Relative Poverty

Relativity, by definition, is when one thing is dependent in relation to something else. So in layman’s terms, an example would be that pain is relative. If I drop a stone on my hand it may hurt me more than if someone else dropped the same stone on them; so how does this relate to sociology? This affects about 46 million United State citizens currently according to official calculations. Any clue yet?  Well, I will begin by explaining what poverty is. Poverty is often defined as the base line which is the bare minimum for someone to survive on. This is referred as the “absolute poverty.” For someone to be classified as in poverty, by the definition of absolute poverty, they would have to be unable to afford clothing, shelter, and food. Whereas “relative poverty” is a comparative standard by which someone’s lifestyle is considered to be in poverty in comparison to that of the majority. An example would be someone who does not own a TV. and a car, yet can afford to stay fed and clothed with a roof over their head. Relative Poverty often shifts and changes due to the times, whereas absolute poverty stays almost the same. The power of relativity associated with poverty is fueled and manifested through our media/marketing dense culture.

Take The United States for example (as I am from here), we have a culture where what you have plays a large part in how others interact with you. This relates to the idea of face work, where effort is put into maintaining a proper image to avoid public scrutiny. You may ask how this is associated with relative poverty. Well I will share a story in this blog to explain the connection, which will begin with a close friend of mine who lost his job. While he lost his job his wife still worked however, they suffered financially, struggling to pay the bills. Let’s call my friend Bill.  Bill shared how at the time he was so self-conscious about his friends and family knowing his status, that he created a story, using “face work” so that none of his friends and family knew until years later. I felt this was a very important piece to share about relative poverty because even though they still had clothes on their back, and food on the table, Bill felt he needed to present to the world that he was still working and nothing was going wrong. Face work is at times a factor in people suffering from relative poverty, especially if they moved down the socioeconomic ladder. For example, having lost your job, you still dressed up and left as if you were heading to work, even though you were no longer working.

As I mentioned before, absolute poverty is the base line that no family should live below. Although Bill’s wife was able to work full-time and still earned more than a majority of the world’s population, they still were suffering from poverty compared to the standards within their community. He was an owner of a contracting firm and lost his business during 2008-2009, at the same time they continued to live in an upper-middle class neighborhood. So, while Bill and his family would be considered poor, they did not suffer like many others do globally. Many nations, sometimes referred to as less industrialized nations, suffer from widespread absolute poverty. An example would be someone who is below absolute poverty would not have enough to meet even the basic needs.

I believe dominant ideology, which is the set of cultural beliefs and practices that legitimates existing powerful social, economic, and political interests, plays a role in relative poverty. Because, once there is a set of ways that are deemed superior, people will try to aspire to that and place people either in it or out. From his family or friends, Bill was taught that it is weak for a family man to fall to his knees and lose a business. This concept connects to relative poverty because in many developed countries like the United States what we perceive as poverty is largely linked to the dominant ideology. Bill perceived that not having a male income is “bad”, and that by cutting his expenses his peers would look down on him.  This is all based on how the media portrays those who are financially restricted.

Some of the problems associated with face work is that people like Bill have to present themselves as if their life hasn’t been altered. Bill should have had faith in his peers and family to support him and get him back on his feet, but to do so would mean he’d have to disclose his job loss. We have detached from communalism, where no one helps one another. Absolute poverty is a world issue, and we could increase international efforts by sending more aid and education to help pull those who live on a dollar a day to higher paying jobs.  Finally we need to shift our perception about lower income lifestyles so that people do not get caught up and unable to move out of poverty.

Relative poverty really is a made up idea within society; we have the ability as a society to alter what is considered poverty. We can start by increasing programs to offer to people to get out of poverty. We can also bring awareness and understanding to what poverty is so that people like Bill, even after losing his job, can get support. Below is a link to a video relating to this topic that I find to be of great interest!

— Ian

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