Defining Poverty Poverty has been defined in many different ways. Some attempt to reduce it to numbers, while others believe that a more vague definition must be used. In the end, a combination of both methods is best. DiNitto and Cummins (2007), in their book “Social Welfare, Politics and Public Policy,” present six definitions and explanations of poverty. Social reformers Webb and Webb (1911) present another angle on poverty. Essentially, all definitions are correct, the debate is of which to use when creating policy. “Less than” Poverty
DiNitto and Cummings (2007) first present poverty as depravation. They explain that poverty as depravation is an insufficiency in an “item required to maintain a decent standard of living” such as clothing, food, shelter or medical care. At first glance this definition seems to sum up the general understanding of poverty. However, the issue lies with the “decent standard of living. ” This statement implies that there is an agreed upon standard for a comfortable or decent lifestyle. To be considered in poverty by this definition one would have to live below the invisible standard of decent living.
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This is the ‘less than enough” definition of poverty and is the most commonly used definition of poverty to date. Second, DiNitto and Cummings (2007) described poverty as inequality. Poverty as inequality refers to the “inequality in the distribution of income. ” This definition is such a vague generalization that practically any person can make a legitimate claim at being impoverished. Any individual can claim that they receive an unequal amount of income and therefore are in relative poverty- having less than someone else and are entitled to more.
This is the “less than that guy” definition of poverty. The last “less than” poverty definition is poverty as lack of human capitol. This definition, according to DiNitto and Cummings (2007), describes that in a free market productivity is key and those with low productivity are impoverished. If an individual has low productivity because of a lack of skills, knowledge, education or training then they will receive a low amount of reimbursement for their production. This is the “less skills” definition of poverty. “That’s just the way it is” Poverty
There are three different “that’s jus the way it is” types of poverty; poverty as culture, poverty as exploitation and poverty as structure. The first, poverty as culture is described by DiNitto and Cummings (2007) as poverty becoming the norm for a subset of individuals. DiNitto and Cummings (2007) explain that it is not just a “way of life” but also a set of attitudes, lack of self-respect and lack of incentive within the group that perpetuates poverty among them. Poverty as exploitation was sociologists Marx and Weber’s basis for socialism.
Poverty as exploitation assumes that the upper and middle classes are exploiting the lower class by using them as cheap labor and paying them insufficient salaries to escape poverty. This definition presents that possibility that poverty does not have to exist, but that through cooperation of the classes poverty can be eradicated. Poverty as structure is described by DiNitto and Cummings (2007) as the continuation of poverty due to “institutional and structural components. ” Institutional discrimination refers to the inequality in opportunity within the institution.
DiNitto and Cummings (2007) gives the example that poor school districts are often given less funding and fewer resources for their students. With fewer resources and frequently larger classes, the students in these school districts do not get a full or proper education resulting, ultimately, in the continuation of poverty. “Destitute” Poverty After all of these definitions and attempts to explain or better understand poverty there is still an essential piece missing. Defining poverty by comparing one individual to another or to a number is not sufficient.
There is no agreed upon standard of living and in some definitions anyone could make a reasonable argument that they live in poverty, despite their income or resources. However, there is another definition not mentioned in our text. Berleman (1970) in his article “Poverty- Some Dilemmas in Definition” quoted early twentieth century social reformers Webb and Webb as they describe poverty. Webb and Webb explain that destitution is “the condition of being without one or more of the necessities of life, in such a way that health and strength is so impaired as to eventually imperil life itself. This definition provides the most concrete of standards as well as provides a harsh view of what poverty really is. Preventing Destitution The agenda to end poverty is nothing new in American politics. However, with the recent changes in the US economy the war on poverty is raging and politicians are making daring statements and promises. In the 2008 Compass Forum Barack Obama boldly vowed to halve poverty within 10 years. Later, Republican John McCain declared if he were voted president that the “eradication of poverty will be top priority of the McCain administration. The interesting thing about these comments is the plan each politician created to support them. Both John McCain and Barack Obama followed in the footsteps of politician John Edwards, supporting the plan that he had once proposed. The plan included a list of actions that needed to be taken to alleviate poverty in the US. However, a the top of the list were only temporary solutions including increasing minimum wage and unemployment insurance, revising the earned income tax credit and child tax credits as well as government funded child care and creating new jobs. In the long run these solutions will not hold.
Raising minimum wage and increasing tax credits are a never ending process that may lighten the burden of low income families and workers, giving the illusion temporarily that the plan is working. Still minimum wage and tax credits would have to be increased regularly to keep this illusion from collapsing and landing US poverty rates back in the exact same position. Much lower on the “to do list” to eradicate poverty were programs that will yield increasingly higher and longer lasting results such as Pell grants, school-to-work programs and vocational rehabilitation for former prisoners and disabled workers.
Providing the necessary resources and skills to impoverished individuals with the desire to work will allow them to not only acquire higher paying positions but also provide access to the resources they need to maintain the position. Empowering an individual to rise above poverty by providing resources and skills will have a slower rising, but longer lasting positive result. Increasing minimum wage and tax credits may likely bring those on the edge of the poverty line slightly above it, but what about those who are destitute? How is another $. 0 to $. 40 per hour going to alleviate their destitution? How is a child tax credit going to benefit them when they are not able to feed their child? There are two ends of the poverty spectrum that need our politicians focus; the focus needs to be on increasing the resources for low income families for affordable health care, food stamp programs, school meal programs and temporary assistance for needy families. Then the next step is not a temporary tax credit or increase in minimum wage, but support in vocational skills, education and training.
Long term decreases in poverty rates will only occur after there is an increase in nutritional support, medical attention, education and training for low-income Americans References Berleman, W. (1970). Poverty–Some Dilemmas in Definition. Growth & Change, 1(4), 27. Retrieved from Academic Search Complete database. Besharov, D. , & Call, D. (2009). Income Transfers Alone Won’t Eradicate Poverty. Policy Studies Journal, 37(4), 599-631. DiNitto, D. & Cummings, L. (2007) Social Welfare, Politics and Public Policy. Pearson Education, Boston, MA. P 80-118, 161-197, 250-379.