Concept of Equality:

The study of social stratification is invariably associated with the concepts of equality and inequality, which in sociological context mean “social equality” and “social inequality”. Both these concepts seem to be as old as social thought for they are inextricably linked with our value system. Human history is marked by endless efforts of a large number of social leaders and reformers who toiled and struggled to establish equality in society and to remove, or at least, reduce inequality. Despite their efforts, inequality still persists and establishment of equality remains an unfulfilled dream.

  1. “Equality” has been one of the cherished values of the people since times immemorial. But, social inequality has been the fact of human group life. J.J. Rousseau, one of the intellectuals behind the French Revolution of 1789, had recognized this fact when he said that “men are born free and equal but everywhere they are in chains”. The quest for equality and the struggle against inequality and injustice continue even today.
  2. Broadly the tern equality refers to “the state of being equal in some respect. Equality or social equality refers to a condition in which members of a group or society have equal access to, wealth, prestige, or power. Social equality exists when all people have equal access to, or share power, wealth or prestige.
  3. Though the term ‘equality’ has political, legal and philosophical overtones, most of the sociological discussions have focused on equality as an aspect of social context. Ever since the time of the French Revolution and the growth of liberal democracies in Europe, equality has usually been interpreted mostly as political equality. For example, liberal democracy assumes that equality means equality between individuals as citizens. Here, equality includes constitutional rights, that is, the fundamental Rights, the right to hold political office, the right to exercise all civic rights, etc.
  4. Social Equality Emphasizes the Fair Distribution of Income and Wealth: The liberal democratic concern with individual equality does not give prominence for equality of income and wealth. The critics have argued that the unequal distribution of income and wealth undermine all the other attempts at equality. Because, the holders of material wealth or resources, always have an advantage over other citizens. Sociologists have demonstrated how material resources affect people’s life chances. For example, they have shown how material resources have been affecting child’s progress in the educational system. Such an access to material resources also affects one’s access to education and legal representation.
  5. Equalitarian Objectives of welfare Still Remain Unfulfilled : Various empirical researches have clearly shown that DESPITE THE attempts to provide various social services to the needy people particularly in the fields of education, housing, health care, income maintenance, etc. inequalities have persisted and in some cases, actually increased. It is surprising to note that the western experience with the liberal democracies has revealed that the equalitarian objectives of welfare are not acceptable to the majority.

Concept of Inequality :

