Sociology of Poverty in Britain

a) Using the information in item A, identify two trends in the growth of poverty amongst British households in the 1980’s and 1990’s.The report, Poverty and Social Exclusion in Britain, shows that the proportion of households living in poverty rose from 14 to 24 % between 1983 and 1999. This indicates a significant increase in the phenomenon of poverty throughout Britain as a whole. In 1999 almost a quarter of households were experiencing poverty in Britain compared to less than a sixth in 1983.However, the growth of poverty was most rapid in the 1980s when 1% of households became ‘poor’ each year. During the 1990s this figure fell to 0.3% a year. This statistic suggests that although poverty is continuing to rise the trend is heading towards a plateau or ‘critical mass’ of poverty. i.e. if trends continue the rate of poverty will cease to increase and a consistent proportion of the population will experience poverty each year.b) Using the data in Item B, identify two main changes in the percentage share of the national income between 1979 and 1995.Data such as the Family Expenditure Survey demonstrate trends in the proportions of population situated in each income distribution decile. Item B shows that those in the top decile (defined in 1997 by Goodman, Webb and Johnson as: a single person earning �22,000 per annum; a couple with children with a gross income of �50,000; or a childless couple earning �17,000 each per annum) held 21% of the national income. In 1995 this figure had increased to 27% of the national income.Conversely, those in the bottom decile (e.g.. a pensioner with a basic pension of just �58.85 in 1997) accounted for only 4% of the national income in 1979. However, by 1995 this had almost halved to only 2.2% of the national income held by the bottom tenth of the population. These figures suggest a trend known as economical polarization, whereby the wealth of the economic elite is increasing at the expense of the lower deciles of society. Whilst the rich become richer, the poor are becoming poorer. This supports the Marxist claim that the capitalist system is only beneficial to the bourgeoisie, if national income is expressed as a hypothetical pie, the richest deciles continue to take larger and larger slices and as such, those in poverty did not reap the benefits of economic growth under the Thatcher government of the 1980s.c) Identify and explain two difficulties facing sociological researchers attempting to measure relative poverty.Townsend claims that ‘individuals can be said to be in poverty when they lack the resources to obtain the types of diet…have the living conditions… which are customary or at least widely encouraged or approved in the societies to which they belong’. Townsend operationalized this definition in the creation of his ‘deprivation index’, discovering that 22.9% of the population were in poverty in 1969 according to this criterion whilst by the state standard it was only 9.2. However, researchers face many problems in attempting to measure relative poverty.Pichaud criticizes Towensend’s index commenting that it is unclear what items such as eating fresh meat have to do with poverty or how they are selected. In this respect, the measurement of relative poverty appears to be as invalid as Rowntree’s early work employing absolute definitions. Similarly, such indexes may be more greatly affected by cultural and social differences than the existence of poverty. For example, if a convention towards vegetarianism arose in society, according to this criterion a high proportion of the population would be experiencing poverty when this is clearly not the case. Pichaud states that ‘taken to its logical conclusion…only when everyone behaved uniformly would no-one be described as deprived’. The decision to include and exclude certain items in fact reflects the views of the researcher not what is ‘customary’ to society as a whole.A problem which faces all researchers in the measurement of poverty is that of finding a point at which a line can be drawn. Selecting a line at which poverty starts to increase rapidly is as arbitrary as any other , e.g. the EU’s suggestion of 50% of the national average income. Similarly research such as Townsend’s is criticized on the basis that it is in fact a reflection of inequality, not poverty. In this respect the measurement of relative poverty is essentially worthless as inequality will always exist. Researchers such as Sen claim that relative deprivation cannot be the only basis for the concept of poverty, there must be an ‘irreducible core of absolute deprivation in our idea of poverty’. A distinction between poverty and inequality must be made clearly by researchers, i.e.. if famine were widespread in society it would be false to claim that there was no poverty as all members were experiencing equal circumstances.d) Using your wider sociological knowledge, outline the evidence that some groups are more vulnerable to poverty than others.Researchers such as Oppenheim and Alcock have investigated the ‘social distribution of poverty’. Such research suggests that certain groups of society, for example women and the elderly are more vulnerable to poverty than others.Official statistics show that full-time participation in the labour market greatly reduces the risk of experiencing poverty, 75% of those where the head of the family were unemployed were experiencing poverty. Similarly 34% of lone pensioners were experiencing poverty. In stark contrast, only 2% of couples in full time work were defined as poor. Clearly therefore, earning power is conversely proportional to the likelihood of suffering poverty.Oppenheim and Harker