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Chapter 7: Social Stratification

7.4 Economic Inequality and Poverty in the U.S.

In his classic book The Other America, Michael Harrington (1962) brought the reality of poverty home to many Americans. In chapter after chapter, he discussed the troubled lives of the poor in rural Appalachia, in our urban centers, and in other areas of the country, and he indicted the country for not helping the poor. His book helped kindle interest in the White House and Congress in aiding the poor and deeply affected its thousands of readers. Almost five decades later, we know much more about poverty than we used to. Despite initial gains in fighting poverty in the 1960s (Schwartz, 1984), poverty is still with us and has worsened since the early 2000s, especially since the onset of the serious economic recession that began in 2008. What do we know about the extent of poverty, the reasons for it, and its consequences?


Watch and Reflect

Recall the difference between income and wealth: while income is a person’s wages, wealth is the totality of their income, properties, investments and other assets minus any debts. As a method of comparing social class, wealth matters more than income since the wealth of a person in the upper class (stocks, bonds) tends to become more valuable over time while the wealth of a person from the working class (car, furniture) tends to lose value over time. Consider how wealth is distributed in America, how you think it should be distributed, and then watch this video.

How did your answers compare to the reality shown in the video?


Economic Inequality

Let’s start by discussing , which refers to the extent of the economic difference between the rich and the poor. Because most societies are stratified, there will always be some people who are richer or poorer than others, but the key question is how much richer or poorer they are. When the gap between them is large, we say that much economic inequality exists; when the gap between them is small, we say that relatively little economic inequality exists.

Considered in this light, the United States has a very large degree of economic inequality, which is becoming concentrated at the top. A common way to examine inequality is to rank the nation’s families by income from lowest to highest and then to divide this distribution into fifths (or quintiles). Thus, we have the poorest fifth of the nation’s families (or the 20% of families with the lowest family incomes), a second fifth with somewhat higher incomes, and so on until we reach the richest fifth of families, or the 20% with the highest incomes. We then can see what percentage each fifth has of the nation’s entire income. Additionally, we can track this data over time in order to determine the degree to which income distribution changes and whether or not income share is concentrated in any one group. Table 7.4 “Share of National Aggregate Income Going to Income Fifths, 1970 – 2020” shows this data for the United States. In 2020, the poorest fifth enjoyed only 3.0% of the nation’s income, while the richest fifth enjoyed 52.2% (United States Census Bureau). Another way of saying this is that the richest 20% of the population have more income than the remaining 80% of the population. Additionally, comparing data from 1970 to the present, we can see that for the bottom 80%, their share of income has been declining over the past 5 decades, while the only group seeing an increased share of income is the top 20%.

Table 7.4 Share of National Aggregate Income Going to Income Fifths, 1970 – 2020

Lowest 20%

Second 20%

Third 20%

Fourth 20%

Highest 20%

Top 5%











































Source: Data from US Census Bureau. “Historical Income Tables: Households.” www.census.gov/data/tables/time-series/demo/income-poverty/historical-income-households.html.

This degree of income inequality is the largest in the industrialized world. Below, Figure 7.6 “Distribution of Family Income, GINI Index Coefficient” compares the inequality among several industrialized nations by examining their . This index measures the degree of inequality in the distribution of family income, where the closer the score is to 0, the more equal the society, and the closer the score is to 100, the more unequal the society. The index number for the United States, 41.1, which far exceeds comparable nations, whose scores range from 26.8 to 34.7.

Figure 7.6 Distribution of Family Income, GINI Index Coefficient

Bar chart showing Distribution of Family Income, GINI Index Coefficient, with the U.S. having a GINI coefficient of 41.1, and the other countries listed, including Canada and a number of European natiions ranging from 34.8 (United Kingdom) down to 26.8 (Iceland).

Source: Data from “Country Comparison: Gini Index Coefficient — Distribution of Family Income.” Central Intelligence Agency, World Factbook. Data retrieved from https://www.cia.gov/the-world-factbook/field/gini-index-coefficient-distribution-of-family-income/country-comparison

As demonstrated, income inequality in the United States is greater than in comparable nations and has increased during the last several decades. The loss of manufacturing jobs and changes in taxation and income distribution policies since the early 1980s have favored the rich and hurt the economic standing of the middle, working and lower classes (Barlett & Steele, 2002; Wilson, 2009). As the saying goes, the rich get richer. To recall our earlier discussion, to be upwardly mobile, it helps to be well-off to begin with.


Think Like a Sociologist

As explained above, the Gini Index Coefficient is a measure used to determine the degree of economic inequality within a country, with a score of 0 representing perfect equality, and a score of 100 representing a high degree of inequality. Go to the following website linked below and click on the chart titled, “Gini Coefficient.”

Social Inequality Visualizations

How has the inequality in your state changed since 1977?

Can you suggest any reasons why this has occurred? 

*Please note that the Gini Index Coefficient can be expressed as a percentage ranging from 0 – 100%, as discussed thus far.  Sometimes though it is expressed numerically, ranging from 0 – 1, as is shown in the map linked in this box.  Countries with Gini Index Coefficients close to 0 are more equal, and those closer to 1 are more unequal.


Measuring Poverty

When U.S. officials became concerned about poverty during the 1960s, they quickly realized they needed to find out how much poverty we had. To do so, a measure of official poverty, or a , was needed. This line was first calculated in 1963 by multiplying the cost of a very minimal diet by three, as a 1955 government study had determined that the typical American family spent one-third of its income on food. Thus, a family whose income is lower than three times the cost of a very minimal diet is considered officially poor.

This way of calculating the poverty line has not changed since 1963, even though many other things, such as costs for energy, transportation, housing, childcare, and health care, now occupy a greater percentage of the typical family’s budget than was true in 1963. As a national measure, the poverty line also fails to consider regional differences in the cost of living. As a recent report observed, “Most poverty analysts strongly believe that the official poverty statistics are inadequate to the task of determining who is poor in America” (Mishel, Bernstein, & Shierholz, 2009, p. 298).

Table 7.5 2021 Poverty Thresholds (for the 48 Contiguous States and the District of Columbia)

Family Size

Poverty Guideline

















Source: Data from “2021 Poverty Guidelines.” ASPE, 08 Nov. 2021, aspe.hhs.gov/poverty-guidelines. Retrieved from https://aspe.hhs.gov/topics/poverty-economic-mobility/poverty-guidelines

The poverty line is adjusted annually for inflation and considers the number of people in a family: the larger the family size, the higher the poverty line, as indicated in Table 7.5 “2021 Poverty Thresholds (for the 48 Contiguous States and the District of Columbia).” In 2021, the poverty line for a family of four is $26,500. A four-person family earning even one more dollar than $26,500 in 2021 is not officially poor, even though its “extra” income hardly lifted it out of dire economic straits.

Policy experts have calculated a no-frills budget that enables a family to meet its basic needs in food, clothing, shelter, and so forth; this budget is about twice the poverty line. Families with incomes between the poverty line and twice the poverty line are barely making ends meet, but they are not considered officially poor. When we talk here about the poverty level, keep in mind that we are talking only about official poverty and that there are many families and individuals living in near-poverty who have trouble meeting their basic needs, especially when they face unusually high medical, motor vehicle expenses or the like. For this reason, some analyses use “ or” data (i.e., defined as family incomes below double the poverty line) to provide a more accurate understanding of how many Americans face financial difficulties.


Using Your Sociological Imagination

How is a person’s life impacted by the neighborhood they grew up in? The interactive website linked below uses data from over 20 million Americans whose lives and outcomes were traced for 35 years. The goal of this research is to understand the roots of poverty and affluence in America, and to answer the question, “which neighborhoods in America offer children the best chance to rise out of poverty?”

Go to the Opportunity Atlas site at https://www.opportunityatlas.org/, and click on “Begin Exploring,” then read how to manipulate the “where,” “what” and “who” boxes, and finally, click ‘ok’ to see a map of the United States. Note the bubbles near seven different cities or areas: Seattle, Los Angeles, Eastern Oklahoma, Urban/Rural Divide, Chicago, Detroit and Charlotte. Choose one to explore.

How did the area respond when people were missing out on opportunity?

What lessons can be learned from this community?

You can then also explore the town where you grew up and examine outcomes for others like yourself.


The Extent and Social Distribution of Poverty

With this caveat in mind, how many Americans are poor, and who are they? The U.S. Census Bureau gives us some answers. In 2020, 11.4% of the U.S. population, or almost 37.2 million Americans, officially lived in poverty (Shrider, E., et. al, 2021). While this represents a slight uptick from 2019, this percentage represents a decline from the peak associate with the Great Recession beginning in 2008-2009 (see Figure 7.7 “Number in Poverty and Poverty Rate, 1959 – 2020), however, examining the chart below demonstrates that the percentage of people in poverty, while fluctuating a few percentage points, has remained fairly stable since the late-1970s. At the same time, the U.S. population has grown, resulting in a greater number of people in poverty (note below that around 1970, there were roughly 25 million people in poverty compared to 37.2 million today).

Figure 7.7 Number in Poverty and Poverty Rate, 1959 – 2020

Two graphs showing Number in Poverty and Poverty Rate, 1959 – 2020, in the U.S. The number in poverty ranges from 40 million in 1959 to 46 million in 2010-2014, dropping down to 37.2 million in 2020. The percentage of people in poverty was at its highest in 1959 at around 23%, and cropped to around 13% in the 1970s. It has remained in the 11-15% range ever since. In 2020, the rate of poverty was 11.4%.

Poverty estimates are determined by way of a series of surveys of approximately 100,000 addresses per year, conducted in February, March and April. Because of this technique, episodic poverty may be undercounted. is defined by the Census Bureau as being poor for at least 2 consecutive months in some time period. For instance, from 2013 to 2016 the official poverty rate hovered around 14-15%, however in reality, 34% of the U.S. public were poor for at least 2 consecutive months (Mohanty, 2021). Episodic poverty varies by group. For instance, in the 2013-2016 period, 44.0% of children under 18 years old experienced episodic poverty along with 46.5% of African Americans and 48.6% of Latinx Americans, 51.1% of those without a high school diploma and 57.0% of female-headed households (Mohanty, 2021). As these figures indicate, people go into and out of poverty, but even those who go out of it do not usually move very far from it.


Think Like a Sociologist

As discussed above, rates of episodic poverty are higher for some groups than others. These trends hold true for poverty, in general, and indicate for us that poverty varies by other factors associated with social location.

Outline the traits of social location you believe are associated with poverty.

Given these factors, what explanations can be provided for differences in rates of poverty across these groups?


Poverty by Race and Ethnicity

Who are the poor? As shown in Figure 7.8 “Racial and Ethnic Composition of the Poor, 2020” the most typical poor person in the United States is white: in 2020 approximately 42.8% of poor people were white (non-Latinx), 27.9% were Latinx, 22.7% were African American, and 4.4% were Asian American (Shrider, E., et. al, 2021).

Figure 7.8 Racial and Ethnic Composition of the Poor, 2020

Pie chart showing Racial and Ethnic Composition of the Poor, 2020, in the U.S., with White Americans making up 42.8% of the poor, 27.9% Latinx Americans, 22.7% African Americans, 4.4% Asian Americans and 2.2% others, such as American Indians, Alaskan Natives and Pacific Islanders.

Source: Data from Shrider, Emily A., Melissa Kollar, Frances Chen, and Jessica Semega. U.S. Census Bureau Current Population Reports, P60-273. “Income and Poverty in the United States: 2020.” U.S. Government Publishing Office, Washington, D.C., September 2021. Data retrieved from https://www.census.gov/content/dam/Census/library/publications/2021/demo/p60-273.pdf

While, in terms of sheer numbers, there are more poor white Americans than other racial-ethnic groups, it’s important to examine the proportion of impoverished people in each of these groups. Race and ethnicity affect the chances of being poor, as shown below in Figure 7.9 “Race, Ethnicity, and Poverty, 2020 (Percentage of Each Group That Is Poor).” This chart shows us that in 2020, 8.2% of non-Latino whites were poor, while 23.0% of Native Americans, 19.5% of African Americans, 8.1% of Asian Americans, and 17.0% of Latinx Americans (who may be of any race) fell into this category. Thus, other than Asian Americans, all racial-ethnic minorities in the U.S. are disproportionately poor, in comparison to the dominant white racial group. Native Americans are almost three times as likely as non-Latino whites to be poor, while the rates of poverty of African Americans and Latinos are more than double the non-Latino white rate.

Figure 7.9 Race, Ethnicity, and Poverty, 2020 (Percentage of Each Group That Is Poor)

Bar chart showing Race, Ethnicity, and Poverty, 2020 (Percentage of Each Group That Is Poor), including 23% of American Indians/Alaskan Natives, 19.5% of African Americans, 17% of Latinx Americans, 8.2% of white Americans and 8.1% of Asian Americans.

*AI/AN is an abbreviation for American Indian and Alaskan Native

Source: Data from Shrider, Emily A., Melissa Kollar, Frances Chen, and Jessica Semega. U.S. Census Bureau Current Population Reports, P60-273. “Income and Poverty in the United States: 2020.” U.S. Government Publishing Office, Washington, D.C., September 2021. Data retrieved from https://www.census.gov/content/dam/Census/library/publications/2021/demo/p60-273.pdf

Poverty by Age

Turning to age, in 2020, 16.1% of children under age 18 are poor, amounting to more than 11 million children (Shrider, et. al., 2021). According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, the poverty threshold dramatically underestimates the needs of families and, “on average, families need an income of about twice that level to cover basic expenses” (Koball & Jiang, 2018). While this data is dire, the good news is that there has been a slight decline of child poverty as the U.S. recovered from the Great Recession of the late 2000’s. In Table 7.6 “Number of Children in Poverty in the U.S., 2010 – 2019,” we can see a decrease in child poverty in every category.

Table 7.6 Number of Children in Poverty in the U.S., 2010 – 2019









Deep Poverty



Source: Data from Koball, Heather, Akilah Moore and Jennifer Hernandez. (2021). Basic Facts about Low-Income Children: Children under 18 Years, 2019. New York: National Center for Children in Poverty, Bank Street Graduate School of Education. Retrieved from https://www.nccp.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/NCCP_FactSheets_All-Kids_FINAL-2.pdf

In the table above, data for low-income children includes children living in households that are up to double the poverty threshold, while those in deep poverty are in households that are 50% of the poverty threshold or less (for instance if the poverty threshold in 2020 for a family of 4 is $26,500, this same family would be in “deep poverty” if their income was half this amount, or $13,250 or less). The data show that the percentage of low-income children has declined by 7 percent, from 45% in 2010 to 38% in 2019. Similarly, while the number of children in poverty is still significant, it has dropped by 7% from 2010 to 2020 (Shrider, et. al, 2021).

The rate of child poverty is the highest of any age group in the U.S. In comparison, the rate of poverty for adults aged 18 – 64 in 2020 was 10.4% and the rate for those over the age of 65 was 9%, both significantly less than the child poverty rate (Shrider, et. al, 2021). Additionally, there are significant differences in child poverty rates when comparing diverse racial-ethnic groups in the U.S. Figure 7.10 “U.S. Child Poverty Rates by Race and Ethnicity, 2019” shows that the rates of poverty for Native American and African American children, at 31% and 30%, respectively, are roughly triple that of white children, whose poverty rate is 10%. Similarly, poverty among Latinx children in the U.S., at 23%, is more than double the white child poverty rate.

Figure 7.10 U.S. Child Poverty Rates by Race and Ethnicity, 2019

Bar chart showing Child Poverty Rates by Race and Ethnicity, 2019, including rates of low income, poor and deep poverty. For each group, the follow data are in the following order: low income, poor and deep poverty . White: 26, 10 and 4. Black: 58, 30 and 14. Latinx: 53, 23 and 10. Asian: 25, 9 and 3. American Indian/Alaskan Native: 55, 31 and 15. Other: 36, 16 and 7.

*AI/AN is an abbreviation for American Indian and Alaskan Native

Source: Data from Koball, Heather, Akilah Moore and Jennifer Hernandez. (2021). Basic Facts about Low-Income Children: Children under 18 Years, 2019. New York: National Center for Children in Poverty, Bank Street Graduate School of Education. Retrieved from https://www.nccp.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/NCCP_FactSheets_All-Kids_FINAL-2.pdf

The type of family structure also makes a difference, as does the educational and employment status of parents. Children who live with two married parents are far less likely to live in poverty, compared to those children who live with one parent or in households where neither parent is present. Only 7.5% of children under the age of 18 are in poverty where they reside in married-couple families. In comparison, 17.8% of children are in poverty in male-headed households, while 38.1% of children in female-headed households are in poverty (Shrider, et. al, 2021). As this data indicates, families headed by single women are much more likely to be poor, thus, poverty has a female face (referred to as the ).

