How can the impact of poverty be understood in contemporary society?

poverty729-620x349When the word poverty is mentioned, we are captivated by an image of a child no younger than seven wandering the dusty wide streets of a third world country. The feelings of desperation, hunger, sadness, loneliness and vulnerability through his swollen tearful eyes after an hours’ search for a taste of satisfaction soften our hearts melting with sorrow, helplessness and compassion. A picture of his skeletal body pressing onto his flesh mounted on every charity leaflet displayed by street fundraisers we are approached by in our local high streets or a homeless man at the street corner only be heard by the cardboard held by his hands reading: Homeless and Hungry Please help with an exclamation mark as he bows his head down with his eyes peering down at the ground.

Tower block of flats with stairwells overpowered by heavy stench of  urine littered with dirty needles, debris of dust, empty food packets, dried on newspapers and magazine strips. A row of houses with windows patched with wood and walls patterned by graffiti, showing threats, offensive slurs and hatred presumably written by domineering and bullying feral minded youths with the routine of getting drunk on cheap alcohol purchased from shops on what their hostile dictionary refer as “The Paki Shop”  a typical derogatory banter shared between among feral subcultures, an obvious reaction after being intoxicated by the cheap booze, brought with their “free money” from the government. Their vocabularies are largely spat out with a tirade of profanity and their only reputation is to be thugs and anti – social menaces. This obviously captures our mind with resentment and awareness about the consequences of what poverty can bring, hostility and resentment towards those are from middle and upper class backgrounds.

Poverty is a major social issue along with racism, ageism, social exclusion and sexism. Although poverty is acknowledged and there are certain policies with the aim to neutralise  its high numbers, it continues to be a major issue worldwide. Poverty is not difficult to define as comes int two forms. Absolute poverty,  according to Rowntree (1890’s) is to have insufficient funds for their human rights. In clarity, the amount of income a person needs to pay rent, for food and clothing. Being poor also defines not having the materialistic needs to be accepted within the social norms of society in which Townsend (1970’s) defines as relative poverty. Relative poverty is obviously used to explain poverty in western societies where computers and mobile phones are used to be seen as luxuries in the past. Today, it’s becoming a norm for people to own them. If they do not have any of those items, they may be classified as poor and could make them feel excluded from society.

Functionalists like Davis and Moore (1967) and Parsons (1951) see inequality as unavoidable and is essential for society to create social cohesion. In comparison to other social groups, those who from below the poverty-stricken backgrounds remain stuck especially those as their environment lack opportunities that help them to escape poverty, such as apprenticeships, education and work training programmes. Thus, can be a breeding ground for anti-social behaviour caused by the feelings of frustration among subcultures that live there. Poverty can be seen as an incentive to motivate people, especially those who live poverty-stricken towns and neighbourhoods to find ways to better their chances to leave the depressing position behind by taking advantage of education and government related employment programmes. However, they are motivated by financial rewards rather than enrolling on programmes that aims to help them build their self esteem and self confidence.

Marxists thinkers like Westgaard and Resler (1976) and Kincaid (1979) argue that the bourgeoisie use poverty as an aid to help them meet their own selfish interest by exploiting the feelings of powerlessness and frustration held in the proletarians . Consequently, inequalities are created and eventually, lead to conflict and resentment by the proletarians towards the bourgeoisie . The strength of this explanation is that it highlights the concentration of wealth in the capitalist market and explains the ruling class uses the welfare state as a weapon to prevent the poor from rebelling against the capitalist system. Another criticism of the Marxist lens is it ignores the positives inequalities may bring. For example, it will give the poor and those from working class backgrounds the motivation and persistence to rise success and additionally, ameliorate their levels in resilience and coping skills.