  1. Inequality is found in all societies irrespective of time or place. Personal characteristics such as beauty, skill, physical strength and personality may all play a role in the perpetuation of inequality. However, there are also patterns of inequality associated with the social positions people occupy.
    • We can say that there are two types of inequality:
      • Natural and
      • Man Made
  2. So far as the natural inequality is concerned with reference to age, sex, height, weight etc. the man made inequality may be horizontal or vertical e.g. different occupational groups perform different activities but when these groups become social groups in the sense that they are placed hierarchically and they have interaction within the group and at the inter-strata level, then such type of inequality is called social inequality.
  3. Usage of the Concept of Social inequality in the Analysis of Social Stratification: The term social inequality refers to the socially created inequalities. Stratification is a particular form of social inequality. It refers to the presence of social groups which are ranked one above the other in terms of the power, prestige and wealth their members possess. Those who belong to a particular group or stratum will have some awareness of common interest and common identity. They will share a similar life-style which will distinguish them from the members of other social strata. Hindu society in traditional India was divided into five main strata: four Varnas and fifth group, the out caste or untouchables. These strata are arranged in a hierarchy with the Brahmins at the top and untouchables at the bottom. Such inequality has been perceived by the earlier thinkers in different terms like economic, political, religious etc.
  4. PLATO was one of the first to acknowledge that inequality is inevitable and to suggest ways in which the distribution of money, status and power could be altered for the betterment of both the individual and the society.
  5. The society that Plato envisioned is explicitly meant to be class-structured, so that all citizens belong to one of three classes:
    • Ruling
    • Non-ruling
    • Auxiliaries or the workers.
  6. He eliminated inheritance of class status and provided equality of opportunities regardless of birth.
  7. Aristotle was clearly concerned with the consequences of inequality in birth, strength and wealth. He talked about three classes:
    • Very Rich,
    • Very Poor, and
    • Moderate.
  8. St. Thomas and St. Augustine made distinction based on power, property and prestige.
  9. Machiavelli asked who is fit to rule and what form of rule will produce order, happiness, prosperity and strength. He saw tension between elite and the masses. He preferred democratic rule. About the selection for ruling positions he advocated inequality in situation is legitimate so long as there has been equality of opportunity to become unequal
  10. Thomas Hobbes saw all men equally interested in acquiring power and privileges, which leads to chaotic conditions, unless there is a set of rules by which they agree to abide. These rules constitute “Social Contract”, under which people give the right to one man to rule, who has collective desire and will. The sovereign can be removed if he fails to come up to the maintenance of equality for safety of all men.
  11. Max Weber emphasized the existence of three types of groups based on different forms of inequality and the fact that they may be independent of one another. Weber suggested three types of market situations:
    • Labour market,
    • Money market, and
    • Commodity market.
  12. Weber termed the second from of inequality social honour or prestige and the third form of inequality for Weber was power.As exemplified by caste, social stratification involves a hierarchy of social groups. Members of a particular group have common identity, like interests, and similar life-style. They enjoy or suffer from the unequal distribution of rewards in societies as members of different social groups.
  13. Social stratification however is only one form of social inequality. It is possible for social inequality to exist without social strata. It is stated that a hierarchy of social groups has been replaced by a hierarchy of individuals. Although many sociologists use the term inequality and social stratification interchangeably, social stratification is seen as a specific form of social inequality.
Some Salient Aspects of Social Inequality:
  1. Social Inequality is the Result of Differentiation: All societies differentiate among their members. Some people who have certain characteristics are treated differently from other, people. Every society for that matter differentiates between the old and the young and between males and females. Society treats its members in different ways on various grounds such as skin colour, religion, physical strength, or educational achievement. The result of this differentiation is nothing but inequality.
  2. Social Inequality is Universal : In no society of the world all people have equal recognition. It is in this simple sense; inequality is universal in human societies. Thus, in all societies known to us, large or small, modern or extinct, there have been distinct differences in the statuses of the individual members. Social inequality is apparent when a society values males over females, the rich over the poor, Christians over Muslims, or Brahmins over the Dalits or Whites over Blacks, and so on. It goes without telling that those with the higher status have a superior access to whatever rewards the society offers. At the same time, those with the lower status are deprived of these advantages.
  3. Social Inequality is Normally Built into the Social Structure : In all the modern societies, social inequality takes a much elaborate and structured form in which different categories of people have different statuses. In these societies, inequality is built into the social structure, and unequal statuses are passed down from generation to generation. Like the layers of rock, people in these societies are grouped into “strata”. People in anyone stratum have a different access to social rewards than people in any other stratum, so the society as a whole is said to be stratified.
  4. Social Inequality is a Source of Social Conflict and Social Change: Inequality Is one of the most pressing social problems of the present day society. Throughout history, social inequality has been a source of tensions, revolutions and social change. It has generated bloody conflict between slave and master, peasant and noble, worker and capitalist, poor and rich. Ever since Karl Marx brought the issue of social inequality to the fore front of political debate with his Communist Manifesto in 1848, these tensions and conflicts have assumed global ‘importance. Social inequality is strongly related to various other problems of our society such as – social instability, economic ups and downs, political conflicts, potential violence, status insecurities, fear and uncertainties, and so on.
  5. Social Inequalities are Normally Sustained by the Power of Ideas: It is significant to note that “social inequalities are rarely maintained primarily through force. Instead, they are sustained by the power of ideas. Members of both the dominant and sub-ordinate groups are inclined to accept unquestionably the ideologies, or sets of ideas that justify the inequalities and make them seem “natural” and even moral. For example, the sex roles in our society show how traditional roles have ensured the dominance of men over women. Similarly, the caste roles in India reveal that normally the upper castes tend to dominate the lower castes by virtue of their traditionally ascribed superior status.
  6. Social Inequalities are not Necessarily based on Natural or Biological Inequalities: Many stratification systems are accompanied by beliefs which state social inequalities are biologically based. For example, Whites claim biological superiority over Blacks, and see ‘this as the basis for their dominance. Similarly followers of Adolf Hitler in Germany believed in the inborn superiority of the people of Aryan race. In India also, the higher castes claimed biological superiority over the untouchable castes. According to Rousseau “biologically based inequalities between men were small and relatively unimportant whereas socially created inequalities provide the major basis for Systems of social stratification. Most sociologists would support this view.

