conflict theorist’s offer a much more radical solution, perhaps one that we are not ready to fully receive as a result of fear. We have yet to see a truly Marxist solution to poverty, but I think it is inevitable as we face growing social inequality and class conflict.
We are facing a major crisis in every social institution, and that doesn’t include the environmental crisis looming over our heads as a result of global capitalism. Republicans, who chiefly serve the wealthy, probably will continue opposing efforts to aid ordinary families. Since the GOP controls the House of Representatives, it has power to block many reforms. But it is important to remember this: The 1 percent can cast only 1 percent of votes. It is my deepest hope that the other 99 percent of Americans back truly progressive candidates who will strive to reverse the ugly spread between the elite and the rest. Unfortunately, finding a way to bring the 99% together on a number of pressing social and environmental issues is going to be a difficult task. We are a conquered people because we have internalized the false notion of competition. And we wouldn’t dare begin to champion values of cooperation and egalitarianism because God forbid those are “socialist values” and we wouldn’t want to have to admit that perhaps Karl Marx was right after all.
I have said this before and I will say it again, what we need is a massive radical humanitarian movement—a new structural social work that transforms society from the inside out. It is not going to come from any politicians. On the contrary, it will come from the people waking up to the lies that they have been fed by policy makers and greedy capitalists. According to one of my social work heroes, Bob Mullaly, social work ideology has much more in common with the socialist paradigms than it does with the capitalist paradigms (2007). Mullaly writes “If social workers truly believe in the values and ideas they espouse, then they cannot subscribe to and try to maintain a social order that contradicts and violates these same values and ideals (2007, p. 206). The time is NOW for social workers to unite for change. We simply can’t sit on our laurels anymore; we must do everything that we can to speak out for social change.
Alexander, Michelle. (2007). The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarcerations in the Age of Color Blindness. The New Press, New York and London.
DeParle, Jason. (2004). American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation’s Drive to End Welfare. Penguin Group, London, England.
Karger, Howard, Stoesz, David. (2010). American Social Welfare Policy: A Pluralist Approach. Allyn and Bacon, Boston, MA.
Mishel Lawrence, Bivens Josh, Gould Elise, Shierholz Heidi. (2012). The State Of Working America, 12th Edition. Cornell University Press, New York.
Mullaly, Bob. (2007). The New Structural Social Work. Oxford University Press, Ontario, Canada.
Parrillo, Vincent. (2000). Strangers To These Shores: Race and Ethnic Relations in the United States. Allyn And Bacon, Massachusettes.
Pew Research Center. (2012). “The Lost Decade of the Middle Class.”
Social and Demographic trends. Retrieved from: