POVERTY [Inequalities of Income and Wealth]



1. Marx claimed that the bourgeoisie uses the superstructure to keep the proletariat in a position of exploitation. Explain how this is done


The superstructure is used to keep the proletariat in place. The superstructure is made up of legal and political systems such as courts, parliament, government institutions, schools financial institutions, the army and the police, to prevent protests by the subject class.

2. What were Marx’s predictions concerning concerning differences between wealth and income? To what extent are they accurate? [Refer to Giddens 3rd edition p. 249].


Marx was right in his predictions that:

* There would be a persistence of poverty in the industrialized countries (modern capitalist states).

* There would be large scale and continuing inequalities of wealth and income

Marx was wrong in predicting that

* Income of most of the population would remain extremely low – resulting in revolutionary action

* A minority would become more and more wealthy relative to the majority

While most people get what money they have from their income/work, the wealthy derive the bulk of their income from investments.

Measuring Absolute Poverty

Factors used as indicators of absolute poverty include:

* Nutrition- the percentage of the population eating less food than is required to sustain the human body (i.e. approximately 2000 to 2500 calories per day).

* The life expectancy rates

* Child mortality rates

* Literacy rates

Measuring Relative Poverty

Relative poverty is measured in terms of:

* Comparison of the total wealth of the poorest one-third of the population with the total wealth of the richest 1% of the population (i.e. income inequality matrices)

* Access to education

* Amount of time for leisure

* Ability to participate in social and cultural activities

How sociologists measure poverty

Sociologists disagree on how poverty should be measured.

The different approaches to defining poverty lead to different ways of operationalising and measuring poverty. As a consequence, there have been competing estimates of the extent of poverty in Britain over the course of the twentieth century.

Sociological Explanations of Poverty

1. Culture of Poverty theory

Anthropologist, Oscar Lewis argued that the poor tend to develop their own culture as a response and adaptation to living in poverty. The culture is marked by a fatalistic approach to life which prevents the poor from taking action to improve their situation and escape from poverty. This culture facilitates the transmission of poverty from one generation to the next resulting in a cycle of poverty.

2. Situational Constraints theory

This theory was developed by American sociologists, Liebow and Hannerz who were opposed to the culture of poverty theory. Liebow and Hannerz argued that the poor have much the same norms and values as the rest of the population; they are just poor – and their situation is indeed a hopeless one from which it is very difficult to escape. It is felt that if the ‘situational constraints’ leading to poverty are removed, it would be possible to abolish poverty.

3. New Right theory

Sociologists such as Charles Murray and David Marsland see the Welfare state as creating a dependency culture among the poor. The generous benefits provided by the welfare state removes the incentive to work and encourages idleness and antisocial values. Thus, the poor become passive and incapable of self-motivation, and increasingly dependent on the state to provide for them. For Murray, this result in a morally degenerate, frequently criminal and unemployable underclass.

4. Weberian theory (the social democratic approach)

Poverty is seen as the result of inequalities (or exclusion) in the labour market – linked to the fact that capitalist societies are inevitably stratified.

The Weberian approach argue that poverty can be reduced or eradicated by state intervention, e.g. through progressive taxation policies, employment creation schemes or through providing benefits such as free education.

5. Marxist explanation

Marxists see poverty as an inevitable consequence of capitalism. Indeed poverty and inequality are seen as a necessary part of wealth generation, and fulfill an important function in ensuring that the capitalist system is reproduced.

Poverty is seen to have several benefits for employers:

* It divides the working class between those with higher wages and standard of loving and those with lower wages or no wages at all.

* It thus creates a reserve army of labour

* It helps to keep wages low

* It helps to keep benefit levels low, which in turn, help reduce taxes.

What factors tend to cause poverty:

* Unemployment

* unequal access to education

* lack of skills and training (social skills)

* lack of infrastructure

* lack of social integration e.g. minority immigrants

* substance abuse

* exploitation of the poor

* illness (mental or physical)

* age, gender and racial discrimination

* lack of democracy

* white collar crimes

* the Matthew effect – in some welfare states, middle classes tend to be the main beneficiaries of social benefits and services, primarily intended for the poor – services intended for the poor are utilized mainly by the middle class citizens.

Sociological explanations of wealth

Wealth and poverty cannot be fully understood without some reference to stratification. Research findings have pointed to the fact that women, the old and certain ethnic minority groups, as well as those in lower socio-economic classes are disproportionately likely to be amongst the poor.

John Scott (1999) argues that the wealthy have ‘resources that allow them to enjoy benefits and advantages that are not available to others in their society’. This statement highlights the relationship between those who are considered wealthy and those who are considered poor.

The Functionalist View of the distribution of Wealth

* They would see the unequal distribution of wealth throughout the population as inevitable and functionally necessary.

* Wealth is a reward to the most able individuals who perform the most important roles in society. The wealth these individuals accumulate acts as an incentive and encourages them to strive for highly rewarded positions.

* The wealthy are able to contribute to community, for instance, by providing employment opportunities. In this way the distribution of wealth is also seen as legitimate/fair (role/purpose of the wealthy).

Marxist View

They see the unequal distribution of wealth as the inevitable consequences of capitalism, which is based on the exploitation of one class over another.

Weberian View

They argue that the distribution of wealth in capitalist societies is partly the result of the supply and demand for various skills in the job market.

