Why Is There Poverty?

[The following is excerpted from The Forest and The Trees: Sociology as Life, Practice, and Promise, rev. ed. For more information click here.]

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ollowing the course of major social problems such as poverty, drug abuse, violence, and oppression, it often seems that nothing works. 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. 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. Even in the middle class there is a great deal of anxiety about the possibility of falling into poverty or something close to it – through divorce, for example, or simply being laid off as companies try to improve their competitive advantage, profit margins, and stock prices by transferring jobs overseas.

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. It is organized in ways that allow a small elite to control most of the capital – factories, machinery, tools – used to produce wealth. This encourages the accumulation of wealth and income by the elite and regularly makes heroes of those who are most successful at it – such as Microsoft’s Bill Gates. It also leaves a relatively small portion of the total of income and wealth to be divided among the rest of the population. With a majority of the people competing over what’s left to them by the elite, it’s inevitable that a substantial number of people are going to wind up on the short end and living in poverty or with the fear of it much of the time. It’s like the game of musical chairs: since the game is set up with fewer chairs than there are people, someone has to wind up without a place to sit when the music stops.

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. This motivates companies and their managers to control costs by keeping wages as low as possible and replacing people with machines or replacing full-time workers with part-time workers. It makes it a rational choice to move jobs to regions or countries where labor is cheaper and workers are less likely to complain about poor working conditions, or where laws protecting the natural environment from industrial pollution or workers from injuries on the job are weak or unenforced. Capitalism also encourages owners to shut down factories and invest money elsewhere in enterprises that offer a higher rate of return.

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. All of this is made possible by the simple fact that in a capitalist system most people neither own nor control any means of producing a living without working for someone else.

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. The centuries-old legacy of racism in the United States continues to hobble millions of people through poor education, isolation in urban ghettos, prejudice, discrimination, and the disappearance of industrial jobs that, while requiring relatively little formal education, nonetheless once paid a decent wage. These were the jobs that enabled many generations of white European immigrants to climb out of poverty, but which are now unavailable to the masses of urban poor.

Clearly, patterns of widespread poverty are inevitable in an economic system that sets the terms for how wealth is produced and distributed. If we’re interested in doing something about poverty itself – if we want a society largely free of impoverished citizens – then we’ll have to do something about both the system people participate in and how they participate in it. But public debate about poverty and policies to deal with it focus almost entirely on the latter with almost nothing to say about the former. What generally passes for ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ approaches to poverty are, in fact, two variations on the same narrow theme of individualism.

A classic example of the conservative approach is Charles Murray’s book Losing Ground. Murray sees the world as a merry-go-round. The goal is to make sure that “everyone has a reasonably equal chance at the brass ring – or at least a reasonably equal chance to get on the merry-go-round.” He reviews thirty years of federal antipoverty programs and notes that they’ve generally failed. He concludes from this that since government programs haven’t worked, poverty must not be caused by social factors.

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. From this he suggests doing away with public solutions such as affirmative action, welfare, and income support systems, including “AFDC, Medicaid, food stamps, unemployment insurance, and the rest. It would leave the working-aged person with no recourse whatsoever except the job market, family members, friends, and public or private locally funded services.” The result, he believes, would “make it possible to get as far as one can go on one’s merit.” With the 1996 welfare reform act, the United States took a giant step in Murray’s direction by reaffirming its long-standing cultural commitment to individualistic thinking and the mass of confusion around alternatives to it.

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. As odd as this may seem, however, this has relatively little to do with the larger question of why widespread poverty exists at all as a social phenomenon.

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. The result would be an unequal distribution of income, with each person in the fastest fifth getting nine times as much money as each person in the slowest fifth, which is what the actual distribution of income in the United States looks like.

If we look at the slowest fifth of the population and ask, “Why are they poor?” An obvious answer is, “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. Given this, the people in this year’s bottom fifth might run faster next year and get someone else to take their place in the bottom fifth.

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. Instead of splitting the ‘winnings’ into shares of 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. There would still be inequality, but the fastest fifth would get only 1.5 times as much as the bottom instead of 12 times as much, and 1.2 times as much as the middle fifth rather than more than 3 times as much.

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.

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. Welfare and other antipoverty programs are ‘social’ only in the sense that they’re organized around the idea that social systems like government have a responsibility to do something about poverty. But antipoverty programs are not organized around a sociological understanding of how systems produce poverty in the first place. As a result, they focus almost entirely on changing individuals and not systems, and use the resources of government and other systems to make it happen.

If antipoverty programs have failed, it isn’t because the idea that poverty is socially caused is wrong. They’ve failed because policymakers who design them don’t understand what makes the cause of something ‘social.’ 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. What we don’t do, however, is look at the rules of the race or question whether the basic necessities of life should be distributed through competition.

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. But nothing is even said – much less done – about an economic system that allows a small elite to own and control most of the wealth and sets up the rest of the population to compete over what’s left.

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. But it shouldn’t be confused with solutions to poverty, no more than army field hospitals can stop wars.

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. Murray would merely substitute one ineffective individualistic solution for another. If we do as he suggests and throw people on their own, certainly some will find a way to run faster than they did before. But that won’t do anything about the ‘race’ or the overall patterns of inequality that result from using it as a way to organize one of the most important aspects of human life.

Liberals and conservatives are locked in a tug of war between two individualistic solutions to problems that are only partly about individuals. Both approaches rest on profound misunderstandings of what makes a problem like poverty ‘social.’ 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. This is also what traps them between blaming problems like poverty on individuals and blaming them on society. Solving social problems doesn’t require us to choose or blame one or the other. It does require us to see how the two combine to shape the terms of social life and how people actually live it.

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. It may mean that capitalism is in some ways incompatible with a just society in which the excessive well-being of some does not require the misery of so many others. It won’t be easy to face up to such possibilities, but if we don’t, we will guarantee poverty its future and all the conflict and suffering that go with it.

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From The Forest and The Trees: Sociology as Life, Practice, and Promise, rev. ed. For more information click here.

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