Poverty is a maliciously invasive epidemic in America that plagues around 13% of the total national population. Through an abstract and ambiguous lens, I define poverty as the state of being inferior or insufficient in one’s amount of finances and resources. In other words, it is the quantitative lack of basic resources, such as food, clothing, and shelter, necessary to provide a qualitative, financially stable standard of life. Through a more precise lens, the federal poverty level is computed using a set of money income thresholds that vary by family size and composition. If a family’s total money income––excluding only capital gains/losses, non-cash benefits like food stamps and housing subsidies, and tax credits––is less than its assigned poverty threshold or measure of need, then that family is considered to be living in poverty.
There exists a deep obsession with the question of poverty and its various causes that has given rise to a multitude of theoretical explanations for why it continues to exist, as poverty is not supposed to be a reality in a country as developed, prosperous and wealthy as the United States. However, before I go into the purpose of this article, which is to reflect on how best to tackle the deeply rooted problem of poverty here in America, I wish to make a necessary statement regarding its demographics and its tendency to be racialized as occurring disproportionately among certain groups. There is not a racial typology of poverty in which “white poverty” is drastically different from “black poverty” or “asian poverty” or “Native American poverty.” Poverty is a social condition from which all kinds of people throughout our country suffer, no matter their religion, race, or ethnicity. Although it might disproportionately affect blacks and Hispanics in certain inner-city areas, poverty is not exclusively a problem of minorities and people of color. It is simply easier to see the inner-city low-income enclaves of blacks and Latinos than it is to observe white poverty in more isolated, rural areas throughout the country. In my opinion, from a policymaker standpoint, it is neither relevant nor helpful to “racialize” poverty and to split hairs as to which racial group bears the heaviest brunt of poverty here in America. That should not be their focus: it should instead be how to formulate the best possible theoretical model in order to combat poverty as a systemic society and nation-wide phenomenon. Application of this general framework for social policy may later be adjusted according to the intricacies and specific needs of differing geographic communities.
With that being said, poverty is inextricably linked to politics, as the government (The Census Bureau) determines who is impoverished and who is not via an official threshold. Different beliefs about poverty affect public policy and actions taken by the government to fight it. As a result, finding a solution to poverty is also inherently political in nature, and yet it requires more of a holistic social policy approach that combines both structural and cultural theories as to why poverty continues to persist. Structural theories point to external forces in society, such as institutionalized discriminatory policies that favor the wealthy over the poor, as the driving force in the perpetuation of poverty in America. On the other hand, cultural theories of poverty point to internal forces characteristic of certain individuals or communities with “faulty” cultures, morals and lifestyles, or work ethics.
I believe traditional American values such as individualism and meritocratic upward social mobility have poisoned our thinking in the sense that we tend to cognitively leap to purely cultural theories when we think about why people are poor. We tend to blame the people living in poverty themselves for continuing to live in toxic, unproductive environments that will not bring them any opportunities. However, no one actively seeks poverty; they are born or thrust into it as a result of societal conditions and circumstances. We fail to realize that the social structure of society (continuing job market discrimination, racial steering and residential segregation in housing markets, disproportionate incarceration rates) plays an essential role in nurturing and reinforcing the culture of poverty created from these resource-lacking environments. In order to effectively address the issue of poverty, we thus need a social policy that draws from both structural theories and cultural theories.
The first step towards a more holistic, multifaceted approach to social policy that can actually help those living in poverty is to eradicate the structural barriers in society that covertly yet forcefully keep them prisoner to poverty’s vicious and self-reinforcing cycle. There must be opportunities available for people to free themselves from the chains of systemic disadvantages, because mere motivation and a will to make cultural and behavioral changes is simply not enough. Sociologist William J. Wilson argues that if we over-rely on a cultural perspective of poverty, we are doomed for disappointment, because changing a culture is never really a practical remedy. He posits if we want to help people living in poverty, we should not attack their culture. We should instead provide them with more opportunities and jobs, and overtime they will naturally begin to change their behaviors. In other words, we need to first address structural disadvantages that plague the system, whether they be discrimination in the job market, racial steering in housing that leads to residential segregation or institutionalized racism in the criminal justice system. These structural impediments lead to isolation from the mainstream economy, segregation––as much physical as it is psychological–– as well as higher rates of crime and joblessness. As a result, a separate culture is formed due to their being relegated to an isolated corner of broader, mainstream society. These systematically disadvantaged people thus adapt certain behavioral tendencies and “bad habits,” and they turn to other ways to make a living and reach for the opportunities they want. Poor people are poor because behavioral patterns become ingrained in them as a result of their environment and social circumstances, which they often have little to no control over.
Poverty in America is an epidemic that requires intensive and holistic social therapy if it is to be treated. If policy makers are stumped as to why it continues to exert its debilitating effects on a full 13% of our national population, it is because they have only been looking at one piece of the puzzle. The tendency towards over-reliance on cultural explanations for poverty has prevented us from fully understanding the problem and thereby prevented us from seeking more complete solutions. Poverty is not the result of “bad” or “toxic” culture; it is the product of the reinforcing, positive-feedback relationship between culture and social structure. Unless we turn a critical eye towards the structural injustices and impediments that feed the creation of a culture of poverty and prevent people’s upward social and economic mobility, poverty will not only continue to persist, it will rise. And with its rise will come the downfall of the economic and social prestige associated with this great nation.