cite gender as significant with regards to poverty. Most statistics do not take into account the sex of individuals as they are broken down into households. In 1996, estimates suggest that 5.2 million women were in poverty compared to only 4.2 million men. Women nearly always have lower independent incomes than men, income is not distributed evenly throughout the household. Webb found in 1991 that an estimated 2 thirds of adults in the poorest households were women. Furthermore the women’s average independent income was only �99 compared to �199 for men. Reasons for this trend include the fact that lone parents are vulnerable to poverty and nine tenths of these are women (58% of lone parents are defined as poor.). Similarly, Glendinning and Millar claim that women are disadvantaged in labour market, many women care for sick or elderly relatives but receive only paltry state allowances for doing so.Ethnicity also appears to be another factor which contributes to poverty. Bertoud’s study calculating figures on Households Below Average Income concluded that ethnic background may severely disadvantage the individual. 84% of Bangladeshis receive less than half the average national income compared to only 28% of white people, and only 1% of Pakistanis earn above one and a half times the average compared to 23% of white people. The conclusion is that poverty is more prevalent among ethnic minorities than white people, despite the fact that there are fewer pensioners and lone parents among them. Bertoud states that the Bangladeshi’s and Pakistani’s are perhaps the poorest group in Britain. This is attributed to the fact that more men are unemployed in these groups and few women seek employment external to the home, this again confounds the theory that lack of earning ability increases vulnerability to poverty. Pete Alcock adds that ethnic groups are just as likely to experience social deprivation as material deprivation, particularly due to the enduring racism of lower socio-economic groups.The disabled present the final group vulnerable to poverty, again this is likely to be a result of their low earning power. Oppenheim and Harker argue that they ‘face the risks of poverty because of inadequate benefits’. Consistently, research into poverty has displayed that state supplements and income support given to all groups vulnerable to poverty are not sufficient to lift them out of it.The conclusion appears to be that the only way to avoid poverty is via full time access to the labour market. However, this is refuted by the growth of self employed individuals experiencing poverty (27% in 1992). This group has grown in prominence due to economic backlash during the late 80s and early 90s, leaving any unemployed but lacking the skills to make a success of their own businesses. Still, it is clear that certain groups are more vulnerable to poverty than others most noticeably the unemployed.e) Outline and assess the major sociological explanations for the increase in poverty when living standards for the majority are rising.The three major explanations for the increase in poverty are: cultural, e.g. Oscar Lewis’s observation of South American peasant cultures; individual, for example the ‘Dependency culture’ (Murray [1994], Marsland [1989] ); and structural theories such as Marxism and functionalism.The earlier, individualistic theories of poverty inevitably placed the blame on the poor themselves. Neither society, or societal groups were held accountable, the poor were poor because they were unable or unwilling to provide adequately for their own well being. Cultural theorists such as Oscar Lewis suggest that values such as fatalism, apathy and immediate gratification characteristic of the poor perpetuate their situation. In turn these norms are transmuted to each new generation creating a poverty stricken sub- culture independent of the rest of society. As a result, poor groups are unable to seek the benefits of increasing living standards because they are conditioned to accept their situation and unwilling to make the effort to change it. For example with regards to education, the poor are averse to seeking higher or even further education due to the delay of gratification. As a result they are condemned to the lower, unskilled echelons of the labour market.However such claims are criticized as presenting only a middle class and value laden perspective. In particular, the specific observation of South American cultures cannot be generalized to western industrial societies. Groups such as Marxists would condemn such studies as an excuse to blame the poor and exonerate the capitalist system which exploits the poor to the advantage of the economic elite. The poor are unable to seek the higher living standards of the privileged majority because the system is biased against them. Poverty stricken groups are subjugated by the bourgeoisie in order to glean extra profits and capital via labour exploitation.Herbert Spencer was an advocate of individualistic theory and strong critic of the poor. He argued that usually a ‘poor fellow’ was also a ‘bad fellow’. According to Spencer it was wrong to help or show sympathy for those who engaged in ‘dissolute living’, if an individual was too lazy to work then he deserved to starve. Critics would argue that Herbert Spencer presents an out- moded and ignorant attitude to the poor, in claiming that the poor do not take responsibility for themselves the bourgeoisie are in fact shirking responsibility for the capitalist system which disadvantages those in poverty. However such perspectives are still relevant today as they unwittingly reveal the ignorance of the privileged who are prepared to perpetuate