Factors That Influence Poverty Sociology Essay

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The literature examined throughout this paper assumes that there are many contributing factors that can lead to poverty in the United States of America. The factors include but are not limited to increased immigration rates, the lack of education, illicit drug use, and family composition (i.e. single parent homes). Additionally the literature presented demonstrates the relevance of the previously mentioned areas while highlighting specific examples. In conducting research on this particular issue many scholars shared contradicting views on what truly influences poverty in the U.S. This may be contributed to the many factors including the areas in which the research was conducted and varying backgrounds. Thus my research question is "What critical components contribute to the rising poverty levels in America?" In answering this scrupulous question I will focus on factors including immigration, level of education and family composition. Poverty is an issue that affects us all because research indicates that increased poverty levels are proportional to increased crime rates, number of students that drop out of school, and lack of job opportunities. Uncovering the critical components that contribute to the rising poverty levels in American will allow individuals to find solutions to this growing issue.



Many individuals believe that poverty is only found in third world countries, but contrary to popular belief it exists in "wealthy" countries as well. Poverty occurs when individuals are unable to satisfy their basic needs, which leads to a depravation of food, shelter, money, and clothing. Scholars suggest that factors including increased immigration rates, illicit drug use, varying levels of education and family composition play a major role in the rising levels of poverty in America. Poverty is an issue that affects us all, research indicates that increased poverty levels are proportional to increased crime rates, number of students that drop out of school, and lack of job opportunities. Likewise increased levels of poverty also tend to have a negative effect on our communities. For example rising poverty levels forces property rates decrease. Furthermore, the issues surrounding poverty are a great concern to many individuals living in the "land of prosperity", because there are a large percentage of individuals that are living below the nation's current poverty line. This is a very troubling fact, thus my research question is; what critical components contribute to the increase levels of poverty in America? In looking at potential causes of poverty, one can begin to formulate solutions that would ultimately help decrease the national poverty rate. Through examining various data, the previously mentioned research question would shed light on what factors truly contribute to poverty in the United States. To conduct my research I will visit certain cities that have high poverty rates. While in those cities I will stay in low income housing, also referred to as section eight, and intermingle with the residents. By staying in community with those that are affected by poverty I will be able to interact with many of them on a personal level through participant observation. Researching the many components of poverty is important, because we are products of our community, as a result we should know what negatively affects it so that we build on improvements.

Literature Review

People living in poverty tend to be in clustered neighborhoods rather than being evenly distributed across a geographic area. [1] Alemayehu Bishaw suggests that measuring this concentration of poverty is important, because researchers have found that living in areas with many other poor people places burdens on low-income families beyond what the families' own individual circumstances would dictate. This article, using a combination of statistical data shows the distribution of individuals living in poverty based on level of education, race/ethnicity, living environment, and marital status. This report deeply analyzes demographic and socioeconomic characteristics of census tracts, to determine what truly influences poverty.

The persistence of poverty and economic inequality around the world has led many economists to question the model of an individual's self-determination when it comes to living in poverty. [2] In Poverty Traps authors Samuel Bowels, Steven Durlauf, and Karla Hoff, propose that there are many conditions that may trap individuals, groups, and entire economies in poverty. In using history and theories Bowels, Durlauf, and Hoff suggest that those born into poverty have it in their power to get out of poverty. This book argues that there are many conditions that can influence poverty such; as an individual's level of education, and ones living and socioeconomic environment. The authors propose that poverty informs much political debate while making a correlation between social and political institutions, beginning with corruption and not limited to social customs such as kin systems.

Throughout the 21st/ century, poverty advocates and activists continuously propose that political mobilization is an effective mechanism to combat poverty in many western democracies, specifically the United States. [3] The Politics of Poverty: Left Political Institutions, the Welfare State and Poverty, investigates the impact of left political institution on a nation's amount of poverty. Brady argues that, given the longstanding contention that left political institutions reduce social inequality, it is plausible that left mobilization potentially could contribute to poverty reduction. Through various research methods, it is suggested that the strength of left political systems has a significant and powerfully negative impact on poverty. While welfare remains a crucial determinant of poverty, left political institutions are crucial to the explanations of poverty from a historical viewpoint