Additionally, the higher the level of educational attainment of parents and correlating employment stability, the less likely a child will be in poverty. As is apparent in Figure 7.11 “Percentage of Children in Low Income and Poor Families by Parent Education, 2019,” educational attainment plays a key role in the economic position of families and child poverty. In households where parents have some college education or more, only 10% of children experience poverty. This is compared to households where parents have only a high school degree or less than a high school degree, where 28% and 44% of children live in poverty, respectively (Koball, et. al., 2021).

Figure 7.11 Percentage of Children in Low Income and Poor Families by Parent Education, 2019

Bar chart showing Percentage of Children in Low Income and Poor Families by Parent Education, 2019. Data is listed in the follow order: Low Income and Poor. For those with less than a high school degree: 77 and 44. High school Degree: 62 and 28. Some College or More: 26 and 10.

Source: Data from Koball, Heather, Akilah Moore and Jennifer Hernandez. (2021). Basic Facts about Low-Income Children: Children under 18 Years, 2019. New York: National Center for Children in Poverty, Bank Street Graduate School of Education. Retrieved from https://www.nccp.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/NCCP_FactSheets_All-Kids_FINAL-2.pdf

Comparing the U.S. rate of child poverty to other countries or equal economic status, we find that the poverty rate for U.S. children is significantly higher. For instance, the rate of child poverty in the U.S. is twice that of Canada, Germany and France. The gap is even larger when looking at child poverty rates in the social democracies in Scandinavia, with the U.S. having four times the rate of child poverty compared to Denmark and six times that of Finland (OECD, 2021).

image of child in poverty

The poverty rate for U.S. children is far higher than comparable nations. Wikimedia Commons – CC BY-SA 3.0

Why is there so much more poverty in the United States than in its Western counterparts? Several differences between the United States and the other nations stand out. First, other Western nations have higher minimum wages and stronger unions than the United States has, and these lead to incomes that help push people above poverty. Second, the other nations spend a much greater proportion of their gross domestic product on social expenditures (income support and social services such as childcare subsidies and housing allowances) than does the United States. As an economic analysis concluded, “Other peer countries are much more likely than the United States to step in where markets have failed to lift their most disadvantaged citizens out of poverty. This suggests that the relatively low expenditures on social welfare are at least partially implicated in the high poverty rates in the United States” (Mishel, Bernstein, & Shierholz, 2009, p. 387). In short, the United States has so much more poverty than other democracies in part because it spends so much less than they do on helping the poor.


Using Your Sociological Imagination

Watch this video below about Tammy Crabtree, whose story encapsulates the reality of who is poor in America, then reflect on your answer to the earlier prompt which asked you to consider the relationship between poverty in the U.S. and other aspects of social location.

What are aspects of Tammy Crabtree’s social location that intersect with her poverty status?

How accurate were your earlier assumptions about poverty?

What facts about poverty in the reading surprised you?

Interested in Tammy’s Story? Here’s an update from 2013: Tammy’s Story II


Debunking Poverty Myths

Many assumptions are made about people in poverty. Unfortunately, a number of myths about poverty have evolved over time which serve to make people less receptive to both the problems faced by those in poverty and possible solutions to those problems. Our myths regarding poverty include:

— Poor people are lazy. In fact, most poor people are children or elderly. And in truth, most of the rest of the people in poverty have jobs. The problem is their jobs do not pay very well or are seasonal (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2016).

— Most poor people are African Americans. In fact, numerically, most poor people in the U.S. are white Americans. However, while it is true that proportionally more members of most racial-ethnic minority groups are poor compared to white Americans, it is also true that most African Americans are not poor. (See above)

— Poor women have many children to receive more aid. In fact, the average family size in America is four people, whether they are receiving assistance or not (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2018).

— Poor people stay poor (so why bother to help them). This is both true and false. Most of the time, poverty is brief, lasting less than a year. However, poverty is often cyclical, so that a person may escape poverty but needs only a triggering event such as a car breaking down to find themselves in poverty again.

