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Social Stratification and Inequality


Poverty in America

Summary Poverty in America

A staggering number of Americans currently live below the poverty level. In order to solve the problem of the nation’s poor, we must first understand who and where they are.

Who Are Poor People?

About 66 percent of poor people are white, reflecting the fact that white people outnumber people of other races and ethnic groups in the United States. About 25 percent of the people living in poverty are black. The term feminization of poverty refers to the increasing number of female-headed households living at or below the poverty level. In the 1960s, approximately 25 percent of all female-headed households were in poverty; that figure is about 50 percent today. An increasing number of children are affected by this trend. As of 2005, about 16 percent of children under age 18 live in poverty; about 80 percent of them live in households headed by a single female.

Where Are Poor People?

Though all states have poverty, poor people are concentrated in the inner cities and in the rural South. Social economist William Julius Wilson believes that the relatively high level of poverty in inner cities is due to the lack of jobs. He says that many companies have relocated to suburban areas or have downsized their urban operations. Still others have moved their manufacturing facilities to other countries to take advantage of cheaper labor costs and laws favoring the development of new businesses.

The rural South has a high rate of poverty for several reasons:

  • Manufacturing concerns have preferred to operate in suburban areas, which are closer to interstate highways, railroads, and airports that enable manufacturers to transport their products.
  • Educational levels in the South tend to be lower. About 12 percent of the general U.S. population drops out of high school; in the South the dropout rate is about 15 percent.
  • The increasing demands of technology require employees who are flexible, skilled, and able to learn rapidly. A workforce composed of people with relatively low levels of education and few job skills is simply not attractive to potential employers.

The Consequences of Poverty

More than any other social class, the poor suffer from short life expectancies and health problems, including heart disease, high blood pressure, and mental illness. Reasons include the following:

  • Poor people are often not well educated about diet and exercise. They are more likely than people in higher social strata to be overweight and suffer from nutritional deficits.
  • They are less likely to have health insurance, so they put off going to the doctor until a problem seems like a matter of life and death. At that time they must find a public health facility that accepts patients with little or no insurance.
  • Living in poverty brings chronic stress. Poor people live every day with the uncertainty of whether they can afford to eat, pay the electric bill, or make the rent payment. Members of the middle class also have stress but have more options for addressing it.
  • Poor people usually do not have jobs that offer them vacation time to let them relax.
  • High levels of unresolved stress, financial problems, and poor health can wreak havoc within a relationship. Poor people report more relationship problems than do people in other classes and have higher rates of divorce and desertion. The children of such families are more likely than their middle-class counterparts to grow up in broken homes or in single-parent, female-headed households.

The Culture of Poverty

Anthropologist Oscar Lewis coined the term culture of poverty, which means that poor people do not learn the norms and values that can help them improve their circumstances; hence, they become trapped in a repeated pattern of poverty. Because many poor people live in a narrow world in which all they see is poverty and desperation, they never acquire the skills or the ambition that could help them rise above the poverty level. Since culture is passed down from one generation to the next, parents teach their children to accept their circumstances rather than to work to change them. The cycle of poverty then becomes self-perpetuating.

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