Theories explaining the existence of poverty





Culture of poverty theory. Once established the culture of poverty carry’s itself from generation to generation through children (aged 6 and 7).  Lewis estimated that 20% of the poor in the USA adopt the values and behaviors outlined below.


He outlined that the culture had values that lead to certain traits…


Values of culture Behavior that derives from these traits
·         Marginality (living on the edge of society)

·         Helplessness

·         Dependence

·         Inferiority

·         Present time orientation

·         Sense of resignation

·         Fatalism

Family level

·         Relatively high incidence of abandonment of mothers and children

·         High rates of divorce

·         A trend towards mother centered families

·         High rate on illegitimate children

Community level- “The lack of effective precipitating and integration in major intuitions of larger society” (Lewis 1961)

·         Are not members of trade unions

·         Are not members of political party’s

·         Make little use of hospitals, banks, department stores and art galleries.



Empirical criticisms of Lewis


  • William Mangins- Research in Peru’s shantytowns surrounding cities shows people in the area have a high level of community action with the organization of schools and  health clinics. There was also lack of family brake up alongside political movements in the shanty areas.
  • Betty Lou Valentine (1997)- She stated from her research in Blackstone ‘it is proving difficult to find community patterns that correspond to many of the traits often related with the subculture of poverty”. She found great participation in local government and constant use of hospitals and especially banks.
  • Elaine Kempton- Research in the UK “No lack of commitment to working, even amongst those who had been unemployed for some period of time. Getting a job was seen as the best chance people on low incomes had of improving their standard of living or repaying money owed”




Theory of the underclass. he believed that some people who are poor belong to the underclass, not because of their conditions e.g. unemployment but their attitudes towards work.  He believed that the underclass had three characteristics …


  1. Illegitimacy

He states that in 1979 Brittan had an illegitimate birth rate of 10.6%, low compared to other western counterparts, by 1988 the rate had increased to 25.6% higher than most western societies and just smaller than the USAs.  He suggested that in the lower social classes in some areas the absence of a father has become a social norm. To Murray, this rise in illegitimate birth rate is important because illegitimate children tend to ‘run wild’ and the lack of fathers results in high levels of physical unruliness which makes them difficult and therefore less likely to be employed.


  1. Crime

Murray argues that crime is so damaging because communities become fragmented if rates of victimization are high, people become defensive and retreat into their homes. As crime becomes more common and more widely accepted, young boys start to imitate their older males and take up criminal acts themselves. The increase in crime leads to the weakening of informal social controls within a community.


  1. Unemployment

Murray didn’t see unemployment itself as a problem; it is the unwillingness of young men to take jobs that creates difficulties.  He states that in the 1990s those on their thirties and forties who found themselves in employment were much more committed to work than those in younger groups. The older generation found it humiliating to live on the state, while the younger generations were happy to live off the state”.


In Murrays view all these attitudes interlink. “When large numbers of young men don’t work, the communities around them break down’ Young men without jobs are unable to support a family, so they are unlikely to get married when they father children and thus the illegitimacy rate increases. Supporting the family is one way for young men to prove manhood. In the absence of this they find other more damaging ways to ‘prove’ themselves such as violent crime.


Murray’s solutions

  • Benefit system reform- Single mothers can now afford to live on benefits whereas in the past they couldn’t. Eliminating benefits to unmarried women and restoring benefits to the 1960s way (£22 of privileges for single mothers). This would restore the stigma against single mothers decreasing the illegitimacy rate.
  • He states that criminals should be more heavily punished.
  • He has no answer to why men have no longer got commitment to work. He does state however that providing more jobs will not be the solution. The members of the underclass simply wont take them.
  • He accepts the fact that cuts to benefits and longer prison sentences are not viable solutions due to the cost of prison and the fact that a political party will not be re-elected if it cuts benefits significantly as Murray suggests. He suggests instead that local communities should be given ‘a massive does of self-government’. They should take over responsibility for education, housing and criminal justice.  “My premise is that it is unnatural for a neighborhood to tolerate high levels of crime or illegitimacy or voluntary idleness among its youth; that, given the chance, poor communities as well as rich ones will run their affairs so that such things happen infrequently” Murray (1989).


Criticisms of Murray

  • Alan Walker (1990) Blaming the victims- Research showed that 50% born in disadvantaged homes did not turn out to be disadvantaged themselves, disproving Murray’s claim that attitudes and values of the underclass were past through generation to generation.  60% of births to woman under the age of 21 have both registered patents. This shows that most children do not grow up with single parents and have two parental figures in their lives.
  • Anthony Heath (1990) Underclass attitudes- He collected data from such sources as the British Survey Election to test the weather there was an ‘underclass’ with the attitudes that Murray states. He found 86% of the ‘underclass’ wanted a paid job compared to 57% of those in families where one person has a paid job. Heath also uncovered that the underclass have similar attitudes towards marriage. Members of the underclass are more likely to agree to the statement ‘it is better to have a bad marriage that no marriage at all’.


