Poverty – A Social Issue


Cynthia Bueno

Northern Arizona University

Social Stratification

Poverty: A Social Issue

Poverty has been defined by so manyentities however, every definition has one thing in common.Sociologists classify poverty into absolute poverty and relativepoverty. Absolute poverty is the lack of the minimum shelter and foodneeded to maintain life. Relative poverty is on the other handdefines a poor person as the one who lacks what is required by mostAmericans to have a descent life mainly because they earn less than50 percent of the nation’s median income. By this definition,almost 20 percent of Americans live in poverty. For an individualthat lives in poverty, his or her definition would be completelydifferent. They would say that poverty is, “waking up on a stainedmattress will the smell of urine and spoiling food, always beingtired and asking for endless help, having insects in your food, andlooking into a black future” (Parker, 1971). The definition forpoverty has shifted in the past years. In 1964, President Lyndon B.Johnson declared a “War on Poverty” and presented proposalsintended to improve jobs, health, education, and access to resourceseconomically for those struggling to make ends meet (TheWar on Poverty 50 Years Later: A Progress Report, 2014). Although, itis reported that progress has been made in the past fifty years inthe United States, poverty continues to be an issue all around theworld and in the United States as well (TheWar on Poverty 50 Years Later: A Progress Report, 2014). There arechallenges when it comes to measuring poverty because there is notone single way to do so. Being able to identify what poverty is hasalso been a struggle. Different views of poverty and what povertyentails are completely viewed differently from the individual inpoverty and for an individual looking at someone in poverty.Nevertheless, poverty has various effects on the people andinfluences the way people live and interact. It is also caused byvarious factors including individual factors, social politicalsystems as well as demographical issue. This report looks at povertyas a social issue and the various aspects will be discussed.

Importance ofPoverty

Poverty is a greatinfluence on someone’s course of life and the impacts that it hason a family or individual are enormous (Austin, 2006). Poverty playsa fundamental role in the development of children, youth andadolescents. As children grow up in poverty filled environments, itdraws a significant influence on youth violence and drugdealing, irresponsible sexual behavior including prostitution and allmanners of crime. Teenagers growing up in poverty are easily luredinto these crimes because they see it as a way to get their basicneeds. In addition, poverty denies children a good education. Lack ofgood education or none at all leads to lack of opportunities in thejob, market as well as poor choices in life (Austin,2006). There is also a great impact that poverty has on unbornchildren. A mother living in poverty has no access to basicfacilities including basic facilities like health, healthy food,clean drinking water, and a sanitary environment. As such, theyexpose their unborn children and themselves to a lot of risksincluding diseases, being born under weight and even prematurely asmothers may be forced to work in strenuous environment to cater forher family. Poverty impacts adults in extremities from highunemployment rates especially in communities of color (Austin, 2006).Black minorities in the United States for instance are more subjectto poverty than their counterpart whites. There are high rates ofunemployment among minorities, the jobs that they used to do in thesteel and automobile industries have shut or relocated to suburbsleading to unemployment for this group. This trend is replicated inmost places in the developed world. Adults living in poverty face alot of difficulties in life. Palier(2014)established a link between poverty and domestic violence as well asdivorce rate. Whereas teenage girls raised in poverty are likely tobe married at an early age, they face gender based violence fromtheir partners who are usually older than them. These teenagers getmarried in order to have some financial security. However, theirmarriages end up in ruins due to abuse and poverty. Poverty in theUnited States was significantly reduced in the last half a centurysince the launch of the War on Poverty which included a number ofsafety net programs. Even though, Americans poverty has not beeneliminated as most Americans might think. The safety net programsincluding food stamps, social security and unemployment insurance hasonly been able to reduce poverty level from 26 percent to 16 percentin a span of 50 years. This is because, the fight against poverty asAustin argues cannot be won by safety net programs alone (Austin,2006). According to Austin, (2006) poverty needs to be addressed associal problem and not as an underlying problem. Apart from thesafety net approach, people need to change their thinking aboutpoverty and poor people. The social systems must be aligned in amanner that supports people living in poverty. For example healthcare insurance need to cater for every person regardless of theirsocial economic position.

