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Sociological Explanations for the Existence and Persistence of Poverty
Dependency based Explanations
These sorts of explanations argue that the poor are in some way, the cause of their own poverty.
At their most extreme, they suggest that the welfare system in Britain actually makes people
dependant on it by providing an attractive alternative to work.
Different approaches exists, based on:
The dependency culture
The culture of poverty
The Dependant Individual
This idea was developed by Marsland (1996), who argued that the state undermined an
individuals willingness to work by offering generous welfare benefits, and therefore reducing the
pressure on people to work to provide. This resulted in a high level of dependence on the state.
He also believed that generous state welfare benefits undermine the work of other welfare
agencies for example the family, community and voluntary organisations, which all allow the poor
to help themselves and each other, rather than becoming developing a dependency culture which
is exactly what the state has created.
The Culture of Poverty
This idea was originally suggested by Oscar Lewis in his study of poor people in Mexico. Lewis
argued that poor people in a classstratified and high individualistic society were likely to develop
a set of cultural values that trapped them in their poverty. It is important to stress the ideas of
class and individualism, for Lewis is not arguing that these people are necessary deficient, he
believes they are caught in a society that really does put barriers in their paths but that the poor
themselves help ensure that they are trapped by developing a set of values that prevent them
from breaking out of poverty. These cultural values include a sense of fatalism and acceptance of
their poverty, an inability to think long term and a desire for immediate enjoyment.
Critics of this approach h argue that there is no such thing as a culture of poverty rather, such
cultural values are a perfectly rational reaction to the conditions of hopelessness. In the USA, the
poorest groups really are excluded, and they are unlikely to be allowed to break out of their
poverty. In such a situation the poor may feel that there is no point in planning long term.
The Question of the Underclass
The concept of the underclass has entered everyday speech to describe those living at the
margins of society, largely reliant on state benefits to make ends meet. However, the concept is
rejected by many sociologists due to its negative and sometimes politically charge connotations.
Members of the political right such as Charles Murray in the US have focused on the cultural
deficiencies of the so called underclass, blaming them for their situation, and accusing them of
relying on benefits and even manipulating their own circumstances to increase the amount they
can claim from the state.
Sometimes it is also argued they supplement their income through petty crime, or compensate
for deprivation through excessive drug and alcohol abuse. Murray has focused on a black
underclass which, he alledges is to be found in the most American cities. Similar points have
been made about members of nonworking groups in deprived areas of Britain (Dennis and
A Matter of Choice?
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Many New Right commentators (e.g. Saunders) suggest that a large number of the poor see
poverty as a choice, a way of life preferable to work. Young mothers are often cited as examples
of this for example by having a child in order to secure a flat that will be paid for by the state.
Roberts (2001) notes that it is difficult to see one culture underpinning an underclass with a
common commitment to values that stress dependency, criminality and immorality.…read more
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For many supporters of the welfare state, it is these groups who deserve
help because they are blameless victims of the economic system.
Polly Toynbee spent a year living and working on minimum wage and argues that this is
simply not enough to remain above the poverty line. Her experience backed up by
statistics which show those in low paid yet full time jobs are still the largest single group of
the poor.…read more
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In the NHS there are also discrepancies since the
lower socioeconomic groups have more ill health and therefore a greater need for
services, yet they are entitled to no more services than the higher groups, whose mortality
rates are far lower.…read more