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The Uses of Poverty: The Poor Pay All

By euromix890 Nov 11, 2009 1204 Words
In the article entitled "The Uses of Poverty: The Poor Pay All," sociologist Herbert J. Gans discusses the strange alliance between the poor and the wealthy in American society. He states that the underprivileged in essence have kept several vocations in existence such as social work, criminology, and journalism. These vocations serve the double pretense of aiding the less fortunate and protecting society from these same individuals. He compares his analogy with that of Richard K. Merton. "Robert K. Merton applied the notion of the functional analysis to explain the continuing though maligned existence of the urban political machine: if it continues to exist, perhaps it fulfilled latent - unintended or unrecognized - positive function" (Gans 1). Mr. Merton's reasoning was that the political machine continued to exist because it served several positive functions in society.

Mr. Gans applies this same logic to the existence of poverty in a society that had so much material wealth and concluded that poverty had 13 functions in society that was beneficial to non-poor members. "Merton defined functions as "those observed consequences [of a phenomenon] which make for the adaptation or adjustment of a given [social] system" (Gans 1). Though Gans and Marton have similar ideas about poverty their ideas also differ in how they view functions. "I shall use a slightly different definition; instead of identifying functions for an entire social system, I shall identify them for the interest groups, socio-economic classes, and other population aggregates with shared values that 'inhabit' a social system" (Gans 1). These functions include: making sure that the menial work tasks of society will be taken care of, the creation of jobs that provide aid for the poor, and the existence of the poor keeps the aristocracy busy with charitable works, thus demonstrating charity to the less fortunate and superiority over the elites who chose to spend their free time making more money. He also give several alternatives to poverty such as redistribution of the wealth in society, putting everyone on a more even playing field, but ultimately concluded that poverty will continue to exist because disturbing the unequal balance between the poor and the wealthy in society would prove to be dysfunctional for the affluent and that will not happen. "Associating poverty with positive functions seems at a first glance to be unimaginable. Of course, the slumlord and the loan shark are commonly known to profit from the existence of poverty, but they are viewed as evil men, so their activities are classified among the dysfunctions of poverty" (Gans 1). It seems, and it is less often recognized that poverty makes respectable professions and occupations possible. "The poor have provided jobs for professional and para-professional "poverty warriors", and for journalists and social scientists, who have supplied the information demanded by the revival of public interest in poverty" (Gans 1).

In the article, Gans points out that the existence of poverty ensures that society's "dirty work" will be done. "Every society has such work; physically dirty or dangerous, temporary, dead-end and underpaid, undignified, and menial jobs. Society can fill these jobs by paying higher wages than for "clean" work, or it can forge people who have no other choice to do dirty work - and at low wages" (Gans 1). In America, poverty functions provide a low wage labor pool that is willing to perform the dirty work at a low cost. In other words, these people are working for a low wage simply because they have to and they have no other choice. People that are going through poverty also do not have any other way to make many and support their families. "Dirty work" almost refers to jobs that wealthy people would never go near, for example, cleaning house, etc. Our society is made up of "dirty jobs" that only the poor population would perform. "Many economic activities that involve dirty work depend on the poor for their existence: restaurants, hospitals, parts of the garment industry, and "truck farming," among others, could not persist in their present form without the poor" (Gans 1).

"The Uses of poverty: The Poor Pay All" gives each reader a deeper insight into the world of poverty and what kind of jobs these people are working. "I have described thirteen of the more important functions of poverty and the poor satisfy in American society, enough to support the functionalist thesis that poverty, like any other social phenomenon, survives in part because it is often functional, poverty should exist, or that it must exist" (Gans 4). Alternatives for the cultural functions of the poor could be found more easily. The contribution the poor make to the upward mobility of the groups that provide them with goods and services could also be maintained without the poor's having such low income. "The political functions of the poor would be more difficult to replace. With increased affluence the poor would probably obtain more political power and more active politically. With higher incomes and more political power, the poor would be likely to resist paying the costs of growth and change" (Gans 4).

Sociologist Herbert J. Gans discusses the strange alliance between the poor and the wealthy in American society, and due to this it has a great relation to the textbook. Though there isn't a specific section that talks about poverty and its functions, Shepard does mention the workforce, in many difference ways, that does relate to the article. According to Shepard, there are two types of occupational structure, the core tier and the peripheral tier. "Historically, jobs in the core paid more, offered better benefits, and provided longer-term employment. This is not surprising, since the firms involved are large and highly profitable. Peripheral jobs are characterized by low pay, little or no benefits, and short-term employment" (Shepard 420). In comparison to the article, Gans talks about poverty and how people in poverty perform "dirty jobs" These jobs would be in the peripheral tier category because these jobs offer little or no benefits, no job security where you are guaranteed employment, and extremely low pay.

Having read "The Uses of Poverty: The Poor Pay All", it was very clear that poverty in the world will never end. Gans even mentioned in the article that without poverty certain jobs would not exist or be available to the public, for example, certain restaurant positions, and other service positions that are more likely to be filled by a person that is going through poverty, because a middle-class person would expect a higher pay and some benefits if not all of them. This article can also, in many ways, be compared to society and why we have poverty in the first place. Certain employers in certain companies do not want to pay a high wage for someone that is doing "dirty" maintenance work, or a person cleaning toilets, so in that way we need poverty because those places would suffer from lack of employees to do those jobs. The phenomenon like poverty can be eliminated only when it becomes dysfunctional for the affluent or powerful, or when the powerless can obtain enough power to change society.

Works CitedHerbert, Gans J." The Uses of Poverty: The Poor Pay All" (1971): 20-24. PrintShepard, Jon M.. Sociology. 9th. Wadsworth Publishing, 2006. Print

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