The beliefs that social inequalities are caused by natural or biological inequalities seem to sense as
rationalizations to justify the stratification system. The beliefs serve to make social inequality appear rational and reasonable. Currently, the existence of inequality, its causes and consequences as related to social class, genders, ethnicity, and even region or locality, continues to assume sociological prominence.

Concept of Hierarchy:

The literal meaning of term “hierarchy” is gradation or a ranking system. This term is very commonly used in the discussions of social stratification. It signifies that individuals and groups in any society are not socially treated equally but graded differently. The concept of hierarchy denotes that people in a society are graded or ranked differently depending upon the type of the statuses that they occupy.

Hierarchy refers to “Any relationship of individuals, groups, or classes involving a system of ranking”. Broadly speaking Hierarchy refers to “ranking of statuses within society or an organization according to some criterion of evaluation accepted as relevant within the system”.

Usage of the Concept of Hierarchy in the Analysis of Social Stratification:

  1. Any system, social or otherwise, is said to be hierarchical or gradational in nature if it consists of different strata or layers one on top of another. The more hierarchical a system is, the greater the number of layers and, generally, the greater the distance between the top and bottom are found. In a system for say Caste
    system hierarchy help us understand social Inequality and Social distance among Castes.
  2. Hierarchy is an important concept because, by making use of the hierarchical principle it is comparatively easier to trace out the relative status or position of an individual or group in a particular society. Thus, for example, it is through the principle of hierarchy, we can say, that in a caste system, the Brahmins as a caste group occupy the top-most position enjoying the privileges associated with it, while the untouchable castes occupy the bottom most position suffering from all the disabilities related with it. A large number caste, often referred to as ‘intermediary castes’ occupy different positions which lie in between these two extreme positions.
  3. Similarly, class system, is also hierarchical in which the capitalists and the rich occupy the top position in the hierarchy while the workers and the poor occupy the bottom most position. The position in between these two is occupied by the middle class. Sociologists have also spoken of a six-fold division of class hierarchy.

Hierarchy and its Relations with Power and Authority

The principle of hierarchy is also important in the area of operation of power and authority. Normally, power and authority flow from higher level to lower level as we witness it in all types of bureaucracies. The exercise of power and authority and the control of people and resource become organized in a hierarchical way. The higher the position of an individual in the hierarchy, the greater the power and control of resources that he has access to and vice versa. This kind of hierarchical principle can be seen in virtually every area of social life, from politics and economics to religion and education.

Concept of Social Exclusion:

  1. Social exclusion refers to “A process by which individuals or households experience deprivation, either of resources such as income or of social links to the wider community or society”. “Social exclusion refers to the ways in which individuals may become cut off from full involvement in the wider community.”
  2. In order to live full and active life individuals must not only be able to feed, clothe and house themselves but should also have access to essential goods and services such as education, health, transportation, insurance, social security, banking and even access to the police or judiciary.

Nature of Social Exclusion:

  1. Social exclusion is systematic –it is result of structural features of society. Exclusion is practiced regardless of the wishes of those who are excluded. For example rich people are never found sleeping on the pavements or under bridges like thousands of homeless poor people in cities and towns. This does not mean that the rich are being excluded from access to pavements and park benches because they could certainly gain access if they wanted to but they choose not to. Social exclusion is sometimes wrongly justified by the same logic –it is said that the excluded group itself does not wish to participate. The truth of such an argument is not obvious when exclusion is preventing access to something desirable. Prolonged experience of discriminatory or insulting bahaviour often produces a reaction on the part of the excluded who then stop trying for inclusion. For example upper caste Hindu communities have often denied entry into temples for the lower castes and specially the dalits. After decades of such treatment the Dalits started building their own temple or convert to another religion like Buddhism, Christianity or Islam. After they do this they may no longer desire to be included in the Hindu temple or religious events. But this does not mean that social exclusion is not being practiced.
  2. Social Exclusion Indicates Deprivation of Opportunities: The concept focuses attention on a broad range of factors that prevent individuals or groups from having opportunities open to majority of the population. It indicates that some are denied of having access to essential goods and services such as education, health, transportation, insurance, social security, banking and even access to the police or judiciary. It is not enough if individuals are just provided with food, clothing and shelter. A fuller and an active involvement in life demands greater freedom and better access to all the essentials of civilized life on par with all the others in the society.
  3. Social Exclusion is Not Accidental : Social exclusion in most of the cases is found to be an in-built mechanism to deprive a few of their social rights. It is the result of the structural features of society. The ‘untouchables’ in India, were excluded from doing many things, for example, entering temples, sharing food along with higher caste people, drawing water from public wells, receiving education on par with others, etc as a matter of caste rule.
  4. Social Exclusion is Involuntary : Social exclusion is practiced regardless of the wishes of those who are excluded. In the case of the untouchables of India, for example, it is trusted upon them. They are prevented from having access to something desirable, say for example, having access to education, or entering religious institutions, etc.
  5. Prolonged Exclusion Leading to a Reaction Against Inclusion : Prolonged experience of discrimination and insult underwent by an excluded group often compels it to develop a reaction against inclusion. As a result, it may stop making attempts for inclusion. For example, the denial of temple entry for the dalits in India for decades together by the upper castes may ultimately compel the dalits to build their own temple, or to convert to another religion like Buddhism, Christianity, or Islam. When once they start doing it, they may no longer desire to be included in the Hindu temple or religious events. However, it cannot be concluded that all the excluded would think and act on the same line. Instances of this kind point out that social exclusion occurs regardless of the wishes of the excluded.
  6. The point is that the exclusion occurs regardless of the wishes of the excluded. India like most societies has been marked by acute practices of social discrimination and exclusion. At different periods of history protest movements arose against caste, gender and religious discrimination. Yet prejudices remain and often new ones emerge. Thus legislation alone is unable to transform society or produce lasting social change. A constant social campaign to change awareness and sensitivity is required to break them.

Three Broad Overlapping Usages of the Concept:

  1. Social Exclusion in Relation to Social Rights : This usage refers to the context in which people are prevented from exercising their rights due to certain barriers or processes.
  2. Social Exclusion in Relation to Social Isolation : This usage throws light on the context in which some people or some section of the population is kept away or distanced from others in most of the social dealings. Example: Practices of social discrimination and exclusion during the British rule in South Africa which led to the social isolation of the natives.
  3. Social Exclusion in Relation to Marginalisation : This usage refers to the social exclusion of the extreme kind in which some “are denied of opportunities and avenues under the pretext of educational credentials, party membership, skin colour, religious identity, proper manners and style of life, social origins, etc.
  4. Exclusion is not Always Deprivation and Inclusion is not Always Justice : It is a common practice to equate exclusion with inequality, deprivation, unfairness and injustice; and inclusion with equality, fairness and justice. In our practical life this is not necessarily so. There are situations in which even inclusion would lead to painful experiences. For example, successfully fighting against exclusions and discriminations, some women members maybe recruited as employees to a men-dominated company. After getting included or recruited also these women may find it highly embarrassing to work in the company which is dominated by men who are not that co-operative.

Concept of Poverty:

Poverty is a social problem and it is one of the manifestations of inequality. The study of poverty is central to any examination of social equality, including an analysis of who is poor and the reasons for their poverty. Poverty refers to “A low standard of living that lasts long enough to undermine the health, morale, and self respect of an individual or group of individuals. A state in which resources, usually material but sometimes cultural, are lacking. Poverty is insufficient supply of those things which are requisite for an individual to maintain himself and those dependent upon him in health and vigour’.

Absolute Poverty and Relative Poverty:

The term poverty is relative to the general standard of living in the society, the distribution of wealth, the status system, and social expectations. It is common to distinguish between absolute and relative definitions of poverty.

