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Explain the terms ‘Relative poverty’, ‘Absolute Poverty’ and ‘Culture of Poverty’

1. Explain the terms ‘Relative poverty’, ‘Absolute Poverty’ and ‘Culture of Poverty’.

Absolute (or subsistence) Poverty is a term used to describe poverty that is measured as being without the resources to maintain health and physical efficiency. Basic human needs such as an amount of food, clothes and shelter are ways that ‘being in’ absolute poverty is measured. “a family is poor if it cannot afford to eat”. (Keith Joseph, 1979).The concept of absolute poverty was developed by Rowntree in the 19th century. Usually measured as a minimum sum of money. Rowntree’s early studies of York and Booth’s Life and Labour in east London are both examples of a calculation of resources (money) needed to meet the needs of survival, therefore being classified as either ‘in’ or ‘not in’ absolute poverty.Absolute poverty is perhaps more linked to malnutrition which is particular important to developing countries and as Sen (1982) argues when looking at the whole world. “Malnutrition captures only one aspect of our idea of poverty… (but). must have a central place in the conception of poverty”.

Much sociological research looks at relative rather than absolute poverty. Harrington 1962 wrote in ‘The Other America’ “To have one bowl of rice in a society where all other people have half a bowl may well be a sign of achievement and intelligence. To have five bowls of rice in a society where the majority have a decent well balanced diet is a tragedy”. How relative poverty is measured is constantly changing. What is considered a reasonable and acceptable standard of living is measured in terms of judgements by members of a particular society, and those judgements can vary immensely between cultures, subcultures, generations and era. As society’s expectations change so do also, definitions of relative poverty. Those households unable to afford inside toilets, central heating and a television are seen as poor relative to the majority of the UK population. Luxuries (available to the few), move to comforts and then to necessaries and the line that separates the poor will vary according to how affluent that society is. According to Townsend (1979), “Individual families and groups in the population can be said to be in poverty when they lack the resources to obtain the types of diets, participate in the activities and have the living conditions which are customary, or at least widely encouraged and approved, in the societies to which they belong”. The lack of material possessions and facilities necessary for ‘material well being’ are not the only way to view those ‘in poverty’ because exclusion from the lifestyle of the community in which a person belongs is also a measure of poverty. Not exclusively shaped by physical necessity, but also by cultural expectations. For example, in Western culture an important tradition to buy Christmas presents is not a physical necessity. Those unable to do so are seen as poor.

A way of life that to some extent differs from the rest of society is formed by people who have a tendency to share similar circumstances and problems, like poverty. The norms and attitudes and values are distinctive to that social group and collectively people are in a subculture. The subculture shared by the poor, (researches argue) are in the ‘culture of poverty’ “by the time slum children are aged six or seven, they have usually absorbed the basic values and attitudes of their subculture”. According to Lewis the ‘Culture of Poverty’ includes;a transmition from one generation to the next; a strong present time orientation; a sense of resignation and fatalism; a belief that there is little or nothing they (the poor) can do to change their situation; feelings of helplessness; and a ‘strong feeling of marginality’.

There are many Critics against the concept that there is a ‘culture of poverty’. William Mangin’s (1963) conducted research in ‘The Slums of Peru’. For from being apathetic or resigned, the poor often showed a ‘remarkable capacity’ for organisation and self help. After reviewing research, Rutter and Madge concluded that, “there is little documentation of any communities in this country (United Kingdom) which might correspond with the descriptions of a culture of poverty given by Lewis” (1977).

2. Compare and Contrast at least 3 different Sociological Perspectives on Poverty.

Ideas have changed since The American Government failed when attempting to eradicate poverty in the 1960’s. many sociologist argue that even is a ‘culture of poverty’ does exist it is no the major cause of poverty, but similar to the culture of poverty is the culture of dependency put forward by American sociologist Murry. A different class has developed according to many right wing conservative views of society. Poverty is developed and maintained by the individual through behaviour.

According to Murry at the base of the class system is the ‘underclass’ which continues to be persistent in society for the following reasons;

Single parents, (households headed be females)

Lack of respect for work

A large number of men choosing not to take jobs

Attitudes passed down through generations

Boys grow-up without a father/wage earner role model and consequences of these factors result in families supported by welfare benefits on which they become dependent.

British sociologist Dave Marsland also argues that state welfare benefits have gone too far. It locks the poor into dependency and does not encourage the poor to struggle! An alternative and largely Webrian view afford by Townsend agrees in part with Murry, that there is and ‘underclass’ but disagrees that it develops because of ‘over-generosity’ of benefits or ‘personal inadequacy’s’ suggested by right wing ideologies. Rather than a behaviourist perspective many sociologists support explanations of poverty from a structural perspective. Taking the problem of poverty away from the individual (in the sense of blame) and seeing it as social inequalities arising from capitalism.

