Chinese Adolescent' Explanations of Poverty: The Perceived Causes of Poverty Scale

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Poverty is a growing global problem, particularly in Third World countries (Dixon, 1999; Midgley, 1984). Even in the developed countries, poverty has not diminished in proportion to economic growth. For example, it has been estimated that one out of four children in America lives in poverty (Carnegie Task Force, 1994) and that 40% of the poor in the United States are children (Corbett, 1993). It is therefore important to understand how people explain poverty. The objectives of this paper are to document the development of a measure of Chinese adolescents' explanations of poverty (the Chinese Perceived Causes of Poverty Scale) and to examine its psychometric properties.

Explanations of Poverty

How do people explain poverty? A literature review shows that several categories of explanations have been put forward regarding the origin of poverty (Kane, 1987). In pioneering examinations of how American adults perceived the causes of poverty, Feagin (1972a, 1972b, 1975) presented three categories of explanations. First, the individualistic category explains poverty in terms of the problems of poor people, such as their lack of abilities, effort, or thrift. The second category of explanations attributes poverty to unfavorable economic and social forces, such as exploitation by capitalists and lack of social opportunities. The third category explains poverty in terms of illness, bad luck, or misfortunes over which people have no control (i.e., fatalistic factors). It can be argued that in the second category of explanations (i.e., structural explanations), exploitation and the lack of social opportunities are different and should be separated.

According to Golding (1982) and Golding and Middleton (1982), there are four sets of beliefs about the origin of poverty. These include prodigality (e.g., wasteful spending), injustice (e.g., unfair distribution of financial reward), ascribed deprivation (e.g., parents not encouraging), and fatalism (e.g., personal misfortunes). While the first, second, and fourth sets of beliefs are similar to those maintained by Feagin (1972a, 1972b, 1975), ascribed deprivation is not.

Assessment of Perceived Causes of Poverty

Methodologically, people's perceptions of the causes of poverty have been assessed via rating scales with multiple items. In Feagin's (1972a, 1972b, 1975) research, 11 items were used. Cryns (1977) developed a 9-item scale based on Feagin's scale to examine how undergraduate and postgraduate social work students look at poverty. This modified scale was used by Schwartz and Robinson (1991) to measure beliefs about the causes of poverty among social work students. Recently, Sun (2000) used this 9-item scale to examine perceptions among social work and other students concerning the causes of poverty. In the study by Golding and Middleton (1982), 12 items were employed to measure the four sets of beliefs about the origin of poverty. Atherton et al. (1993) developed a 37-item measure of attitudes toward poverty.

Besides using rating scales with multiple items, some researchers have used a single item to measure perceived causes of poverty. Alston and Dean (1972) used a single item to assess attitudes toward welfare recipients (whether their poverty should be blamed on their lack of effort or on circumstances beyond their control). Finally, some researchers have used a qualitative approach to understand attitudes toward poverty (e.g., Dowling, 1999).

Limitations of the Existing Measures

Several things should be noted about the existing literature on the assessment of perceived causes of poverty. First, most studies have been conducted using adults and college students (e.g., Cryns, 1977; Feagin, 1975) and little is known about how younger populations perceive the causes of poverty. Understanding how adolescents explain poverty will provide important information to policy makers. …


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