A question often asked is "Can the wealthiest nation in the world do nothing to combat the steadily rising numbers of Americans living in poverty, or the millions close to living in poverty?" [4] Poverty in America, using various methods examines and explains why poverty is growing, while illustrating steps that can be taken to prevent it. John Edwards, Marion Crain, and Arne Kalleberg Edwards, Crain, and Kalleberg recognize that in order to eliminate an issue, one must first, figure out what is causing the issue. In doing this, the authors give an adequate definition of poverty and many of the factors that contribute to the rising poverty levels. Additionally, Poverty in America discusses the repercussions that rising poverty levels are having on various ethnic groups. In conducting research, the authors uncovered that there is a disproportionate number of African-Americans and Hispanic families living below the poverty line. They propose that this is due to wealth inequalities and the growing income gap between the rich and the poor.

In the United States, with the exception of those on Social Security, the only way for most individuals to avoid poverty is to work. [5] Ron Haskins the author of Combating Poverty: Understanding New Challenges for Families, using empirical data and research methods provides various poverty trends over the course of history. By doing such, Haskins suggests that the conditions within the United States virtually ensure high poverty rates because of the factors that influence poverty. Those factors including the declining of work rates, stagnant wages, family composition, inferior education, and the increase number of immigrants. Haskins suggests that the conditions in the U.S. ensure high poverty rates because the factors that influence poverty remain very strong. Furthermore, Haskins deeply analyzes each individual cause and sheds light on them through data, charts and graphs.

Over the course of history the United States has experienced a rising standard of living, with the Gross Domestic Product per capita on a constant rise. [6] Hilary Hoynes, Marianne Page, and Ann Stevens, using exploratory research methods examines the trends in individual poverty rates. Poverty in America: Trends and Explanations examines' the rise and fall of various social economic groups that are in poverty. Likewise, this source takes into account many of the components that are used when measuring the various levels and causes of poverty such as levels of education, overpopulation and job opportunities. Throughout this text the authors present charts and graphs to show the change in data over a certain period of time. Hoynes, Page, and Stevens provide a fundamental contribution to understanding poverty as a whole.

What does it mean to be poor? This is a questioned posed be John Iceland in Poverty in America: A Handbook. While most people would be hard-pressed to give a precise answer, many feel that poverty is easily recognized when one sees it. [7] For example, a news story accompanied with images of malnourished children in an areas surrounded by filth can vividly display poverty. Iceland suggests that as one moves away from the obvious examples, it becomes more difficult to distinguish what people mean when using the word poor. In using a concise, accessible format the author produces an inclusive picture of the state of poverty in America. Additionally, Poverty in America: A Handbook shows how poverty has changed significantly over time. Likewise, Iceland adequately shows how poverty is both measured and understood, and how public policies have wrestled with poverty as a political issue, and an economic reality. Furthermore, in looking at conventional theories, Iceland asks the tough questions like: Is poverty unavoidable, and Are people more likely to live in poverty based on their race, class, and/or gender?

There are many competing theories about the causes of poverty in the United States with a great deal of empirical evidence to justify support for each. [8] The Cause of Poverty Cultural vs. Structural, suggests that there are many different factors that contribute to poverty, while arguing that poverty is largely the result of social and behavioral deficiencies in individuals that make them less economically viable within a conservative society. Gregory Jordan proposes that the debate is divided among theorist and policymakers on whether the causes of poverty are cultural and behavioral or structural and economic. This article briefly examines the theoretical arguments behind both, while providing an analysis to determine the empirical relevancy of each. Additionally, this debate is popular across political party lines with republicans supporting the cultural and behavioral side and democrats leaning more toward the structural and economic causes.

To a majority of Americans, illicit drug use and poverty go hand in hand. [9] Robert Kaesnter suggests that poverty is concentrated in inner-city neighborhoods that are often times known for high rates of drug use. Similarly, the homeless population primarily found in cities consists of a proportion of drug users. Kaestner argues that the public has a significant amount of evidence that links drug use to poverty. Using empirical data researchers are able to propose that drug use, although not the only factor, can lead to poverty. Likewise based on society's willingness to pay for and support antidrug programs, it appears that there is a widespread belief that drug use causes many negative social and economic outcomes including poverty. Additionally this article includes tables that support its main argument.