A lack of educational and employment opportunities;

Poor housing conditions

Increased chances of long standing illnesses and disability –

are just some of the social economic and enviournmental factors which prevent the poor from behaving the same way as the not poor, they have the same norms and values, but behaviour of the poor is a ‘reaction to disadvantaged social situations’. An enviounmental factor such as a natural disaster could cause poverty. Economic climate can create more poverty, (for example no employment available to miners when the mines were shut). Also, misfortune, either individual, (for example a divorced or widowed spose) or collectively (such as a strike or war), all contribute to examples of the poor.

Townsend believes that poverty and class are closely related. ‘the majority of the poor occupy, (or have occupied) unskilled or semi-skilled jobs, and the poor are excluded from opportunities that are available to others. Well paid employment offers the best opportunities to escape poverty. Townsend believes that the state (have the possibility) and should act independently from powerful groups (such as capitalists and professionals), in order to benefit those at the bottom of the class system. Reshaping the class system is criticised by Marxists views, arguing that the dominant group in capitalist society is the ‘capitalist class’. Therefore “the state will inevitably represent its interest” and to even hope that “the state will make significant reductions in social inequality” is niave.

As money is the main motivation of work (and capitalism needs highly motivated workers) unequal monetary rewards (in order for workers to compete for higher wages) is inevitable. This Marxist view of the low wage sector has several purposes according to Kincaid (1973). It provides a ‘cheap pool of labour’, it creates divisions within the working class – ‘a united working class might threaten capitalism; it keeps down the level of benefits available (to those outside the labour market) which ensures there is an incentive to work. Critics of Marxist views argue that it fails to explain why, some groups are more prone to poverty such as women. Also, another criticism is that sometimes against capitalist interests the state can influence the labour market which acts in the interest of employees (employment protection against unfair dismissal and attempts to ensure equal pay for women are examples of this).

A functionlist perspective on poverty is the view that poverty is necessary to maintain society. Poverty is inevitable and incentives from inequality both ensures and encourages people to better themselves, also poverty provides jobs.

Criticism of functionlist views are;

It is used to justify and maintain the status-quo (and because of the class system Britain is best at this)

It assumes that everybody is economical motivated

Funtionlist don’t take into account the psychological effects of poverty

It assumes that everybody is highly mobile.

3. Discuss the reasons why poverty in Britain is so difficult to measure.

Subjectively how one feels, either poor or not poor can depend on many factors. Others might say they are poor when objectively there not. Some feel poor and some feel wealthy. Family history may influence answers (that people are asked by researchers in order to gather statistical data). Either children are socialised into thinking they are poor and it becomes part of their identity particularly those raised on welfare or perhaps the opposite, people live with the feeling they are something better- originally coming from an affluent wealthy family becomes part of their identity and ‘they live beyond their means’, they have to actually live that way, and are often too proud to claim benefits.

Five million subjectively say they are in poverty, but because people are too proud to say they are poor this figure is likely to be much higher. As 75% unemployed people live in poverty, and because many people feel ashamed, embarrassed or like a failure when they loose their job it is likely to result in dishonesty. Not many people are prepared to be absolutely honest when answering questions regarding their spending habits.

Poverty has no objective definition, producing and interpreting data may be based influenced by values of the researcher. No one agrees what poverty is, therefore it is a political issue. According to Margaret Thatcher (1983) “the fact remains that people are fully and properly provided for”. Conservative’s argue “that absolute poverty has been virtually eradicated”. Those using absolute definitions (such as Rowntree’s study on York) would agree that higher living standards have reduced the amount of people ‘in absolute poverty’, but in Townsend’s view of relative terms there is still a higher proportion of the population in poverty and the wider the gap is growing between the richest and poorest people, the more poverty levels are likely to rise.

The problem with statistics gathered regarding those on the ‘state minimum poverty line’ (Britain has never had an official poverty line) is being able to answer the following question:

Are those in receipt of supplementary benefit (on that line) ‘in’ or ‘out’ of poverty? Those living at or just above the level of supplementary benefit of poverty up until 1995. Using those on benefits as a guide caused some problems, as any help given by the government to assist those in poverty for example increasing benefits available would indicate an increase in poverty levels and jeopardise the governments position to stay in power. Therefore partly for this reason, official statistical figures now relay on the ‘Households Below Average Income,(HBAI)’ figures which calculate the medium income of UK households.

Despite attempts to rise in particular children out of poverty still up to 50 million children in the worlds richest countries are still growing up in poverty. In the Uk one in seven children grow up in poverty and a Unicef statement said, “No matter which of the commonly used measures is applied, the rate of poverty among children has increased over the last decade. But according to Unicef reports for the year 2004/2005 the government is on target of cutting child poverty by 25%, finally “turning around the Uk’s appalling history on child poverty.