— Poverty is only found in urban areas. In fact, poverty is found everywhere, from the inner city to rural communities to the suburbs, where it is growing faster than other areas. And since most programs for the poor are housed in the city, there is a dearth of resources for anyone living in the suburbs or rural communities (Kneebone, 2017).

One observation, that poor people are overweight, is actually true. However, there are several good reasons why poor people are likely to become overweight to the point of obesity. Often, they are both food insecure (unable to acquire sufficient food) and live in food deserts, or places that do not have access to fresh, healthy foods. Instead, they may have to rely on fast food or what they can buy at corner stores (Żukiewicz-Sobczak, et. al., 2014). Another factor related to obesity has to do with sedentariness (Levine, 2011). There are numerous causes for inactivity. Violence in low-income communities can prevent people who are concerned for their safety from engaging in outdoor activities. In addition, low-income communities typically have fewer resources to invest in establishing parks and sports facilities, and the costs of joining private gyms or purchasing home exercise equipment are prohibitive for people in poverty (Levine, 2011). The link between poverty, food access, inactivity and obesity is of considerable concern, as these factors result in chronic diseases, such as diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and more, accounting for 70% of U.S. healthcare costs (Levine, 2011).

Theories on Poverty

Explanations of poverty focus on problems either within the poor themselves or in the society in which they live (Iceland, 2006). The first type of explanation follows logically from the functionalist perspective of stratification and may be considered an “individual” explanation. The second type of explanation follows from the conflict perspective and is a structural explanation that focuses on problems in American society that produce poverty.

According to the individual explanation, the poor have personal problems and deficiencies that are responsible for their poverty. In the past, the poor were thought to be biologically inferior, a view that has not entirely faded, but today the much more common belief is that they lack the ambition and motivation to work hard and to achieve. According to the World Values Survey, 60% of Americans believe that people are poor “because they are lazy and lack will power.” This percentage reflects the tendency of Americans to favor individual explanations of poverty (Davidson, 2009).

A more sophisticated version of this type of explanation is called the (Banfield, 1974; Lewis, 1966). According to this theory, the poor generally have beliefs and values that differ from those of the non-poor and that doom them to continued poverty. For example, they are said to be impulsive and to live for the present rather than the future, thus are less likely to save or invest money. Critics say this view exaggerates the degree to which the poor and non-poor do in fact hold different values and ignores discrimination and other problems in American society (Iceland, 2006).

According to the second, , U.S. poverty stems from problems in American society that lead to lack of equal opportunity. These problems include (a) racial, ethnic, gender, and age discrimination; (b) lack of good schooling and adequate health care; and (c) structural changes in the American economic system, such as the departure of manufacturing companies from American cities in the 1980s and 1990s (Iceland, 2003). These problems help create a vicious cycle of poverty in which children of the poor are often fated to end up in poverty or near-poverty themselves as adults. Thus, poverty is rooted in social and economic problems of the larger society rather than in the lack of willpower, laziness, or other moral failings of poor individuals themselves. Individuals born into poverty suffer from a lack of opportunity from their first months up through adulthood, and poverty becomes a self-perpetuating, vicious cycle.

Most sociologists favor the structural explanation, believing that poverty greatly blocks opportunities for success. Later chapters document racial and ethnic discrimination, lack of adequate schooling and health care, and other problems that make it difficult to rise out of poverty. On the other hand, some ethnographic research supports the individual explanation by showing that the poor do have certain values and follow certain practices that augment their plight (Small, Harding & Lamont, 2010). For example, rates of tobacco use vary by social class status. As shown in Figure 7.12 “Percentage of U.S. adults aged 18 years and Older who Reported Tobacco Product Use “Every Day” or “Some Days,” there is a strong correlation between income level and tobacco use, which helps lead them to have more serious health problems

Figure 7.12 Percentage of U.S. adults aged 18 years and Older who Reported Tobacco Product Use “Every Day” or “Some Days

Bar chart showing Percentage of U.S. adults aged 18 years and Older who Reported Tobacco Product Use “Every Day” or “Some Days. Groups that have lower incomes have higher rates of smoking compared to those with higher incomes. For instance, of those earning less than $35,000 per year, 27% smoke, while for those earning $100,000 or more only 15.1% smoke.

