Understanding Poverty

Understanding Poverty

Poverty, The Social Issue, Policymaking, & Theories

Poverty is a difficult social issue that is complicated because of many factors that maintain it as a state of life in the US. The definition of poverty is equally difficult and requires disambiguation. To fully understand poverty, it is necessary to understand its forms which consist of absolute and relative. By understanding these states of poverty, the social issue, policymaking, and theories concerning causes of poverty can be defined with better success and effectiveness.

According to Macionis (2011), absolute poverty is defined as a form of poverty in which individuals lack basic necessities over time. Absolute poverty is considered the worst form of poverty because it places the person’s survival at risk. This form of poverty is prevalent in the developing world and is extremely rare in the US. An example of this form of poverty can be seen in countries such as Ethiopia in which large populations of people would die if not for foreign interventions.

The more common form of poverty is relative poverty. Relative poverty is defined by Macionis (2011) as poverty that is “defined by the social context” (Macionis, 2011). In the US, relative poverty is measured in terms of income inequality. Because people in the US can obtain the necessities for life- almost all poverty in the US is considered though the lens of being relative. According to UNESCO (2018) relative poverty is a defining characteristic of poverty in the US and requires different policymaking and solutions because this form of poverty is always contextualized:

…in relation to the economic status of other members of the society: people are poor if they fall below prevailing standards of living in a given societal context. An important criticism of both concepts is that they are largely concerned with income and consumption (UNESCO, 2018).

Macionis provides support for this thinking with the idea that relative poverty is typically measured in terms of income differences (Macionis, 2011). This is most evident within the US due to the country defining a poverty line that is determined by income annually. The defining of poverty in this way provides a fundamental approach to research and policymaking. In the US all solutions for poverty are aimed at increasing income or providing for shortfalls that can reduce resources such as being unable to afford healthcare. Within the scope of this definition, poverty becomes a readily identifiable social issue.

Identification of The Social Problem

In the US, poverty is a state of live in which there is an “insufficiency in food, housing, clothing, medical care, and other items required to sustain a decent standard of living” (DiNitto & Johnson, 2011). Individuals and families who are living in poverty live in substandard homes and apartments. This deprivation has a major impact on these individuals because it lowers health outcomes, increases risk of disease, and the safety of individuals living in inadequate homes is at a higher risk due to increased crime and violence (Raymond, Wheeler, & Brown, 2011).

Poverty also impacts different groups with greater frequency, For example, women are far more likely to live poverty than men:

According to data from the US Census Bureau, over 17 million women lived in poverty in 2010, including more than 7.5 million in extreme poverty and 4.7 million single mothers in poverty. The poverty rate among women climbed to 14.5 percent in 2010 from 13.9 percent in 2009, the highest in 17 years; the extreme poverty rate among women climbed to 6.3 percent in 2010 from 5.9 percent in 2009, the highest rate ever recorded (Census, 2015).

Additionally, children are also at risk of living in poverty more so than adults. Currrently, there are more than 15 million children living in poverty in the US (University of Michigan, 2018).

For example, while cash benefits from government assistance programs are included in a family’s income when calculating the official poverty measure, benefits received in-kind such as food stamps, Medicare or Medicaid, employer provided health insurance, housing subsidies, and other social services are excluded. Taxes that families pay and tax credits they receive such as the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) do not enter into the official poverty determination (University of Michigan, 2018).

In the US, poverty is an ongoing problem which reduces the standard of living for large numbers of people. More importantly, poverty is consistently viewed as a monetary issue or resource deprivation issue. The literature supports this view, but policymaking aimed at solving the problem has managed to only reduce it and manage it at a consistent level.


Poverty is an old an ongoing social issue. The scale of poverty in the US, while not as bad as other countries, remains relatively constant at about 15% of the population (Raymond, Wheeler, & Brown, 2011). Government interventions have pushed down the rate of poverty with key legislation occurring in the 1960s (Raymond, Wheeler, & Brown, 2011).

One of the major historical events in poverty occurred in November 1965, when the policymakers at the Social Security Administration brought to light issues with poverty thresholds and how to adjust them. The basic problem that was discovered was that over time poverty thresholds tend to increase which means the government thresholds would not be accurate. This occurs due to inflation and increases in other economic areas such as GDP and consumer price index (Fisher, 1997).