  1. Absolute Poverty: Poverty defined in absolute terms refers to a state in which the individual lacks the resources necessary for subsistence.
  2. Relative Poverty: Relative definitions of poverty, frequently favoured by sociologists, refers to the individuals or groups with lack of resources when compared with that of other members of the society – in other words, their relative standard of living.
  • Absolute poverty is often known as “subsistence poverty” for it is based on assessment of minimum subsistence requirements such as food, clothing, shelter, health care, etc. Subsistence definitions of poverty [or definitions of absolute poverty] are of considerable value in examining, Third World poverty.
  • International studies show that the overall level of poverty measured in subsistence terms is very high. Some studies suggest that almost half of those in low-income countries live in absolute poverty. Even in India, poverty is still posing a challenge.


“Deprivation” is one of the concepts closely associated with the discussions of social inequality. Sociological analysis defines deprivation broadly as inequality of access to social goods. It includes poverty and wider forms of disadvantage.

  1. “In general, deprivation refers to a condition in which people lack what they need” …the lack of economic and emotional supports generally accepted as basic essentials of human experience. These include income and housing, and parental care for children,”
  2. The above mentioned definitions make it clear that some human needs [such as income, care, shelter and security are very basic and their fulfillment leads to fuller and more comfortable life experience. Satisfactory fulfillment of these needs is believed to contribute to more complete Development of the individual’s potential.

Absolute Deprivation and Relative Deprivation :

  1. Absolute deprivation refers to the lack of life necessities i.e. food, water, shelter and fuel. It means the loss or absence of the means to satisfy the basic needs for survival – food, clothing and shelter.
  2. Relative deprivation refers to deprivations experienced when individuals compare themselves with others. In this case, individuals who lack something compare themselves with those who have it, and in so doing feel a sense of deprivation. Consequently, relative deprivation not only involves comparison, it is also usually defined in subjective terms. The concept is intimately linked with that of “reference group” – the group with whom the individual or set of individuals compare themselves.
  3. Deprivation or disadvantage is measured not by objective standards but by comparison with the relatively superior advantages of others, such as members of reference group with whom one desires to emulate. Thus, the mere millionaire can feel relatively disadvantaged among his multi-millionaire friends.
  4. The concept of relative deprivation has been used in the study of social movements and revolutions, where it is argued that relative, not absolute deprivation is most likely to lead to pressure for change..

Theories of poverty

The culture of poverty: Oscar Lewis

  1. Many researchers have noted that the life style of the poor differs in certain respects from that of other members of society. They have also noted that poverty life styles in different societies share common characteristics. The circumstances of poverty are similar, in many respects, in different societies.
  2. Similar circumstances and problems tend to produce similar response, and these responses can develop into a culture, that is the learned, shared, and socially transmitted behaviour of a social group. This line of reasoning has led to the concept of a ‘culture of poverty’ (or, more correctly, a subculture of poverty), a relatively distinct subculture of the poor with its own norms and values. Oscar Lewis developed the concept from his fieldwork among the urban poor in Mexico and Puerto Rico. Lewis argues that the culture of poverty is a ‘design for living’ which transmitted from one generation to the next.
  3. As a design for living which directs behaviour, the culture of poverty has the following elements. In Lewis’s words, ‘On the level of the individual the major characteristics are a strong feeling of marginality, of helplessness, of dependence and inferiority, a strong present-time orientation with relatively little ability to defer gratification a sense of resignation and fatalism’. On the family level, life is characterized by ‘free union or consensual marriages, a relatively high incidence in the abandonment or mothers and children, a trend towards mother-centred families and a much greater knowledge or maternal relatives’. There are high rates of divorce and desertion by the male family head resulting in matrifocal families headed by women. On the community level, the lack of effective participation and integration in the major institutions of the larger society is one of the crucial characteristics of the culture of poverty’. The urban poor in Lewis’s research do not usually belong to trade unions or other association, they are not members of political parties, and ‘generally do not participate in the national welfare agencies, and make very little use of banks, hospitals, department stores, museums of art galleries’. For most, the family is the only institution in which they directly participate.
  • The culture of poverty is seen as response by the poor to their position in society. According to Lewis itis a ‘reaction of the poor to their marginal position in a class-stratified and highly individualistic society’. However, the culture of poverty goes beyond a mere reaction to a situation. It takes on the force of culture since its characteristics are guides to action which are internalized by the poor and passed on from one generation to the next. As such the culture of poverty tends to perpetuate poverty since its characteristics can be seen as mechanisms which maintain poverty: attitudes of fatalism and resignation lead to acceptance of the situation; failure to join trade unions and other organization weakens the potential power of the poor. By the time slum children are age six or seven, they have usually absorbed the basic values and attitudes of their subculture and are not psychologically geared to take full advantage of changing conditions or increased opportunities which may occur in their lifetime’.
    • Lewis argues that the culture of poverty best describes and explains the situation of the poor in colonial societies or in early stages of capitalism as in many Third World countries. He suggests that it either does not exist or is weakly developed in advanced capitalist societies and socialist societies, although other have argued that the idea of a culture of poverty can be applied to the poor in advanced industrial societies.