Source: Data from Cornelius, Monica E. Teresa W. Wang, Ahmed Jamal and Caitlin G.Loretan. November 20, 2020. Tobacco Product Use Among Adults — United States, 2019. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 1736, Vol. 69, No. 46. US Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/pdfs/mm6946a4-H.pdf

Adopting an integrated perspective, some researchers say these values and practices are in many ways the result of poverty itself (Small, Harding & Lamont, 2010). These scholars concede self-destructive behaviors exist, but they also say they exist because they help the poor cope daily with the structural effects of being poor, thus poverty becomes self-perpetuating. If poverty is both cultural and structural in origin, these scholars say, a comprehensive national effort must be launched to improve the lives of the people in the “other America.”

In order to achieve this goal, the perspective on poverty held by the majority must change. As sociologist Theresa C. Davidson (2009) observes, “beliefs about the causes of poverty shape attitudes toward the poor.” Research strongly suggests that public support for government aid for the poor is weak because so much of the public attributes poverty to failings among the poor themselves. If so, the public might very well begin to endorse greater government aid if its attribution for poverty became more structural instead of individual. Public education campaigns that call attention to the lack of opportunity and other structural problems that account for poverty thus might further poverty policy by beginning to change public perceptions of the poor.


Think Like a Sociologist

You have probably seen people on the corners in cities with signs saying, “homeless” or “hungry.” Perhaps you gave them some money, or perhaps you studiously avoided making eye contact with them. Just as we discussed food insecurity at the start of the chapter, people with few resources can struggle to find adequate and affordable housing. Low-income housing is scarce thanks to a variety of factors, and it can only take a few bad breaks for a person to become homeless. Statistics on this population is startling, mostly due to who they are: veterans, children, people with jobs, people with disabilities.

Map of the U.S. showing the number of homeless people in each state, with California having the highest number at 151,278 and Wyoming have the lowest number with 548.

United States Interagency Council on Homelessness – Public domain – Wikimedia Commons

The map above shows the number of homeless people in each state, ranging from a few hundred in the Dakotas to over 150,000 in California. Each of these individuals has a story to tell that led them to be in this position. Go to this site: https://invisiblepeople.tv/, and read a few stories about people to learn about their lives and the conditions that led them to be homeless.

Which theory from above do you think best explains the experience of homeless people? Explain why you chose this theory.


The Effects of Poverty

However, poverty is explained, it has important enduring effects, which later chapters will continue to discuss. For now, we can list some of the major consequences of poverty (and near-poverty) in the United States. As we do so, recall the sociological perspective’s emphasis on how our social backgrounds influence our attitudes, behaviors and life changes. This influence on life chances is quite evident when we look at some of the effects of poverty (Moore, Redd, Burkhauser, Mbawa & Collins, 2009; Iceland, 2006; Lindsey, 2009):

— The poor are at greater risk for family problems, including divorce and domestic violence. The stress of being poor is thought to be a major reason for these problems.

— The poor are also at greater risk for health problems, including infant mortality, earlier mortality during adulthood, mental illness and inadequate medical care. Many poor people lack health insurance. Poor children are more likely to have inadequate nutrition and to suffer health, behavioral and cognitive problems, and be exposed to environmental contaminants. These problems in turn impair their ability to do well in school and land stable employment as adults, helping to ensure that poverty will persist across generations.

— Poor children typically go to underfunded schools with inadequate facilities where they receive inadequate schooling. They are much less likely than non-poor children to graduate from high school or to go to college. Their lack of education in turn restricts them and their own children to poverty, once again helping to ensure a vicious cycle of continuing poverty across generations.

— The poor are, not surprisingly, more likely to be homeless than the non-poor but also more likely to live in dilapidated housing and unable to buy their own homes. Many poor families spend more than half their income on rent. The lack of adequate housing for the poor remains a major national problem that is only worsening.

Test Yourself


Section 7.4 References

ASPE. ( 2021, November 8) 2021 Poverty Guidelines. Retrieved from https://aspe.hhs.gov/topics/poverty-economic-mobility/poverty-guidelines.

Banfield, E. C. (1974). The unheavenly city revisited. Boston, MA: Little, Brown.

Barlett, D. L. and J. B. Steele (2002). The great American tax dodge: How spiraling fraud and avoidance are killing fairness, destroying the income tax, and costing you. Berkeley: University of California Press.  

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