The proportion of U.S. residents born in another country has increased significantly in recent years. [10] Immigration and poverty in the United States, highlights that international immigration accounted for over a quarter of the net population growth from 2000-2007.Using various research techniques, Steven Raphael and Eugene Smolensky suggests that immigration can affect the United States poverty rate in two ways. The first way is that immigrants tend to live in highly concentrated areas, where the level of formal education is low. Secondly, it is proposed that immigrants tend to work for lower wages and do not earn an annual salary. By not working for a steady salary immigrants are more likely not to have a consistent paycheck, thus forcing many of them to live in poverty. The authors argue that the combination of increased poverty among immigrants and a higher ratio of immigrants to the total population add to the national poverty rate.

Buried in the Census report are startling figures revealing that the collapse of marriage is creating a poverty crisis. [11] The Poverty Solution: Marriage or Bust, proposes that a long-term root cause of poverty in the United States of America is unwed childbearing. Through various research methods Robert Rector illustrates that single-mother families are five times more likely to live in poverty than married couples with children. Consequently, nearly 70 percent of poor families in America are headed by single parents. Additionally Rector highlights that the unwed birthrate has increased by 22 percent since 2002. Overall, this article suggests that because the rate of single mothers has risen, so has the number of individuals living in poverty.

Over the past 25 years significant structural changes have occurred in the United States that have influenced poverty, making current-day poverty different in some ways from poverty just a few decades ago. [12] Causes of Poverty illustrates structural changes include transformations in our economic structure such as the shift from manufacturing employment to service sector employment. Amy Rynell suggests that structural changes include but are not limited to the changes in the economic structure, diseases, welfare reform, immigration, and the increase number of individuals being incarcerated. Rynell, through rigorous econometric and statistical methods presents data based on the various causes of poverty, while showing that certain components affect various populations in different ways.

America is always projected as a world superpower and a developed nation. While the term poverty may conjure images of destitute people living in dreadful conditions, this term assumes a new dimension when we speak of poverty in the U.S. [13] Causes of Poverty in America suggests that although America is the land of dreams, it does not differ from the rest of the world. Often time's people associate poverty with third world countries, Ashwini K. Sule argues that this is far from the truth. Sule proposes that just as there are different definitions of poverty, the causes of poverty are also different. Furthermore, this article suggests that poverty is caused by a plethora of factors including unemployment, lack of education, the breakdown of family systems and the lack of willpower. Contrary to popular belief, the "effects" of poverty could very well be the causes of poverty.

The Census Bureau conducts a national census every ten years that includes the America Community Survey (ACS); this survey includes a section that deals strictly with poverty. How to Define Poverty? Let Us the Ways discloses that according to the U.S. Census Bureau there are millions of people are living in poverty. [14] Louis Uchitelle, using various research methods actively defines poverty. In defining poverty, it is suggested that there is no single definition that can accurately characterize all of the components that go into poverty. This is mainly because there are numerous types of poverty. Although there is no one definition that defines poverty, Uchitelle proposes, that poverty in its most general terms is the lack of freedom to have or to obtain the basic needs of life. This article suggests that instead of trying to form a single definition, it is important to examine poverty from a holistic viewpoint.

Poverty is increasing tremendously across many groups, from the suburban families to the very poor families. More workers are becoming discouraged and are giving up on the job market. [15] CBS News suggests that this issue can be attributed to the fact that the United States is considered to have a weak economy and fraying government. Because of the weak economy, the unemployment rate has significantly increased. Using various data tables and charts, this article shows that the official poverty rate will increase to 15.7 percent. This percentage is the highest the poverty rate has been since 1965. Poverty is spreading at record levels because of the lack of employment opportunities due to the fragile structure of the economy. It is also suggested that changes in the economy including outsourcing, immigration, and globalization have pushed the median household income lower.

Research Design

Poverty is a major issue within the U.S. today. Economical, political, social, and cultural factors all contribute to poverty. The United States Census Bureau defines poverty as an "economic condition in which people have an insufficient income and amount of resources to obtain basic needs such as housing, clothing, food, and health care." [16] Poverty is generally separated into two sections, those being absolute poverty and relative poverty. Absolute or extreme poverty is a circumstance in which individuals are unable to pay the prices of basic necessities needed to survive. Secondly, relative poverty suggests that people may be able to obtain basic needs but are unable to maintain the living conditions that are deemed normal. Relative poverty usually focuses on comparing ones income to those in the rest of the society. The most frequent measure of poverty in America is the poverty threshold which is set by the U.S. government. This measure identifies poverty as a lack of those goods and services frequently taken for granted by individuals living in a conventional society. [17] The official threshold is typically adjusted for inflation to better fit society.

