Poverty is a problem that has existed since the beginning of time. Although we primarily view poverty as the lack of finances in today’s currency driven economy, in reality, poverty can be measured absolutely or relatively, depending on a number of different factors that contribute to the target population being assessed. A closer look at the definition of poverty reveals that;
Poverty can be defined in a range of different ways: as lack of resources or income available to purchase necessities or to achieve an acceptable standard of living; through actual levels of expenditure; as deprivation indicated by the lack of essentials; as lack of the capability to achieve particular standard of living, whether or not that standard of living is achieved; or as inability to participate in the activities of everyday life.
It almost goes without saying that poverty is a social issue, but to support the needs of a growing poverty epidemic, “Many countries have an official measurement of poverty: a poverty line” and this measurement of absolute poverty alleviates much of the problem in the way of relative poverty, or “people's own understandings of what is needed for an acceptable standard of living” . This tool designed to measure poverty in a country is a necessity because the problem exists, and it is the responsibility of the government to alleviate the problem because it is a social problem.
The United States Census Bureau reports that in 2014, “there were 46.7 million people in poverty” and the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation found that “close to half (45%) of adults ages 65 and older had incomes below twice the poverty thresholds” . As we know, poverty is a social problem that affects many different minority groups and subgroups within the population, but the number of older people in poverty is astronomical in comparison. As reported in a brief on poverty rates of seniors in the United States, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation mentions that “the share of seniors living in poverty is larger in every statethan under the official measure, and at least twice as large in 9 states” .
Regardless of socioeconomic status, seniors should not have to endure impoverished conditions. Seniors are kindly revered as elders, even in our individualistic society, and their health is important to the foundation upon which the rest of society is built. In less developed countries, health may not go beyond the scope of proper medical care, but in the United States, it covers relative ideals such as quality of life and access to transportation. Seniors should not have to endure poverty on a larger scale than every other subgroup of the population, and it is through the Social Security and Supplemental Security Income Benefits that the United States has started to see a stabilization of the poverty rate over the preceding years.
After the Great Depression devastated the United States and “the Social Security Administration” gave twenty years of consideration to how to prevent such economic travesties in the future, the Social Security Disability Insurance was born into law in July of 1956 . The law aims to make sharp and distinct differences “between unemployment and” inability to work through the use of a very descriptive definition of disability as ““an impairment of mind or body which continuously renders it impossible for the disabled person to follow any substantial gainful occupation," andlikely to last for "the rest of a person's life"” . And, although policy changes have been made throughout the years, the initial interest of the Social Security Disability Insurance has been protected and so have the interests of those people who seek refuge in the welfare system operating by the government and regulated by the states.
Charles Murray was perhaps the founder of the sociological perspective that discredits the social welfare system as a means to help those in need. His perspective is quite clear actually and “he argues that there is an underclass of individual who must take personal responsibility for their poverty. This group forms part of a dependency culture” . While this stance on social welfare may seem radical and harsh, it is not necessarily an indication of opposition to a social welfare program. Charles Murray was simply concerned with the nature of the welfare program and the devastating sociological effects that it has at all levels of society. His concerns rested with a growing culture of dependent adults who would not have any ambition to find work after the government supplied them with enough money to survive, and some of his concerns are probably factual. Although there is no solid evidence to prove people’s “erodedincentive to work”, it is a valid concern that is voiced in modern day debates. Charles Murray does make the distinction between those who fail to take responsibility for their own survival and those who “are poor through 'no fault of their own' such as widows, orphans or people who are disabled” .
American sociologist, William Julius Wilson, takes a different approach to the perspective of poverty; a structural explanation shared by other sociologists emphasizing that “larger social processesproduce conditions of poverty that are difficult for individuals to overcome” rather than chastising social welfare recipients for their mere lack of motivation or ambition in finding a job. “According to such a view, structural forces within society factors like class, gender, ethnicity, occupational position, and educational attainment shape the way in which resources are distributed” and contributes to an oppressed ‘dependency culture’, coined by other theorists as the “Culture of Poverty” . It is because of thinkers on this end of the spectrum that the social welfare movement made it through the implementation of new and better policies built around the existing initiative, although there have been many ups and downs over the years.