The Social Security Administration learned of these issues when in 1968 they attempted to alter the poverty thresholds but was denied and the Bureau of the Budget appointed the Poverty Level Review Committee to study the poverty thresholds (Fisher, 1997). The Committee learned that thresholds adjustments needed to be changed in accordance with other factors such as consumer price index, GDP, and needed to reflect farm and nonfarm thresholds:

…farm poverty thresholds would be set at 85 percent rather than 70 percent of corresponding nonfarm thresholds. In August 1969, the Bureau of the Budget designated the poverty thresholds with these revisions as the federal government’s official statistical definition of poverty (Fisher, 1997).

The late discovery of proper metrics for poverty thresholds did not impact the effectiveness of the war on poverty, but it did allow for poverty to be measured with a larger degree of accuracy. On January 8, 1964 Lyndon B. Johnson declared war on poverty in America during his augural address. President Johnson recognized poverty as a national issue and created the policies and programs such as Head Start, Volunteers in Service to America, TRIO, and Job Corps (Raymond, Wheeler, & Brown, 2011).

Poverty during the 1980s and into the 1990s was a centerpiece of political debate. Intense discussions over the effectiveness of poverty policies led to a largely blame the victim mentality. During this period, programs were cut and policies towards poverty were mostly negative as rancorous political diatribe attached poverty as an overdependence on government (Fisher, 1997). This debate ended in the late 1990’s as these arguments fell out of favor with the public. However, this debate did spawn the movement to decentralize poverty programs and new policies that utilized NGOs were emphasized (Bane, 2009). These new policies appear to have had some success but they are still currently being debated.

Since the War on Poverty was declared, there has been reductions but a consistent rate of 15% of the population is always in poverty. Current theories of poverty provide little in the way of solving the problem because the answers consistently confined to monetary or resource-based solutions.

Theoretical Perspectives of Poverty

There are two primary theoretical perspective used to explain poverty which include: deprivation and culture. The deprivation theory posits that lack of resources creates poverty because individuals are unable to escape the cycle. Equally important is the cultural theory because it explains poverty in terms of a way of life that is self-destructive and self-perpetuating. Poverty is viewed in the manner as a:

…way of life passed on from generation to generation. This conceptualization of poverty includes not only low income, but also attitudes of hopelessness, indifference, alienation, apathy, and lack of incentives and self-respect (DiNitto & Johnson, 2011).

Within the culture of poverty, individuals become part of a structure complete with its own social mechanisms. This theoretical view is controversial because it lends itself to political issues such as blaming the victim. For example, cultural views of poverty lend themselves to the idea that people become dependent on welfare and do not have incentive to get jobs or make more money. For this reason, cultural views of poverty need to focus on the social mechanics in order to produce effective policies:

According to Orlando Patterson (2000), culture in general should be understood as “a repertoire of socially transmitted and intra-generationally generated ideas about how to live and make judgments, both in general terms and in regard to specific domains of life” (p. 208). Furthermore, Patterson argues that these “ideas” about life and living interact dynamically with structural factors and condition behavioral outcomes (Jordan, 2004).

There is considerable literature dedicated to studying poverty in these terms but the problem with these theories is that they do not take into account factors such as the fact that poverty changes. In the US, since the 1960s the standard of living for poverty has improved dramatically. For example, most people living in poverty today have smartphones are cell phones (University of Michigan, 2018). This is a dramatic shift in poverty considering the people in the 1960s and in prior decades did not have adequate food (University of Michigan, 2018).

Cyclical theories of poverty also point to the fact that poverty is not static due to changes in economics and other macrolevel events (Hubbard & O’Brian, 2010). There are also demographic theories of poverty which often fail to take into account specific groups such as LGBT. There are currently only small numbers of policies or programs that work with this demographic. The LGBT homeless are a large segment of the population- between 30% and 43% of the under 18 homeless populations (Cray, Miller, & Durso, 2013). This shows that the large numbers of children living in poverty are of the same demographic and are not being targeted with current theories (National Homelessness , 2015). Within the scope of current theories, there are large gaps in the thinking because many factors such as sexual identity or changing poverty levels are not considered in the overall theoretical frameworks.


There are three policies for fighting poverty which include: welfare, targeted support initiatives, and preventative measures. The most common policy in the US is welfare which provides different forms of benefit such money or housing depending on the program design. Welfare attempts to provide funding and other benefits to allow individuals to maintain a standard of living and to break free of the cycle of poverty (Raymond, Wheeler, & Brown, 2011). Housing programs such as HUD have a form of welfare such as emergency housing or section eight housing to provide for those individuals who cannot afford housing due to lack of money (DiNitto & Johnson, 2011). The problem with welfare is that it does not solve many of the root causes of poverty.

