Category Archives: Relative Poverty

Social Inequality

Thanksgiving marks a time of- well- thanksgiving. We stop to reflect on the good things that have happened to us over the course of the year and thank God for the blessings and the family that surround us (then go and trample some strangers for a fifty inch TV, but I digress). At this time those who have less also come to the forefront of our consciousness. The Salvation Army bell ringers stand outside the supermarkets we frequent and we drop some spare change into their bucket to spare ourselves the guilt later on, or to get on the universe’s good side or Santa’s nice list or whatever. Rarely, I think do we stop to consider how much less those less fortunate than us really have.

The wealth/ income gap is ever widening in America with the top 5% of income earning households bringing in over 20% of total income in America and the bottom 40% of income earning households bringing in 12% of the total income in America. Income here being defined as the wages and salaries earned as measured over time, such as by hour or year (Witt 247). These numbers do not include a person’s wealth which is defined as all of a person’s material assets, including savings, land, stocks, and other types of property, minus debts at any one point in time (Witt 247).  Wealth in America is more unequally dispersed than percentage of total income. The top 5% of households own 63.5% of the nation’s wealth while the bottom 40% own -1.1% of all wealth in America. That means households in the bottom 40% of households owe more than they earn. And in 2009 14.3% of America’s population lived in poverty.

Lets take a moment to define poverty for America. According to sociologists we can define poverty in two ways, in absolutes where poverty is the minimum level of subsistence that no family should be expected to live below meaning that someone below the poverty line lacks enough resources to survive (Witt 250). People in poverty in America, although they cannot afford many of the things our society deems essential they are still better off than those in absolute poverty in poorer nations; this is relative poverty. Where does this aforementioned poverty line lie for those living in America at or below its quantified location. In 1964 a formula was created to to help fight what President Lyndon B. Johnson had deemed a War on Poverty. At the research bureau of the Social Security Administration a food economist Mollie Orshansky combined findings from a study that stated families spend about one third of their budget on food, and the cost of a minimally nutritious diet as established by the USDA to generate a poverty threshold. This threshold, or poverty line was was calculated at three times the cost of the USDA’s proposed diet. This definition or formula has come under debate since the formula is seemingly outdated as families now spend about one fourth or one fifth of their budget on food. New supplemental measures of poverty now take into account costs of shelter, utilities, work expenses, and out-of-pocket medical costs.

Many thoughts about those living in poverty are greatly flawed. Many think that those in poverty are there by means of their own doing, they refuse to work, or foolishly got themselves into a great amount of debt. Most of the time this is not the case. Many of those living in poverty are children or those who are ill or disabled and cannot work.  And many who are in poverty do not stay there for very long. “In a three year study of census data, researchers found that 28.9% of the population spent two months in poverty, and 23% were in poverty for the duration of the study” (Witt 253). Poverty can be tied to social and cultural resources as well since people in poverty lack the social connections, or culture capital to help them get good jobs.

In conclusion poverty is not always the outcome of a persons failings in society, life circumstances have a great effect on if a persons lives in poverty and for how long. And while the government has set up resources such as SNAP and Social Security to ease the burden on families living in poverty it is not only food, clothing, and shelter that these people need. They need access to networking, and educational opportunities that will help them rise out of poverty and into a standard of living.

— Danielle

Sources cited:  Witt, Jon. “Chapter 10: Social Class.” Soc 2012. S.l.: Mcgraw-Hill, 2012. Print.

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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