Essay on Culture of Poverty

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Theories of Poverty and Anti-Poverty Programs in Community Development Ted K. Bradshaw
RPRC Working Paper No. 06-05
February, 2006
Rural Poverty Research Center

Community development has a variety of strategies available to meet the needs of those persons and groups who are less advantaged, usually in poverty. Community developers help all communities, but their passion lies disproportionately with people who do not have adequate personal resources to meet their needs or with communities with large populations of people who need assistance. These people and communities receiving attention from community developers are extensively varied in most other respects than being poor—the poor are both rural and urban, they are ethnically minority or not, they live in places with weak and strong economies, and they have been helped for decades or neglected for as long .

Poverty in its most general sense is the lack of necessities. Basic food, shelter, medical care, and safety are generally thought necessary based on shared values of human dignity. However, what is a necessity to one person is not uniformly a necessity to others. Needs may be relative to what is possible and are based on social definition and past experience (Sen, 1999). Valentine (1968) says that “the essence of poverty is inequality. In slightly different words, the basic meaning of poverty is relative deprivation.” A social (relative) definition of poverty allows community flexibility in addressing pressing local concerns, while objective definitions allow tracking progress and comparing one area to another. The most common “objective” definition of poverty is the statistical measure established by the federal government as the annual income needed for a family to survive .

1. Poverty Caused by Individual Deficiencies.
This first theory of poverty is a large and multifaceted set of explanations that focus on the individual as responsible for their poverty situation. Typically, politically conservative theoreticians blame individuals in poverty for creating their own problems, and argue that with harder work and better choices the poor could have avoided (and now can remedy) their problems. Other variations of the individual theory of poverty ascribe poverty to lack of genetic qualities such as intelligence that are not so easily reversed. The belief that poverty stems from individual deficiencies is old. Religious doctrine that equated wealth with the favor of God was central to the Protestant reformation (Weber 2001) and blind, crippled, or deformed people were believed to be punished by God for either their or their parents’ sins. With the emergence of the concept of inherited intelligence in the 19th century, the eugenics movement went so far as to rationalize poverty and even sterilization for those who appeared to have limited abilities. Books like Hurrnstein and Murray’s The Bell Curve (1994) are modern uses of this explanation. Rainwater (1970:16) critically discusses individualistic theories of poverty as a “moralizing perspective” and notes that the poor are “afflicted with the mark of Cain. They are meant to suffer, indeed must suffer, because of their moral failings. They live in a deserved hell on earth.” Rainwater goes on to say that it is difficult to overestimate the extent to which this perspective (incorrectly) under-girds our visions of poverty, including the perspective of the disinherited themselves. Ironically, neo-classical economics reinforces individualistic sources of poverty. The core premise of this dominant paradigm for the study of the conditions leading to poverty is that individuals seek to maximize their own well being by making choices and investments, and that (assuming that they have perfect information) they seek to maximize their well being. When some people choose short term and low-payoff returns, economic theory holds the individual largely...
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