Weberian thinkers like Townsend (1970) believe that inequalities are a result of the demands from the labour market and it is strongly influenced by characteristics, such as race, gender, age and level of education. This explanation highlights some points that people can be blamed for causing poverty especially concern revolve around race and gender. They (Weberians) also believe that people are enslaved in the poverty trap because they lack the power to force other social groups to increase their level of reward. However, Weberian thinkers can be criticised for ignoring the causes of poverty in individuals, such as discrimination in race, age, disability and socio-economic backgrounds. This (Weberian) approach is seen as  more sensitive to these issues of stratification and inequalities and do not see inequality as the cause of poverty. They see that inequalities focus on power and demands from the labour market. Weberians concurs  with the Marxists that inequality is unavoidable in the capitalist system. However, they do not mean that poverty itself is unavoidable. Inequalities can be reduced through progressive taxation, which means that the more money people earn, the more taxes they pay and suggest that relative poverty should be eliminated. This they believe could neutralise the financial burdens endured by those who are from lower and working class backgrounds.

The New Right believe capitalist economies play a key role in poverty  because businesses need to gain more profits by making sure that public spending are kept short. They (New Right) also believe the welfare state is to blame for causing poverty indirectly by forcing entrepreneurs to make higher tax payments. Consequently,  job opportunities are not created. They  feel the welfare state is responsible for encouraging people to be more interested in claiming benefits, which creates fatalistic attitudes, believing they are better off living on handouts rather than working for a minimum wage as they are put off by the possiblity of rejection from potential employers and a vicious no win situation. However, a criticism of the New Right is that poverty would increase if the welfare state was eradicated, thus exacerbating the levels of mixed emotions among those who are already trapped. They will unable to afford a healthy diet, leaving them susceptible to common illnesses, which could leave them absent from the labour market. This means, they won’t be receive a regular income to cover the basic needs for survival.

Women are more likely to suffer from poverty than men because of discrimination and demands of their stereotypical roles within the patriarchal society. Since the feminist’s movement in the 1960s, which severed ties with patriarchy, women are now striving for education and careers. However, women are more likely to gain part – time and menial jobs and this could have an impact on their pensions in later life. Women tend to dominate single parent families than men, making their chances of obtaining employment more challenging because of childcare duties. As a result, become more dependent on the state, leaving them sinking into a vicious circle. Feminists, especially those with radical views can argue the welfare state discourages women from seeking employment and as welfare state symbolises patriarchal control and feel threaten to be sanctioned if they work. Glendinning and Millar (1994) stressed that women may be restricted of access to other types of benefits and only 60% of women are entitled for maternity leave.

Women who are in the poverty trap are likely to exploit the welfare state by producing more babies and could lose their benefits if they obtain employment which agrees with Pollak (1961) who argue that women take advantage of their stereotypical roles. This can be seen as a criticism ignored by feminist thinkers additionally, the subject of prostitution, where women will engage in this risky activity to achieve the basic needs for survival especially those with children. This would result them to abuse particularly rape by their pimps and clients if they refuse to give them their services, in fear of having unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. This would eventually leave them permanently incarcerated in the poverty trap.

Neera Sharma, a Policy Officer from Barnados (BBC News) says that poverty can impact a child’s personal, social and educational development. Lack of a healthy diet, hygiene and unconditional love play a part in child poverty. The cycle of deprivation by Rutter and Madge (1976) illustrates on how poverty can have an effect on people. For example, a child be born into poverty, grows up in a council estate and gains the lower class status. They may suffer from health problems because of their poor diet and this would affect their education performance and consequently, drop outwith no qualifications and difficulties of holding down a job and the cycle persists into adulthood. This could provoke them to engage in criminal activities to achieve the basic, materialistic or both needs . Therefore, it would make it difficult for them obtain employment, mirroring the cycle of deprivation. Eventually this cycle can be passed on from generation to generation. This can influence them and adopt this as a way of life manifest the fatalistic attitudes and refuse opportunities in employment and education.