a system which exploits those they consider to be inferior.In this respect, cultural theory of dependency is closely linked to individualistic theory in terms of explanations of poverty. Similarly it is used to blame the poor for their situation and negates the structural causes of poverty.New Right thinkers such as David Marsland claim that the lower deciles of society benefit from the economic growth of Britain without contributing to it. Seemingly, the cultural explanation is that the welfare state creates a lack of incentive for the poor to seek paid employment. Therefore the more privileged members of society justifiably enjoy higher standards of living as they work hard to achieve them. Peripherally they also fund the welfare state via national taxes and as a result the poor receive financial support by proxy from the middle and upper classes.Again, this perspective seeks to justify the actions of the elite in their attempts to detach themselves from the poverty suffered by others. The welfare state presents a simple and easy way of life to these groups and as such they are reconciled to their poverty. Followed to its logical conclusion it is necessary to disestablish the welfare state in order to prevent this. This cause of action would force the poor to seek employment in the labour market where they could a) contribute to Britain’s economy, and b) subsequently improve their standards of living.Charles Murray presents a similar argument in his study of the American underclass. This sub- culture of poverty does not seek elevation to privileged society as it is functions using its own norms and values whilst receiving financial support from wider society.Despite the fact that such arguments were held in high esteem by the Conservative governments of Thatcher and Major, critics such as Dean and Taylor Gooby refute its claims. They state that the culture of dependency theory extols the values of self reliance and hard work but denigrates laziness and dependence on others. In fact reliance upon others decreases human happiness and it is therefore unlikely that those experiencing poverty do so as a result of calculated choices. It is not rational to assume that, whilst the standard of living rises for the majority, the poor would rationally seek to exclude themselves from social elevation.Cultural and individualistic arguments are strongly contested by those who point out the existence of situational constraints. This argument claims that the poor can only change their behaviour once situational constraints such as unemployment are removed.Similarly, conflict theories such as Marxism suggest that the poor are victims of a biased, capitalist system rather than the cause of their own poverty. The government claims to seek economic equality using methods such as progressive taxation, the threshold of which may not even be reached by the poorest members of society. However, indirect taxation such as VAT tends to be regressive. Duties on alcohol and tobacco swallow a greater proportion of income from the poorer sections of the community than the rich ones. However it could be suggested that those in poverty should not waste their money on frivolous expenditures such as these.Similarly conflict theorists argue that welfare systems such as income support may eradicate absolute poverty but do little with regards relative poverty. Therefore, inequality and economic polarization between upper and lower deciles is ever more prevalent. Le Grand concluded that through housing policy ‘the richest group receives nearly twice as much per household as the poorest group’. This confounds the Marxist view that the economy is biased in such a way as the poor remain down trodden whilst the rich elite take more and more economically.Marxist theorist such as Ralph Miliband place less distinction between the poor and other members of the working class. Westergaard and Resler claim that by focusing on the desperately poor the elite attempts to ‘divert attention from the larger structure of inequality in which poverty is embedded’. The poor are merely the most disadvantaged stratum of the working class which as a whole is exploited. As economic growth has continued throughout recent decades little filters through to the working class as a whole due to the capitalist greed of the economic elite. According to Kincaid ‘the low wage sector helps to underpin and stablise the whole structure’ and yet the poor reap no benefits. Obviously, this stabilization is merely used to further increase the privilege of the bourgeoisie at the expense of the masses who are essential to the system as a whole. Though living standards on the whole increase, so to does inequality. Whilst the poorest sections of society may be placated by the economic ability to purchase DVD’s and Digital television, the upper classes grow fatter and fatter with the wealth they have exploited.Clearly, functionalists would dispute these Marxist claims. For example, Parson and his contemporaries explain such inequality as the result of the weighted uses of those in society. An unskilled worker is no where near as necessary as a brain surgeon with years of training. Similarly the unskilled worker greatly out numbers the brain surgeon, it would therefore be dysfunctional to provide both with the same proportion of national income. Morally each individual has equal worth but functionally this is not the case and economic distribution represents this. Inequality is an inevitable social phenomenon, if the poor seek to align themselves in terms of skills and values then they would be able to experience the gains of the majority.

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