American Poverty as a Structural Failing: Evidence and Arguments

Article excerpt

Empirical research on American poverty has largely focused on individual characteristics to explain the occurrence and patterns of poverty. The argument in this article is that such an emphasis is misplaced. By focusing upon individual attributes as the cause of poverty, social scientists have largely missed the underlying dynamic of American impoverishment. Poverty researchers have in effect focused on who loses out at the economic game, rather than addressing the fact that the game produces losers in the first place. We provide three lines of evidence to suggest that U.S. poverty is ultimately the result of structural failings at the economic, political, and social levels. These include an analysis into the lack of sufficient jobs in the economy to raise families out of poverty or near poverty; a comparative examination into the high rates of U.S. poverty as a result of the ineffectiveness of the social safety net; and the systemic nature of poverty as indicated by the life course risk of impoverishment experienced by a majority of Americans. We then briefly outline a framework for reinterpreting American poverty. This perspective incorporates the prior research findings that have focused on individual characteristics as important factors in who loses out at the economic game, with the structural nature of American poverty that ensures the existence of economic losers in the first place.

Keywords: American poverty, low wages, U.S. economy, social welfare, human capital, social structure


Few questions have generated as much discussion across time as that of the causes of human impoverishment. The sources and origins of poverty have been debated for centuries. As the historian R. M. Hartwell notes, "The causes of poverty, its relief and cure, have been a matter of serious concern to theologians, statesmen, civil servants, intellectuals, tax-payers and humanitarians since the Middle Ages" (1986: 16). The question of causality has found itself at the heart of most debates surrounding poverty and the poor.

In recent times these debates have often been divided into two ideological camps. On one hand, poverty has been viewed as the result of individual failings. From this perspective, specific attributes of the impoverished individual have brought about their poverty. These include a wide set of characteristics, ranging from the lack of an industrious work ethic or virtuous morality, to low levels of education or competitive labor market skills. On the other hand, poverty has periodically been interpreted as the result of failings at the structural level, such as the inability of the economy to produce enough decent paying jobs.

Within the United States, the dominant perspective has been that of poverty as an individual failing. From Ben Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanac to the recent welfare reform changes, poverty has been conceptualized primarily as a consequence of individual failings and deficiencies. Indeed, social surveys asking about the causes of poverty have consistently found that Americans tend to rank individual reasons (such as laziness, lack of effort, and low ability) as the most important factors related to poverty, while structural reasons such as unemployment or discrimination are viewed as significantly less important (Feagin, 1975; Gilens, 1999; Kluegel and Smith, 1986).

This emphasis on individual attributes as the primary cause of poverty has also been reinforced by social scientists engaged in poverty research (O'Connor, 2001). As the social survey has become the dominant methodological approach during the past 50 years, and with multivariate modeling becoming the principal statistical technique, the research emphasis has increasingly fallen on understanding poverty and welfare dependency in terms of individual attributes. The unit of analysis in these studies is by definition the individual rather than the wider social or economic structures, resulting in statistical models of individual characteristics predicting individual behavior. …