Situational Constraints Theory – an alternative to a culture of poverty

  1. Rather than seeing the behaviour of the poor as a response to established and internalized cultural patterns, many researchers view it as a reaction to ‘situational constraints’. In other words the poor are constrained by the facts of their situation, by low income, unemployment and the like, to act the way they do, rather than being directed by a culture of poverty. The situational constraints argument suggests that the poor would readily change their behaviour in response to new set of circumstances once the constraints of poverty were removed.
  2. Thus Hylan Lewis, an American sociologist who has conducted considerable research on the behaviour of the poor, argues, ‘It is probably more fruitful to think of lower class families reacting in various ways to the facts of their position and to relative isolation rather than the imperatives of a lower class culture’. The situational constraints thesis also attacks the view that the poor are largely insulated from mainstream norms and values. It argues that the poor share the values of society as a whole, the only difference being that they are unable to translate many of those values into reality. Again, the situational constraints argument suggests that once the constraints of poverty are removed, the poor will have no difficulty adopting mainstream behaviour patterns and seizing available opportunities.

Poverty and Social Stratification

To explain the basic causes of poverty, sociologists are increasingly focusing their attention on society as a whole and particularly on the stratification system, rather than studying the poor in isolation. As Peter Townsend states, ‘the description, analysis and explanation of poverty in any country must proceed within the context of a general theory of stratification’. From this perspective the poor must be seen in terms of the stratification system as a whole. Questions about the nature and functioning of stratification systems are directly related to questions about poverty.

Marxian perspective on poverty

  1. From a Marxian perspective, poverty in capitalist society can only be understood in terms of the system of inequality generated by a capitalist economy. Wealth is concentrated in the hands of a minority: those who own the forces of production. Members of the subject class own only their labour which they must sell in return for wages on the open market. Capitalism requires a highly motivated workforce. Since the motivation to work is based primarily on monetary return, those whose services are not require by the economy, such as the aged and the unemployed, must receive a lower income than wage earners. If this were not the case, there would be little incentive to work. The motivation of the workforce is also maintained by unequal reward for work. Workers compete as individuals and groups with each other for income in a highly competitive society. In this respect, the low wage sector forms the base of a competitive wage structure. Low wages help to reduce the wage demands of the workforce as a whole, since workers tend to assess their income in terms of the baseline provided by the low paid.
  2. Since, from a Marxian perspective, the state in capitalist society reflects the interests of the ruling class, government measures can be expected to do little except reduce the harsher effect of poverty. Thus Kincaid argues that, ‘It is not to be expected that any Government whose main concern is with the efficiency of a capitalist economy is going to take effective steps to abolish the low-wage sector’.
  3. Westergard and Resler argue that the ruling class has responded to the demands of the labour movement by allowing the creation of the Welfare State, but the system operates, ‘within a framework of institutions and assumptions that remain capitalist’. In their view, ‘the keyword is “containment”; the demands of the labour movement have been contained within the existing system. Westergaard and Resler argue that poverty exist because of the operation of a capitalist economic system which prevents the poor from ‘obtaining the financial resources to become non-poor.
  4. J.C. Kincaid he argues that ‘widespread poverty is a direct consequence of the limited effectiveness of social security provision’. Like Westergaard and Resler, Kincaid sees poverty resulting from the operation of a capitalist economy which produces a particular from social stratification. Kincaid summarizes the situation in the following way, ‘It is not simply that there are rich and poor. It is rather that some are rich because some are poor’. Thus poverty can only be understood in terms of the operation of the class system as a whole since the question ‘Why poverty?’ is basically the same question is ‘Why wealth?’ Therefore from a Marxian perspective, poverty like wealth is an inevitable consequence of a capitalist system.