Historical View ofPoverty

In the 1960’s and1970’s, Thomas Malthus and his followers argued that poverty anddemography be linked together (Merrick, 2002). This perspectiveconcludes that if fertility declined, population would also declinetherefore it would reduce poverty. Malthus was an English scholar whohad influential gains in demography and political economy (Merrick,2002). By the 1990’s, this perspective was no longer relevant inpoverty reduction (Merrick, 2002). Indeed, demography has a greatinfluence in poverty but other factors need to be taken intoconsideration. Other views on poverty reported that it might be thecause of high fertility rates. People that are poor may view havingmore children as having more wealth due to welfare assistance(Merrick, 2002). In the past year, programs combining economic,social and family planning development services empower women to givebirth to fewer children so their chances of achieving an un-dependentlife in welfare can enhance their future (Merrick, 2002). Demographyhas an impact on poverty however it is not the only factor forpoverty reduction and hence other factors must always be put intoconsideration.

Cause of Poverty

The most universalsocial problem is poverty in the United States where numerous peoplelive in poverty (Austin, 2006). It is reported that people who livein poverty suffer from a “deficit of need for achievement” whichis a characteristic where individuals motivate themselves to “strivefor success” (Austin, 2006). This has also been described aculture of poverty, where people live comfortable for a momentwithout planning for tomorrow. It has also been reported that themain fundamental cause of poverty is due to individual deficiencieswithin the underlying deficiencies of American society (Austin,2006). In a country that is widely known as the land ofopportunities, a person is considered poor due to being inefficient.Immigrants coming to the United States make their lives better andeven remit money back to their country. As such, Americans living inpoverty are blamed for their personal deficiencies.

Another perspectiveof causes of poverty shifts focus from ‘Blame the Poor’ to ‘Blamethe System’. There is evidence where poverty is due to failings ofpolitical and economic resources to be able to deliver adequateopportunities for all Americans, therefore prolonging poverty(Austin, 2006). People are poor because they have lacked thenecessary support systems that enable them to work to theirpotential. This view opposes the thinking that people are poorbecause they are lazy. In fact, some poor people are not only willingto work hard when given an opportunity, but they do so when in work.Politics are also largely blamed for poverty in the country. Most ofthe critical issues affecting people are politicized and never givena long lasting solution. For example health care insurance, socialsecurity fund, national security is all politicized. A good exampleis the amount that America spends billions of dollars to keep theirsoldiers in foreign countries (Palier,2014).

Another cause ofpoverty that has been emphasized even by theorists is demography. Aspopulation grows, there is strain in the limited available resources.The limited resources are not able to meet the needs of the growingpopulation. The people who are better positioned in the society arebetter placed to access resources than the underprivileged leading topoverty (Arza,2012). Assuch, sociologists have also advocated for population control inorder to curtail poverty.

Poverty Cycle

People living inpoverty bring their children up in poverty. As a result theirchildren do not receive a good education, do not secure goodemployment and may end up starting families early without financialsecurity. This cycle repeats itself leading to a generation ofpoverty called the poverty cycle. This cycle may be broken at somepoint but very rarely.


Poverty is auniversal issue affecting millions of people worldwide. In America,there are many people that can be said to be living in poverty,despite there being different safety net programs such asunemployment insurance, food stamp and social security. The problemof poverty has persisted due to lack of a holistic approach. Povertyaffects unborn children, children born in poverty and even adults invarious ways. Lack of education, access to health care, safeenvironment and even balanced diet are some of the problemsassociated with poverty. The causes of poverty are also variedincluding individual deficiencies as well as well as from poor socialand political systems. Population has also been associated withpoverty. Ultimately, the solution to poverty must be addressed fromall perspectives.


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Palier, B. (2014, July). ThePolitics and Policies of Social Investment in Europe. In XVIIIISA World Congress of Sociology (July 13-19, 2014).Isaconf.

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