New Poverty: Families in Postmodern Society

By David Cheal | Go to book overview
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The Economic Life Course

The capacity of a male breadwinner to earn a family wage sufficient to meet his own needs and those of his wife and children has been the classical basis for estimating the incidence of poverty. 1 Applied to the life course, this approach inspired the idea that there is a cycle of rising and falling risk of poverty as demands on the family income wax and wane with family growth and, later, contraction in family size. This model of the economic life course was initiated by Rowntree at the end of the nineteenth century. It was revived by family life cycle theorists in the middle of the twentieth century, and it was subsequently refined in life cycle models of family welfare ( Axinn & Levin, 1979). According to family life cycle theory, the challenges of avoiding poverty due to family formation and retirement from paid work are critical transition points in the normal life cycle.

Rowntree's study of the working classes of provincial England led him to conclude that the life of a wage laborer was marked by three periods of economic stress (see Figure 8.1). The first of these periods of poverty began at, or soon after, birth. Throughout most of childhood the probability of being poor was high, due to the inadequacy of the average man's wage to support a number of dependents. When children grew older and they began to earn wages, from age 14 onward, they helped to lift the family out of poverty. During the stage of youth and early adulthood wages exceeded the demands of family responsibilities, and so this was a

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