People with disabilities are at risk of  poverty their  able – bodied counterparts as their physical health restricts them from seeking employment and if they do obtain employment, it would be low skilled and low paid. Oppenheim and Harker (1996) estimated that 47% of disabled were living in poverty in the 1980s. They also argue that higher rates of poverty among disabled people were partly due to social exclusion and discrimination because of the hostile attitudes held in the minds of the able-bodied and the stigma held in mainstream society, where they are labelled as “abnormal”. Alcock (1997) points out that disabled people are more likely to suffer from social exclusion and material poverty than able-bodied, thus increasing levels of depression and low self-esteem.

Disabled people have higher spending costs on items such as heating, adaptable aids, transport and heating than most people. 46% of disabled people lived in the poorest conditions in 1985 and reduced down to 38% in 1996 and 1997. The disability living allowance is designed to prevent financial hardships in disabled people and provided incentives, such as skills training and work preparation enabling them to seek employment. However, it can be criticised for ignoring that people can overcome their overcome with the right support and help from charities and governmental programmes specialising in disabilities. Another criticism of disability as it tends to concentrate on physical immobility and not those who are suffer specific learning disabilities, such as Dyslexia, ADHD, Dyspraxia and Asperger’s Syndrome. Thirdly, mental health is ignored as those who live with conditions particularly, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia are prone to prejudice and discrimination as the hostility held in society unconsciously views  them “crazy” or “mentally abnormal”. Thus excerabates their chances of entering the labour market and integrate to mainstream society.

Those who are from Black and Ethnic minority backgrounds are twice at risk of experiencing poverty than their white counterparts. Racial discrimination is obviously seen as the core root of poverty and unemployment. Institutional racism in education is a major problem in contemporary society as teachers hold subconscious negative racial stereotypes and lack understanding in cultural diversity and direction in schools, which result in low education attainment and poor academic performance within black and ethnic minoritity groups, provoking them to drop out. This eventually leads to a restriction of job opportunities and therefore, subject them to be permanently trapped in the cycle of deprivation. Thus, engage in criminal activities, such as drug dealing, theft, fraud and robberies against their white counterparts to express deep-rooted feelings of resentment.

Scott and Fulcher (1999) note that two – thirds of Pakistani and Bangladeshi families are in the bottom fifth of the income distribution in Britain. He also argues that ethnic minorities can experience problems with the benefits system as they receive a fewer amount benefits than their white counterparts and they feel the welfare state does not respond to cultural or family issues  e.g. Afro – Caribbeans are more likely to face poverty because they have higher numbers of single parenthood and treatment by staff at their local job centre. Ethnic groups are more like to be socially excluded due to of racism and language barriers if English is not their first language. Alcock (1997) notes that poor housing; ill-health and lack of education could be linked to financial inequality in the Black and Ethnic minorities, making it obvious that strong levels of racist attitudes held in hegemonic institutions, which can back up argument  causes of poverty within the black  and ethnic communities. Alcock can be criticised for ignoring the link between racial hostility and poverty in black and ethnic minorities especially held in institutions and towns that are predominately white.

Poverty continues to make a negative impact in contemporary society, through the theoretical lenses. Marxist thinkers resent the ruling class for the cause of poverty among the poor. However, the chances to rise above the poverty line lies in the self-belief and personal responsibility regardless of their characteristics. Unfortunately, enraged by the negative feelings experienced by poverty, some turn to crime, not knowing it would create a cycle of deprivation for their offsprings. Weberians made good points that people are to blame for their own poverty by refusing to take offers from the labor market and opportunities in education because of their fatalistic attitude. They also argue that poverty indicates the issue of power and status within the labour market along with inequalities. Functionalist thinkers argue poverty cannot be eradicated as it is needed to a certain degree to create social cohesion. Feminist thinkers feel that poverty reveal issues of sexism feeling the welfare state and benefit handouts favours the interest of patriarchy and women are seen as victims of  so-called “patriarchal welfare slavery”.


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Oppenheim, C. and Harker, L. (1996) Poverty: Facts, 3rd edn, CPAG, London.

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