Weberians refer to primary and secondary labour markets; those workers in the primary labour markets have preferential incomes and conditions to those in the secondary market.

The New Right View

They share the views of the functionalists in seeing inequalities in income and wealth as inevitable, necessary and highly beneficial to the maintenance of society.

New Right thinkers believe that without inequality there would be a lower standard of living for all, since there would be no incentives to encourage individual initiative and enterprise.

They believe that inequalities in income and wealth were created by the market forces.

Feminist View

Feminists recognize that many persons who live in poverty are women. They are more likely to earn less than men (for doing the same work) and form with their children, the majority of single-parent families.

Welfare, Poverty and Social Policy

The term welfare state refers to institutions that have been created by the state to provide for the healthcare, housing and education needs of the citizens as well as providing benefit payments to the sick, disabled, old or unemployed.

In Britain the welfare state aimed to provide a minimum standard of living for all citizens from the cradle to the grave.

Universal and Selective Provision of Welfare Benefits:

The Beveridge Report of 1942 ( ….) promoted the idea of universal provision of benefits (universalism). That is, benefits to which all citizens were entitled as a matter of right, for example, child allowance. However, since the late 1970s the welfare state seem to be in a state of crisis as costs have increased and more demands have been placed on its services. In fact, some sociologists (e.g. Walker) have argued that welfare has become increasingly selective – benefits are increasingly being paid for on a discretionary basis and some benefits or grants have been converted into payable loans. There has been some privatization or marketization of some welfare services such as the NHS and the state education service.

Advantages of universal provision:

* Easier and cheaper to run with less bureaucracy since all are eligible.

* Avoids poverty trap since benefits are not withdrawn if individuals start to earn their own income

* When benefits are universal, they are more successfully delivered to the needy since they are easy to claim.


* Critics claim that it encourages welfare dependency

* It may be very expensive since many who do not really need benefits will claim them, therefore depriving the really needy of resources which they could have received.

Selective Provision


* Only the most needy received benefits. This makes the system less expensive and more effective.

* Reduction in costs by being selective could mean the services provided could be improved


* Selection involves means testing (assessing individuals’ financial resources which is expensive, bureaucratic and stigmatizing)

* Selection becomes complex and bogged down in red tape and this discourages claims – often from those most in need.

Sociological explanations of the role of the Welfare State

Functionalist View

Functionalists are of the view that complex societies require integration in order to function effectively and to transmit value consensus throughout the society. Through the provision of welfare, the state, in a complex society, is able to promote and reinforce social norms and values, thus strengthening social integration.

*who benefits the most from welfare?

Marxist view

Marxists are of the view that the role of the state is purely to enable capitalism to function effectively. The welfare state is simply an ideological device which legitimizes capitalism – makes it seem fair and is therefore a form of social control. The welfare state diffuse political and social unrest by providing minimum standards of free healthcare, unemployment benefits, state pensions for the elderly and other benefits. It is the capitalist class who most from the existence of the welfare state, since it maintains their priviledged position.

Marxists sociologists, particularly O’connor, feel that although the welfare state plays a legitimating role, at the same time this creates a contradiction in modern capitalist societies in that while the welfare state increases the desire or need for services, there is at the same time an unwillingness to pay higher taxes to fund them. This creates a strain in capitalist societies which is difficult to resolve and likely to cause conflict.

N.B: the Marxist view of the role of the welfare state is also a functionalist one, but it sees the welfare state in a more critical way.

New Right Explanation

Sociologists, Charles Murray and David Marsland argue that the welfare state has a number of negative consequences for society:

* It leads to expensive bureaucratic government which needs to provide and organize state welfare

* State run services tend to be inefficient and badly organized, and are unable to cope effectively with individual needs in changing or developing situations

* It encourages and creates dependency and stifles individual initiative and self- reliance. Reducing state welfare would save money.

N.B: New Right Sociologists claim that capitalism is a self regulating system, if something goes wrong it will automatically be regulated.

Social Democratic Explanation

Social Democrats are critical of the capitalist system, but argue that carefully organized welfare provisions can create a greater degree of equality and fairness.

Social Democrats argue that:

* Capitalism and the markets it create are not self-regulating (as claimed by the New Right). They create huge inequalities and hardships, but these can be minimised by welfare provisions

* The state has to act as a referee, enforcing rules which make capitalism fair, and protecting the weak (the poor and the powerless) against the strong.

* If the market forces created by capitalism are not restrained, the whole system will be highly unstable and divided by conflict. The creation of a welfare state will allow capitalism to gradually evolve into a fairer society.

Feminist explanations

Feminists views of the role of the welfare state vary between liberal feminists, Marxist feminists and radical feminists, but most see the welfare state in terms of patriarchy which maintains women’s place in the home and the family.

Some key points made by feminists are as follows:

* Welfare policies have incorporated dominant patriarchal assumptions about the role of women being primarily that of housewives and mothers.

* The welfare state maintains and reinforces patriarchal and familial ideology, making it difficult for married women to gain the same rights as married men.

* Sociologists, such as Glendinning and Millar (1987), and Townsend (1987), have identified a ‘feminisation of poverty’, whereby the poor are disproportionately likely to be female. This reflects women’s inferior employment opportunities, and their dependency within the family on a male breadwinner.