Poverty refers to the condition in which a person lacks basic needs such as adequate food, clothing and shelter. According to the United States Census Bureau, “if a family's total income is less than the family's threshold, then that family and every individual in it is considered in poverty” (U.S. Census Bureau). Poverty is a constant issue and has increased in recent years. In India—my home country—there is 29.8% of people living below the poverty line. The poverty line is determined by the Census Bureau, which calculates the percentage by using a set of money incomes which take into account varying family sizes, compositions and minimal food budget (U.S. Census Bureau). In 2010, 15.1% (equal to more than 46 million) of people in the United States were living below the poverty line—a percentage that is not completely accurate as it does not take into account other outside factors (Barkan, 2012). Studies revealed that more than 100 million Americans have incomes that are not more than twice the poverty line (Barkan, 2012).
Many sociologists have attempted to address the causes and reason for poverty throughout the world. In this paper, the topic is examined through a functionalist and a symbolic interactionism lens to determine what factors contribute to the present state of those in poverty. The functionalist theory which believes that all structures within a society are necessary for it to function explains the prevalence of extreme poverty because both aspects are connected; symbolic interactionism, on the other hand takes a different approach and believes the individual interactions between people lead to poverty.
The functionalist theory in society basically views all societal structures as a system. All parts of society are a part of a larger system of “interconnected parts that work together in harmony to maintain a state of balance and social equilibrium for the whole” and each societal institution is important to how society functions as a whole (Mooney, Knox & Schacht, 2007, p. 1). Functionalism believes that stratification—or categorizing people based on a certain criteria—is necessary because it contributes to society’s stability and enables it’s structures and processes to “function” smoothly (Barkan, 2012, p. 54). There are different parts of society working together, and every part needs to be present otherwise society will fail. Stratification is an important aspect of functionalism because it allows individuals with special gifts such as intelligence, skills, and talents to utilize positions/occupations that society deems “important” (Barkan, 2012). As an individual’s skills and abilities increase, he/she climbs the “economic ladder” to the top where wealth and stability are (Barkan, 2012). Few people have access to these types of jobs because they lack the necessary skills and therefore settle for low income jobs (thus contributing to the disparity).
Poverty From a Functionalist Perspective
With the theory of functionalism, poverty is an inevitable outcome because certain jobs have higher value placed on them and thus a higher salary is associated with the position to make the occupation more appealing. As the skills, knowledge, and talent required for a certain position increases, the number of qualified individuals decreases. Functionalist perspective views people who suffer poverty as deserving because they lack the skills to make them reap the rewards of society. The theory argues that poverty is a necessary function and actually contributes positively to society in a variety of ways. There are certain jobs that people don’t want to do, but will do because they are “poor” and need the money (Barkan, 2012). A number of programs have been incorporated to help combat the effects of poverty which actually provide more job employment opportunities to others (Barkan, 2012). In a way, poverty is needed to balance society. It is impossible to have a rich social class without a poor social class. The two are mutually exclusive. Functionalism emphasizes the connection between the rich and those in poverty and how both classes influence one another by contributing to the social stability (Mooney, Knox & Schacht, 2007).
Symbolic Interactionism differs from the functionalist perspective in that it asserts that all human behavior and perspective is influenced by meanings that we create from “symbolic interactions” with other people (Mooney, Knox & Schacht, 2007, p. 1). A person’s social class will also affect their perspective on various things of the social world and how they interact with others (Barkan, 2012). It also suggests that how we perceive ourselves is shaped by our social interactions, and label ourselves according to the labels we receive from others (Mooney, Knox & Schacht, 2007). Symbolic interactionism believes that that society functions on the interactions of people. We determine the meaning of others and our surroundings based on our interactions. Rather than explain why there is stratification, the theory seeks to understand how stratification affects people’s daily lives and interactions with one another (Barkan, 2012).
This perspective is interested more in understanding what factors led to a person’s settlement into poverty. It understands that stratification has an effect on what people believe, how they live their lives, how they interact with others, and how they view themselves (Barkan, 2012). Symbolic interactionalists believe that those in poverty exist because they were unable to identify opportunities or connect with individuals that could connect them to a better standard of living. In this theory, poverty exists because impoverished individuals are only familiar with others in poverty and have not been exposed to anything else. The article by Mooney, Knox and Schacht suggested that, “humans respond to their definition of a situation rather than to the objective situation itself” (2007, p. 2) and as a result, any situation that an individual believes to be true will eventually manifest in reality. Without the knowledge or access to resources and individuals with wealth, those in poverty tend to stay impoverished due to their beliefs.
Poverty is a serious issue around the world that affections billions annually. People that are in low social classes and living in poverty experience economic and educational disadvantages (Green & Kropf, 2011). While examining the issue from a functionalist perspective understands that poverty is necessary in order for society to function properly because it is a part of an interconnected system. It serves the foundation for society because without poverty there can be no wealthy individuals. On the other hand, symbolic interactionism states that society functions on the interactions of humans and everything else is derived from these interactions. The way a person views the world and others are all affected by his or her interactions with other individuals. According to Anderson and Snow, symbolic interactionism, “highlights social actors’ capacities to interpret and construct lines of action rather than respond directly to the stimuli they encounter” (2001 p. 395).
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