For example, most programs in the US target families since this method can reach the largest number of individuals living below the poverty line (DiNitto & Johnson, 2011). This policy approach is problematic because it reduces effectiveness by not reaching many target populations (Cray, Miller, & Durso, 2013). There are many homeless children, for example, who are not aware of housing programs or welfare support. This can be seen in the LGBT homeless populations who are often made homeless by families rejecting their sexual orientation.

Welfare is effective to some degree because it provides assistance, but it has not solved the problem of poverty (DiNitto & Johnson, 2011). HUD provides emergency housing and other solutions, but the programs have limited reach due to funding and because they are not always accessible to people who are not part of family (Raymond, Wheeler, & Brown, 2011).

The policies that have the most effectiveness, in the US, are targeted approaches aiming at specific populations. The Center for American Progress (2013), has shown effective policies for improving LGBT poverty and homelessness which include:

• Support initiatives that strengthen families with LGBT children, and that pro- mote acceptance and understanding between parents and children. • Initiate efforts to research LGBT youth homelessness and track demographic data on homeless youth that includes sexual orientation and gender identity (Cray, Miller, & Durso, 2013).

There are also some effective prevention policies and programs such as Head Start which provides children five and under with education, nutrition, and health services for better scholastic achievement. The idea behind these programs is to prevent poverty by reducing the chances of children growing up and not being able to support themselves.

Head Start promotes the school readiness of young children from low-income families through agencies in their local community. Head Start and Early Head Start programs support the comprehensive development of children from birth to age 5, in centers, child care partner locations, and in their own homes. Head Start services include early learning, health, and family well-being (Office of Head Start, 2018).

These preventative policies and programs are effective, but they are not used on a large enough scale to combat the issue of poverty.

Obstacles and Constraints

The policy development environment for poverty is challenged by the enormous numbers of people that it attempts to serve. For example, a program that is as large as WIC, designing policies that provide adequate service and proper evaluation is a challenging endeavor. This challenge is caused by the fact that policies are often not designed to serve the enormous populations that they often serve. In the example of WIC, this program grew from a small program in 1979 to a large federal program that is delivered through state agencies and through 47,000 authorized retailers. The WIC program serves 53% of all infants born in the US. WIC is serving 57 percent of the individuals who are eligible for the program. While this may appear to be a shortfall, this programs benefits have been far-reaching:

▪ longer pregnancies; ▪ fewer premature births; ▪ lower incidence of moderately low and very low birth weight infants; ▪ fewer infant deaths; ▪ a greater likelihood of receiving prenatal care; and ▪ savings in health care costs from $1.77 to $3.13 within the first 60 days after birth.3,4,5 ▪ higher mean intakes of iron, vitamin C, thiamin, niacin and vitamin B6, without an increase in food energy intake, indicating an increase in the nutrient density of the diet;19 ▪ positive effects on the intakes of ten nutrients without an adverse effect on fat or cholesterol;14 ▪ more effective than other cash income or SNAP benefits at improving preschoolers’ intake of key nutrients;14 and ▪ decline in the rate of iron deficiency anemia from 7.8 percent in 1975 to 2.9 percent in 1985 which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention attributed to both a general improvement in iron nutrition and participation in WIC and other public nutrition programs (USDA, 2018).

Many of the poverty programs that exist today have similar coverage issues and create severe challenges to being evaluated. These constraints associated with evaluation can be attributed to internal, external, and methodological issues. Internal constraints are often focused on objectives such as the target population and the budget size. Equally important is the external factors such as economic conditions and political environments. could be understood as recognizing program objectives and identifying what constitutes successful implementation. External factors could be identified as the impact of outside programs on results, the political environment, and the cost of evaluations efforts. One of the major issues with poverty is that policymakers tend to waffle back and forth with funding which is largely politically driven (Potter, 2016). This political problem exerts a negative impact on poverty treatment because program funding is constantly changing. This is serious issue because when policies are made they are based on the cost for delivering services and once they are implemented they are rendered impotent if budget cuts are made later.

Methodological factors are also an important issue because since the 1990s poverty policies and programs have shifted the focus from large federal programs and state initiatives to NGOs.