The history of social welfare dates back to 1972 when King Hammurabi decreed the “protection of widows, orphans, and the weak against the strong” , but it wasn’t until years later, in 1601, that the Elizabethan Poor Law was enacted to provide relief to disabled people; a foundation that later served as the “fundamental concept in U.S. public welfare” . Throughout history, we can see that the older population is regarded as not able-bodied or disabled and it is only through the inclusion of the adjective “poor” do the theories regarding social welfare begin to churn heavy debates. It is also important to note that these theories, including unfriendly stigmas, have contributed to changes or stagnation in policy. But, over the years, the social welfare movement has moved from an act of charity, to a recognized need, and finally to an application of a solution. Perfecting the solution is an astounding feat to tackle, but the implementation of the Social Security Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income Benefit have paved the way for subsequent changes in policy.
As the policies geared toward addressing the needs of older people have evolved, so have the policies to assist those in poverty, but the face of elderly poverty is the United States is very different than that of less developed countries, therefore the needs to be addressed are different. In other areas of the world, excess weight is a sign of wealth and prosperity , whereas in the United States this is not the case. Poverty can often go hand-in-hand with obesity and that is because many survive on fixed income while fresh fruits and vegetables are omitted from diets in place of cheaper sodium, and fat filled foods . With obesity comes the additional health problems, decreased ability to work and perform other recreational activities, as well as unacceptance by society because of the contrast to social norms.
The lack of financial resources and limited nutritional education affects the overall health and well-being of low income seniors. Older adults in poverty often live in communities that lack Farmer’s markets and grocery stores . Urban centers are riddled with corner stores filled with overpriced and unhealthy selections that are not easily accessible to seniors nor do they provide adequate nutrition. Addressing dietary insufficiencies alone does not go far enough to cure the social and health implications that obesity has on low-income seniors, such as diabetes, hypertension, and high cholesterol . Because high calories, processed foods are less expensive and easier to obtain, low-income seniors often make unhealthy food choices and often remain in the vicious cycle of poverty and dependence until they die.
The social welfare movement has done much in the way of alleviating the core of these problems through medical insurance, cash, housing, and transportation assistance, and raising awareness in the community of the underserved population. If it wasn’t for the original pioneers of the social welfare movement, seniors would be left without any resources, except family for those that were fortunate enough to have family. The charity movement has made an astounding comeback and non-profit organizations often serve to meet the relative needs of seniors in poverty. These programs offer nutrition education, delivered and prepared meals, and senior centers that provide social interaction. All of these programs have made strides alongside the government programs that strive to reduce absolute poverty.
Because changes in policy have increased the absolute poverty threshold and there is a still a prevalence of poverty among older people, it is becoming more evident that the quality of food and access to proper nutrition and dietary education is an essential component to helping seniors climb out of poverty. The only effective way to implement this form of education to the underrepresented segment of the impoverished community is to approach them on their terms and with learning objectives that smoothly transition into their existing practices. This is a difficult task and one that must be attempted by a group of trained and professional social workers, both in the group and individual setting, because as we see frequently with the older population and especially the ‘culture of poverty’, distrust for authority is the norm. This makes approaching the majority of this population with sound advice a difficult task for the most seasoned social welfare professionals, and a practice that must be performed with sincerity.
Social workers are at the forefront of every aspect concerning policy changes, individual interaction, and group interaction amongst vulnerable populations. Not only is it ethically required for social workers to make morally just decisions on behalf of those in need, but it is also the reason that social workers work for underserved populations. It is through observation and further education that social workers better understand social problems, the root causes of these problems, and the solutions to be presented in lieu of these problems. The urgent needs of underserved populations are the primary concern of social welfare professionals and lack of available resources should petition the advocacy for policy changes. It is the responsibility of the government and the people to address the rising concerns of senior poverty, but it is also the responsibility of social workers to provide resources, identify problems with the current system, and advocate change on behalf of the population that they serve.
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