As suggested by the literature review presented in the previous section, there are many components to consider when discussing what influences poverty in America. The literature at hand proposes that immigration, varying education levels, and family composition play a major role in increasing poverty rates. This section will discuss how the previously mentioned components negatively affect poverty rates in the U.S. through key examples. To conduct my research I will begin by going to areas that I frequently visit, that are stricken by poverty in Atlanta, New York, and California. In these cities I will live in low income housing most commonly known as section eight and intermingle with the residents. By staying in community with those that are affected by poverty I will be able to interact with many of them on a personal level through a participant observation. A participant observation is when a researcher actively participates in the daily life of the people under study while observing things that happen, listening to what is said and questioning people, over some length of time. [18] My goal is that the individuals under study would hopefully feel that they could trust me and in turn be open to answering any questions that I might have in regards to their living situation. In doing this I will observe on a first hand bases some of the factors that influence poverty in these areas by taking various polls based on individuals varying education levels, and family composition. Additionally, the cities under observation have very high immigration rates as a result I will be able to examine the affects immigration has on the rising poverty levels in America.


Most studies of poverty conducted within the United States have usually focused on how widespread economic trends and social welfare affects the number of individuals living in poverty. Very few scholars have conducted research on the influence immigration has on the growing poverty levels in America. In gathering my research I propose that immigration increases the poverty rates by suggesting that newly arrived immigrants are on average poorer than U.S. citizens. When conducting my research I will first explore the effect immigrants have on the nations' tax base. Additionally, I plan to focus on the impact immigration has on the poor already in America. Due to rising unemployment rates, low incomes, and the change in taxes, those living in poverty pay very little in taxes. Similarly, although many immigrants work when they arrive to the states they tend to receive payment "under the table", thus they escape paying taxes. Furthermore, when looking at the programs designed to assist the less fortunate, many of them depend mainly on government assistance. Many individuals that are eligible to receive the services offered live below the poverty line. Because immigration adds to the number of individuals needing assistance, the funding needed to support welfare programs increase. This phenomenon suggests that if the U.S. continues to aid immigrants, we will not have the resources that are needed to help American citizens.


Over the Thanksgiving holiday I had the opportunity to visit various communities in the greater Atlanta area where individuals are living below the U.S. poverty line. While visiting the communities I was able to talk to some of the residents about their educational background, and I quickly realized that many of the residents did not have a high school diploma or GED. The information gathered supports the idea that the impact of education on poverty can be assessed by examining how receiving a degree of higher learning can potentially enable individuals to obtain a better standard of living. Education plays a role in obtaining jobs, thus individuals that do not receive an adequate education are unable to provide for their families. With the job market in the U.S. being very competitive it is imperative to have an education. In today's society there are individuals that have multiple college degrees, and they still find themselves struggling to make ends meet. A person that does not receive an education is more likely not to receive a desirable income that would ultimately allow them to obtain all of the basic necessities needed to survive. Consequently, those without an education bring their family into a never ending cycle of poverty. This is not to say that those without an education will automatically live poverty, but it does place individuals at a higher risk of living below the poverty level. Although lack of education influences poverty, poverty itself can have a negative effect on children trying to attain an education.

Family Composition

Over the course of history the family composition in America has changed drastically. No longer is the two parent household considered the norm. In fact in today's society single parent households are rapidly increasing. Growing up in a single parent home, most of my life, I know that it can be extremely difficult for a single parent to provide the basic necessities for his/her family. Changes in family composition can be considered a major influence on the growing poverty rates in the U.S. Recognizing this, in visiting different communities over the Thanksgiving break I was able to observe on first hand bases the factors that contribute to the changes in family composition. For example divorce has the ability to cause great inconsistency in a household's income. Consequently divorce takes away from the economic well being of custodial parents and their children. This is mainly due to the fact that men tend to have a higher earning power then women. Thus, after a divorce women and children experience a significant financial decline as a result forcing them to live below the poverty lines. Similarly, single parent households can be tied to poverty because they normally have only one potential earner. When there is only one adult earner in the household, fewer hours are worked and fewer hours are available to be worked due to childcare responsibilities. Although the family composition can contribute to poverty levels, many single parent households are forced to live in poverty despite their efforts.

Broader Implications and Conclusion