Weberian perspective on poverty :

Weber argues that an individual’s ‘class situation’ is dependent upon his ‘market situation’, on the favour and on the rewards his skills and expertise can command in a competitive market. From this perspective groups such as the aged, the chronically sick and single parent families have little power in the market and therefore receive little reward. Indeed, their circumstances largely prevent them from competing in the market. However, not all members of these groups are poor, and this is referable to their market situation prior to their present circumstances.

  1. The poverty of the old, sick, handicapped and single parent families is largely working-class poverty.
    Members of other social classes have sufficient income to save, invest in pension schemes, insurance policies and in shareholdings for themselves and their dependents and so guard against the threat of poverty due to the death of the breadwinner, sickness or old age. In this sense, social class rather than personal disability, inadequacy, or misfortune accounts for poverty.
  2. Kincaid argues that, ‘A crucial factor determining wage levels is the bargaining power of workers’. Low paid workers are usually order, female, and as a result, traditionally less militant. They often belong to weak trade unions or none at all. Low wages are concentrated in the non-unionized sectors of the workforce.
  3. Ralph Miliband examines the bargaining position of the poor in an article entitled Politics and Poverty. He argues that in terms of power, the poor are the weakest group competing for the scarce and valued resources in society. Miliband states that, ‘The poor are part of the working class but they are largely excluded from the organizations which have developed to defend the interests of the working class’.
  4. Efforts by the poor to promote their interests and secure public support are weakened by the ‘shame of poverty’, a stigma which remains alive and well. Ralph Miliband concludes that the key to the weak bargaining position of the poor is simply their poverty. He states that ‘economic deprivation is a source of political deprivation; and political deprivation in turn helps to maintain and confirm economic deprivation’.
  5. As Westergaard and Resler argue, it diverts attention from the larger structure of inequality in which poverty is embedded’. Thus the poor must be seen in relation to the class system as a whole, not simply as an isolated group. Ralph Miliband makes a similar point. He argues that the position of the poor is not that dissimilar from that of the working class as a whole. The poor are simply the most disadvantaged section of the working class rather than a separate group. TO understand poverty, it is therefore necessary to understand the nature of inequality in a class stratified society.

Functional perspective on poverty :

Herbert J. Gans argues that ‘poverty survives in part because it is useful to a number of groups in society’. Poverty benefits the non-poor in general and the rich and powerful in particular. They there fore have a vested interest in maintaining poverty. From this perspective, Gans outlines the following ‘functions of poverty’ for the non-poor.

  1. Firstly, every economy has a number of temporary, dead-end, dirty, dangerous and menial jobs. The existence of poverty ensures that such work is done. Gans argues that ‘poverty functions to provide a low-wage labour pool that is willing – or rather, unable to be unwilling – to perform dirty work at low cost’. Without the low paid, many industries would be unable to continue in their present form. Gans claims that hospitals, the catering trade, large sections agriculture and parts of the garment industry are dependent on low wage labour.
  2. Secondly, poverty directly provides employment financial security for a fast growing section of the labour force. In Gans’s words, ‘Poverty creates jobs for a number of occupations and professions that serve the poor, or shield the rest of the population from them’. Police, probation officers, social workers psychiatrists, doctor and the administrators who over see the ‘poverty industry’.
  3. Thirdly, Gans argues that the presence of the poor provides reassurance and support for the rest of society. They provide a baseline of failure which resources the non-poor of their worth. Gans claims that ‘poverty helps to guarantee the status of those who are not poor’. It does this by providing ‘a reliable and relatively permanent measuring rod for status comparison.