An important implication of this change is that the operation of poverty programs has shifted somewhat to differently conceptualized welfare offices, to different government agencies, and to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). State and county welfare departments now play a smaller and a different role. Welfare offices in many states are also different places than they used to be. In some states, welfare bureaucracies have been reinvented or at least renamed as temporary assistance, work-oriented operations.8 In some places they have been merged with workforce development agencies, which deal with employment and training pro- grams more generally. This seems to have been accompanied by a change in the culture of the agencies toward a much greater emphasis on working and moving toward independence (Bane, 2009).

This shift in methodology is part of a large movement towards privatization of many government programs. This shift in policymaking has controversial impacts. The primary shift in policy was to create more effective poverty programs and less charitable ones. Grants and funding are aimed at NGO’s that perform job training and placement rather than simple providing funding directly to those in need. These changes appear to be working since poverty rates have fallen since the 1990s at about .05% per year (Bane, 2009). These numbers are controversial because the poverty may have improved but overall income and of individuals in the US has fallen (Bane, 2009). This could present issues in near future if incomes continue to fall.

There are severe issues with data gathering and analysis, and the methods used to evaluate a poverty policy success which include:

1) contextual factors; having to do with the political environment within which the policy analysis took place; 2) technical factors, having to do with the methodology employed in the policy analysis; and 3) human factors, having to do with the psychological makeup of the users of the policy analysis” (Lester & Stewart, 2000).

These three categories of evaluation constraints occur largely out of the methodology of policy implementation. Because policies for implementing poverty programs occur at the local, state, federal level, and increasingly more within NGOs; this creates a tremendous problem for using metrics to measure these programs. This problem is easily seen in the WIC program which was prone to long term misuse and fraud. In the USDA’s GAO report the following issues were discovered:

Vendors could charge the WIC program more for a food item than what is indicated on the shelf price. State agencies reported identifying about 3,771 vendors as having committed fraud or abuse. This number represents about 9 percent of all vendors in the program as of September 30, 1998 (USDA, 2009).

Participants could have misrepresented the facts that can affect their eligibility, mainly income status, to receive benefits. Local agencies identified an estimated 7,074 participants as having committed one or more of seven types of serious fraud and abuse, such as exchanging food vouchers for cash. This number represents an estimated .14 percent of the average monthly participation in fiscal year 1998 (USDA, 2009).

Employees could obtain benefits for friends and family not eligible, and do not meet the minimum requirements to be included in the program, Only 4 percent of local agencies identified any documented cases of employee fraud or abuse — an estimated 48 individuals nationwide for the 2-year period (USDA, 2009).

Many of these problems have been eliminated by switching methods of payment to agencies and retailers. However, these issues are persistent in other programs because of the loss of control over policy implementation and evaluation. Poverty policies continue to evolve in this manner and while there may be short term benefits to these methods of policy making, there may be long term ramifications if they are not prone to losses from fraud and misuse.


There are serious gaps within the policy making with regards to poverty. These gaps are created from too few policies or policies that are overly focused on treating the problem as a family issue or as a lack of money. As a result of these issues, poverty policies and programs are too weak to solve the issue of poverty and this is why there is a constant level of poverty that hovers at about 15% (Dunn, 2016). Despite a a decrease in poverty levels since the 1990s, when looked at over a 50 year span, the hills and valleys continue to hover at about 15% (Dunn, 2016). While these programs and policies may be insufficient, they have provided strong reductions for poverty over time. One of the major gaps in the literature is due to the existing paradigm of poverty which argues that:

…robust economic growth is at the heart of generating opportunity. Growth, in turn, requires investment, both private and public. Private investment is seen as effective in creating jobs and labor income, and in turn is helped by a sound fiscal and monetary policy, stable investment rules, and a sound financial system. Encouragement to microenterprises — for instance, through microcredit or simplified tax and licensing procedures — and to small and medium enterprises is likely to be helpful (World Bank, 2017).

In contrast to this view, there is a large amount of evidence that economic growth and large scale investment are not the most effective means for reducing poverty. The Gremeen Bank of Bangladesh and founder Prof. Muhammad Yunus argues that microfinancing and investment in large programs for the treatment of poverty have not had the success they anticipated. This problem has been due in part to the issue of not solving the underlying issues of poverty (Yunus & Weber, 2007). More effective programs could reduce generational poverty by concentrating on specific target populations and building programs to fit these groups. More preventative programs are also needed to stave off future poverty.


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By Christopher Michel from San Francisco, USA — Memorial Day 2020 — San Francisco Under Quarantine, CC BY 2.0


Triola Vincent. Sun, Mar 14, 2021. Understanding Poverty Retrieved from

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