The United States, one of the wealthiest countries in the globe, has declared war on poverty almost six decades ago. Since then, some governmental programs were created in efforts to address poverty in our society based on the official poverty line, and many non-profit organizations and volunteers attempt to make a difference for those who live in poverty unofficially. Yet, poverty has not disappeared, and it has not decreased; poverty in America continues to grow as the income inequality gap between top and bottom quintiles grows.
So, who are the poor in America? Why poverty persists for some more than others? What can be done about it? These are typical questions that ensue whenever one discusses this topic with another.
As explained in our textbook, the official poverty line was established in 1963 based on family income lower than three times the minimal diet since, according to research then, a typical family spent 1/3 of their income on food. The poor were generally the elderly.
Today, the officially poor in America are still considered only those whose income is lower than three times the minimal diet. Although it is adjusted for inflation and family size, the official poverty line does not consider the increased expenses of a typical family, such as ‘energy, child care and health care’ or ‘regional differences in the cost of living’ (Sociology, 2016).
As a result, the official poverty line considers poor those who live in absolute poverty (those whose income cannot meet the fundamental needs for survival), but it does not count many who live in a relative poverty in our society.
The lack of proper governmental resources for those who may need help, even temporarily, put them at risk of falling behind even further and leave many dependent on charities and non-profit organizations as illustrated in the documentary The Line. As presented in our textbook and through various course material, children, minorities, and single mother households make up most of the poor in America today.
In order to understand the fundamental reasons why poverty exists and persists in our midst, we ought to look at various factors that play a major role in determining one’s vertical mobility in the social stratification. One important factor is personal responsibility, as explained by the functionalist theory. However, structural inequality in our society, as explained by the conflict theory, present many obstacles and even blocks upward mobility despite the willpower or personal responsibility. Our ascribed status (age, gender, race, and family wealth) appears to be the deciding factor in our life’s chances and poverty/wealth level.
Income inequality gap between the poorest and the wealthiest in the nation continues to grow. The poorest quintile consists of less than 3.5 % of the total national income while the top quintile enjoys over 50% (Sociology, 2016). Furthermore, the minimal governmental assistance programs, coupled with the bureaucracy, discrimination, and the stigma that surrounds the poor contribute greatly to poverty levels and have placed the United States behind every other western democracy.
Consequently, structural change is necessary. Our government ought to take responsibility in removing these barriers by creating opportunities for upward mobility and reducing the income inequality gap. I have no doubt, our country can financially afford to take all the major steps suggested by sociologists in order to truly combat poverty. Yet, I remain skeptical these changes will take place anytime soon due to politization of the issues, lack of public understanding, and usefulness of poverty to those at the top. Nevertheless, getting the public to understand the complexity of structural inequality can accelerate the changes needed.
Poverty was the most puzzling societal element I noticed when I first immigrated to the United States, and, sadly, I too believed it was due to the lack of personal responsibility. Fortunately, I got involved with various volunteer organizations in my community early on which allowed me to closely observe various structural problems mentioned above that people face daily. This involvement in the micro level allowed me to understand that the structural problems are generally the rule, and the upward mobility based on only personal responsibility is an exception to that rule.
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