Gans argues that the poor function to reinforce mainstream norms since norms ‘are best legitimated by
discovering violations’. From a somewhat different perspective, Gans has reached a similar conclusion to those who argue that poverty must be analysed in terms of class inequality. Form both viewpoint poverty exist because it benefits the rich and because the poor are powerless to change their situation. Gans concludes that poverty persists ‘because many of the functional alternatives to poverty would be quite dysfunctional for the more affluent members of society’.

Solution to the problem of poverty :

  1. Once poverty is recognized as an aspect of inequality, and not merely a problem of the poor, solutions involve restructuring society as a whole. It can now be argued that the main obstacle to the eradication of poverty is not the behaviour of the poor but the self interest of the rich. Thus Herbert J. Gans maintains that, ‘the prime obstacles to the elimination of poverty lie in an economic system which is dedicated to the maintenance and increase of wealth among the already affluent’. From the perspective of stratification of theory, the solution to poverty involves a change in the stratification system. This war on poverty would be far harder to wage than the previous one since it would require considerable sacrifice by the rich and powerful.
  2. Westergaard and Resler argue that many politicians make the fundamental error of assuming that ‘the causes of poverty can be read off from the characteristics of the poor’. This has led to the conclusion that poverty is largely the result of old age, family break-up, large families, unemployment, physical or mental handicap or chronic sickness. In this way, “individual conditions’ are regarded as the ‘causes’ of poverty. It therefore follows that remedies must be directed towards the individual and particular conditions are given particular aid and treatment. For example the unemployed receive financial aid and ‘problem families’ receive the services of social workers and psychiatrists. This diagnosis of the problem forms the basis of government policy. Westergaard and Resler argue that the diagnosis ‘is false precisely because it closes one eye firmly to the total pattern of inequality. Poverty is not an individual condition, it is a class phenomenon. The poor are working class, not middle class. The mechanisms which generate inequality throughout society are the same mechanisms which generate poverty.
  3. The Welfare State has largely failed to redistribute wealth from rich to poor. It simply shuffles resources within social classes rather than between them. Kincaid argues that the only solution to poverty involves a ‘massive redistribution of resources away from the wealthier classes’. This view sees poverty as a social problem rather than as an individual condition. It argues that the problem is society as a whole and therefore society must be changed. Westergaard and Resler adopt a similar position. They argue that government measures to deal with poverty cannot succeed because ‘they are not designed to produce wholesale change in the general structure of inequality’.
  4. From a Marxian perspective, the official identification and treatment of poverty can be seen as a means to disguise the true nature of exploitation and oppression. Westergaard and Resler argue that the state, by focusing on one aspect of inequality- situation of the poor-tends to obscure reality’ by diverting attention from the larger structure of inequality. The definition of poverty as an individual condition rather than a class phenomenon has the same effect. In this way the privileged position of the wealthy, which rests ultimately on working-class poverty, is protected. In addition, the creation and development of the Welfare States has contained working-class demands for an improvement in their position. Governments have conceded just enough to take the edge off working class militancy. The role of welfare professionals can also be seen as a means to control the working class and protect the privileged. Kincaid argues that ‘most of the individual problems which social workers currently set out of solve are essentially of the sort generated by a society which is not organized on the basis of people’s needs’. He argues that many social workers still attribute poverty to a ‘defective personality structure, inability to relate to others, and impaired capacity to make realistic judgments of self and others’. This places the blame for poverty squarely on the shoulders of the poor. Some Marxists go even further by seeing welfare professionals as agents of the ruling class.
  5. From a Marxian perspective, the solution to poverty does not involve reforms in the social security system; in the provision of additional payments or service to those defined as poor. Instead it requires a radical change in the structure of society. Thus, Ralph Miliband argues that poverty will only be eradicated with the removal of inequality in general which ‘requires the transformation of the economic structures in which it is embedded’.
  6. Westergaard and Resler take a similar view maintaining that no substantial redistribution of wealth can occur until capitalism is replaced by a socialist society in which the force of production are communally owned. As long as the free market system of capitalism determines the allocation of reward, they argue that inequality will remain largely unchanged.
  7. Kincaid concludes that since capitalism is based on the maximization of profit rather than the satisfaction of human need, ‘Poverty cannot be abolished within capitalist society, but only in a socialist society under workers’ control, in which human needs, and not profits, determine the allocation of resources’.

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