The three main theoretical perspectives in sociology--structural-functionalism, conflict theory, and symbolic interactionism--offer insights into the nature, causes, and consequences of poverty and economic inequality.
According to the structural-functionalist perspective, poverty and economic inequality serve a number of positive functions for society. Decades ago, Davis and Moore (1945) argued that because the various occupational roles in society require different levels of ability, expertise, and knowledge, an unequal economic reward system helps to assure that the person who performs a particular role is the most qualified. As people acquire certain levels of expertise (e.g., B.A., M.A., Ph.D., M.D.), they are progressively rewarded. Such a system, argued Davis and Moore (1945), motivates people to achieve by offering higher rewards for higher achievements. If physicians were not offered high salaries, for example, who would want to endure the arduous years of medical training and long, stressful hours at a hospital?
The structural-functionalist view of poverty suggest that a certain amount of poverty has positive functions for society. Although poor people are often viewed as a burden to society, having a pool of low-paid, impoverished workers ensures that there will be people willing to do dirty, dangerous, and difficult work that others refuse to do. Poverty also provides employment for those who work in the "poverty industry" (such as welfare workers) and supplies a market for inferior goods such as older, dilapidated homes and automobiles (Gans, 1972).
The structural-functionalist view of poverty and economic inequality has received a great deal of criticism from contemporary sociologists, who point out that many important occupational roles (such as child care workers) are poorly paid, whereas many individuals in nonessential roles (such as professional sports stars and...