David Marshland (New Right theory)


He argues that people are dependent on the state due to the “nanny state’ that exists He states that the answer to solving the problem of poverty is removing universal benefits. People’s attitudes will then change and people will begin to take responsibility for education and health.




Leibow (1967)- situational constraints theory


The poor’s view of work is the same as in mainstream culture, men want high paid jobs and status but lack of qualifications stop them doing so. They regard their occupations the same way as the rest of society. He proved his viewpoint by his study of street corner men…


The 18-month long study of Washington street corner men (supposed members of the ‘underclass’) showed…

  • The men wanted higher paid jobs, prestigious jobs but simply lacked the appropriate qualifications, they regarded their occupations the same way as society did.
  • When they wasted wages its wasn’t present time orientation as Murray outlines but they were simply aware that social mobility in the USA was the lowest in the world and still is, they also had nothing to defer as Leibows states “they are obliged to expel all recourses maintaining themselves there and then”
  • They left children and wives because they had failed to provide them, if they staid with wives and children they would have had to face that failure everyday.




Weber- Labour market theory


Argues that it is the existence of markets in labour that causes poverty and that lack of power in the market is the specific cause of poverty…


Things that have weakened the power of workers…


  • Privatization- Companies bidding against each other offering the cheapest price, this means that everything needs to be done cheaper, so therefore wages decrease. Work is usual casual, part time or even 0 hour contracts.   The government has privatized massively since the 1980s with British Rail, the criminal justice system, the London busses and water companies all experiencing privatization.
  • Out sourcing- Anything that can transmitted through the internet can be outsourced to a country that’s labour is cheaper reducing the power of the worker within the UK.  Outsourcing occurs internally within a country especially within the building and cleaning sector. Working for an agency rather than a company has a number of disadvantages including the lack of pension and paid holrday.
  • Anti trade union laws- Support strikes are illegal and the fact that unions can be sued for damages both reduce the impact and the likelihood of a strike. This means that companies can reduce wages and lower working conditions with little risk.
  • The move from manufacturing to services in the 1980s- Manufacturing employed a high number of skilled people while services is less labour intensive and less skilled.
  • Higher rates of unemployment- Since the 1970s unemployment has been high. Lower employment= more power for the people and higher wages.


Criticism of the labour market approach


Some argue that this theory is incomplete because a true market doesn’t exists some example’s of a lack of a market include…

  • Government and local government workers and largely outside the market- No wage increase due to fixed yearly wages.
  • Minimum wage- Employers are unable to go below this point
  • The labour supply is not flexible as shortages of housing and huge variability in cost prevent labour from moving in a way that would reflect market conditions.
  • It isn’t a market, it is simply dominated by the rich a powerful.




Believe the ruling class are exploiting the proletariat by not offering the full value of their labour. Marxist also state that laws that the state introduce aid the increase of bourgeoisie power. This includes the reduction of top income tax and the tightening of trade union laws that I have mentioned above.


Criticism of the Marxist approach


In the 21st century the Marxist view doesn’t apply due to the confusion on who owns the means of production.  Working class individuals can own shares to a company and own land and therefore own the means of production.


Functionalist theory of role allocation Davies and Moore


The theory outlines that some jobs are more functionally important than others. For example doctors are functionally important as they save lives so therefore wages are high. However using this theory dustbin men should have high pay as without them illness would spread leading to death? People who achieve highly at school have skills, rare skills meaning that they are functionally more important and earn more. Yet how do we know that only the ‘clever’ are capable of being great doctors?


Past paper questions on the topic on “theories examining the existence of poverty”


Identify two characteristics of the culture of poverty (4 marks) January 2011


Examine the ways in which poverty may be functional for society (24 marks) January 2011


Using the material from item 3B and elsewhere, assess the view that the attitudes and the behavior of the poor themselves are responsible for poverty (24 marks) June 2011


Suggest two reasons ‘why some occupations attract higher pay than others’ (4 marks) Specimen paper 2014


Using material from item 3B and elsewhere, assess the view that poverty is caused by the class structure of society (24 marks) June 2012


Suggest two functions of poverty (Item 3A) (4 marks) January 2013


Identify three ways in which poverty may be passed on to the next generation (6 marks) June 2013


Examine the reasons for increased inequality of wealth In the United Kingdom since the 1970s (24 marks)


Using material from item 3B and elsewhere, assess the reason for the widening gap between rich and poor in the UK (24 marks) June 2013