In the following essay I will start by outlining the broad ways in which poverty is defined and measured. Next I will look at explanation the poverty a New Right ideological framework provides us with. I will then assess a Functionalist explanation for the causes of poverty, and finally look at how Marxists explain the causes of poverty. I will then move on to discuss both how a Social Democrat would go about reducing poverty and similarly how a Marxist would approach poverty reduction. Finally, I will conclude by summarising how it is in fact the case that different ideologies and theoretical approaches are the basis for different definitions, ways of measuring and explanations for the causes of and the ways of reducing poverty.
The origins of modern academic study of poverty date back to the begin of the 19th century, when Roundtree (1899) and Booth (1903) independently documented and mapped the extent the poverty in York and inner London respectively. Using house to house visits they determined the level of poverty using on the basis of an absolute income level, those who were found below of which were considered to be in poverty. How they went about conducting their experiments shows the moral, ideological and political nature of the considerations made. This leads to sociologists recognising two definitions of poverty – relative and absolute.
“Poverty can be said to exist in a given society when one or more persons do not attain a level of material well-being deemed to constitute a reasonable minimum by the standards of that society.” (Ravallion, 1992)
Absolute poverty is based on the idea of a basic material subsistence, very much what the World Bank definition above is based on. In other words, this should measure a person’s biological needs for food, water, clothing – minimum requirements to subsists and maintain life and health and physical efficiency. Crucially, this means people in absolute poverty are poor in any given society at any given time, making international and historical comparisons easier. The problem with this approach however is that the concept of what we deem well-being and minimum standards is socially constructed, therefore Liberals and Marxists advocate a definition of poverty that has social dimensions; cultural needs and expectations, which differ from country to country. (See Hickel, 2015 & Mack and Lansley, 1985). This is what’s called relative poverty, which considers the standard of living in a particular country. As such this is a definition that cannot be fixed over time but changes in response to progressing social expectations and living standards which directly correlates to a country’s social, political and ideological development. Self-described socialist Peter Townsend described being in a state of Relative Poverty as lacking 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.’ (Townsend, 1979, Poverty in the United Kingdom)”
This definition of poverty is based on moral judgements and values distinct from the world bank definition or the UK government (…) definitions of poverty, indicating the ideological judgements of those giving the definitions. Liberals and the left point to clear benefits to using a relative measure of poverty, as it allows the inclusion of the various injustices found society and serves to underscore the plight of marginalised groups who are more likely to be in relative poverty than others; minorities, women and either ends of the generational spectrum.
The New Right offers an individualist explanation of poverty that can be traced back to a socially conservative 19th Century view of the poor. With society viewed as fair, well-ordered and just, those who are unable to raise themselves to a standard of living seen as acceptable have failed to take advantage of the opportunities afforded to them. This leaves no one to blame but themselves. This was broadly termed the Culture of Poverty, and largely built on the work of anthropologist Oscar Lewis (Lewis O., 1966) who suggested that the poor have a culture of poverty with its own norms and values and way of life. This see them marginalised from society, fatalistic, with little effort made to change their situation. This interpretation permits structural inequalities to continue and accords with New Right ideology that is largely uncritical of capitalist society, encourages choice as to how individuals spend and earn their money, and what services they want to pay for, alongside a minimally interfering state. The development of this line of thought is typified in the work of American Sociologist Charles Murray and his Theory of the Culture of Dependency. He ascribes the term ‘underclass’ to those who he believes are conditioned by a generous welfare system to acts to engender a dependency culture that creates more poverty and unemployment; instead the poor need to take responsibility for their situation.
“I am indeed focusing on a certain type of poor person defined not by his condition, for example, long-term unemployment, but by his deplorable behaviour in response to that condition, for example, unwilling to take jobs that are available to him.” (Murray)
For Murray the Welfare System may have started as a safety-net but had been commandeered by a group of people with no intention of working. He characterised the underclass by long term unemployment, high levels of crime and unstable families. There is clear evidence of this rhetoric being mirrored in contemporary British politics (Rutherford, 2008), ostensibly for little other than short term political gain. This is despite the fact that very little evidence for an underclass actually exists
“Despite almost 150 years of scientific investigation, often by extremely partisan investigators, not a single study has ever found any large group of people/households with any behaviours that
could be ascribed to a culture or genetics of poverty” (Gordon, 2011)
The fact that these ideas are unsupported by scientific evidence or study points to the pre-determined ideological basis for this line of thought in explaining poverty.
Structural Functionalism provides a consensus-based sociological explanation for the causes of poverty. A key tenant of Functionalism is the belief that social stability is maintained in a given society by the pre-existing structures and institutions of that society working together in harmony (Alder et al., 2014). Social problems such as poverty and inequality do not necessarily represent fundamental flaws in a society’s structure. In fact, functionalist theorists post stratification and social problems like poverty only exists because they serve as a functional necessity maintaining social order. The Davis-Moore hypothesis (Davis et al., 19701945) proposed that the best jobs and conditions in society go to those who work the hardest. Some positions in society are more important than others and so better rewarded as some roles require special skills and talents not held by other members of the community. They believed this would benefit society and provide motivation for the poor and those living in poverty to undertake to obtain more advanced skills themselves. American sociologist Gans focused more explicitly on poverty
“functional analysis must conclude that poverty persists not only because it satisfies a number of functions but also because many of the functional alternatives to poverty would be quite dysfunctional for the more affluent members of society” (Gans H. J., 1972)
This is a stark, functional macro-analysis of the causes of poverty found in society and importantly how and why it is maintained. Marxists however, although in agreement of the macro-structural approach of Functionalism, would point out serious flaws in this line of argument. They would argue that the structural inequalities that exists in society, economic and social are just as much a reason for individual success and the escape from poverty, than a consequence of it.
As a conflict based sociological approach to poverty Marxism proposes the uneven distribution of wealth and power in society is the reason for poverty. This arises out of a fundamental conflict between the needs and interests of the rich and powerful and those who aren’t. Marxists see this through the lens of a class struggle, with the inequality and poverty found in society is a result of the exploitation of the proletariat by the bourgeoisie and their domination of the means of production. Crucially, Marx believes that
“capitalist appropriation is not exclusively or primarily and appropriation of things, but rather an appropriation of subjectivity, of working energy itself, of the physical and intellectual powers of man.” (Colletti, 1972:102)
and therefore explanations for the poverty found in society must also be viewed as a social theory of psychological and social alienation of workers not challenging the domination capitalist class. Marxists also believe that the state acts as a vehicle for the elevation of bourgeois interests (Milliband R., 1974), thus cementing their power and seeing the elevation of their interests at the expense of the working class, pushing them further into poverty (Truneh J., 2017). Feminists on the other hand, would point to research from the Poverty and Social Exclusion Survey that found that women are ‘more likely to be poor on all four dimensions of poverty (namely: lacking two or more necessities; earning below 60 per cent median income; subjective poverty; and receiving Income Support)’ (Bradshaw et al., 2003:3). By privileging class domination in its societal analysis, Feminists would argue Marxism marginalises other forms of social oppression – patriarchy, but in a broader analysis ethnic, racial and regional factors could also be included.
A Social Democratic explanation of the ways to reduce poverty dominated political and public opinion for the thirty years after 1945. Its roots can be found in the social and economic ideas of W. J. Beveridge (1942) and J. M. Keynes (1936) respectively. This school of ideological thought is the expression of the pan-demographic communalities found in post-war consensus Britain, which hold that it is the duty of members of a society to band themselves in support of the weak and the duty of any government to intervene in the economy for the benefit of society as a whole. This was in recognition of the mercurial, unforgiving nature of free market capitalism, as they saw it. Undesirable symptoms of high unemployment, low wages and inflation, would either have to be contained by the monetary policy actions of the central bank, fiscal policy actions by the government or the effects on the public would be mitigated by a welfare state recompensing victims, redistributing income, providing opportunity for the disadvantaged and restraining the greedy and powerful.
However Social Democrats would point to Kenway’s study, ‘Addressing In-work Poverty’ (J.R.F., 2008) that shows the extent of the relationship between low-paid workers and those in poverty. The study advocates the “creation of a system of free, universal childcare” (2008: 4) in order to help working and part-working families stay above the poverty line. This social democratic approach emphasises how universalism in benefits is the key to avoiding a poverty trap (Wintour, 2014), and fulfils a key Social Democratic test using the welfare state to regulate the negative effects of capitalism (low pay) and necessarily compensate those who have been negatively affected by it by distributing wealth.
Marxists would broadly have a radicular structural approach to poverty reduction. In order to fundamentally transform what they see as the repressive structure of a capitalist society, Marxism believes class consciousness, the awareness of a social or economic class as to their position within the economic order, is necessary to overthrow capitalism and create a new system based on equality and a classless society, rather than the current one of inequality, exploitation and poverty. For this to be achieved 20th Century Marxist intellectual Georg Lukács believed that
“Only the dialectical conception of … reality as a social process … dissolves the fetishistic forms necessarily produced by the capitalist mode of production and enables us to see them as mere illusions which are not less illusory for being seen to be necessary” (G. Lukács, 1971)
Here Lukács explains how class consciousness was an achievement resulting from a class struggle to see the totality of social and economic systems and overcome reification, enabling the working class to act in such a way as to be in their own social and political interest. Post Modernists however would accuse Marxists (and followers of Lukács) of failing to recognise a shift from a modern to a postmodern society. Conceptions of class consciousness, if at all existent, are seconded to individualised well-being and personal fulfilment. They would argue society is meritocratic, which means anyone can achieve their ambitions and escape from poverty as long as they work hard enough.
In conclusion from the earliest studies conducted of poverty people have struggled to define it.
Marxism posits that society doesn’t have uniform economic interests. It is rooted in a class struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, the latter of whom are harshly exploited, with the struggle between them, the means by which change will be achieved.
Furthermore, the development of a class consciousness among the majority will be necessary to challenge the implicit injustice within the capitalist mode of production.