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Poverty Definition

The term poverty refers to the lack of material or monetary possessions. Poverty can be absolute or relative. Poverty can either refer to the inability of an individual to satisfy his/her basic human needs, namely, security, food and clothing or an individuals socio-economic status in comparison to the rest of the society. These instances refer to absolute poverty and relative poverty respectively (Dobelstein 23). The effects of poverty are mostly negative and often interconnected. This means that one predicament rarely occurs on its own.

For example, poor hygiene and sanitation necessitates the transmission of diseases; however, people's vulnerability is heightened when they lack access to clean water and proper food or nutrition (212). Another negative effect of poverty is the increase of delinquency and crime rates in the society. Biddle elaborates on the poverty and crime saying that it is a cycle in which individuals from poor backgrounds lack access to proper education, healthcare, housing and other necessities.

Due to the lack of opportunities, most of them turn to crime in an attempt to gain material possessions faster, since they are unable to secure jobs associated with good education (65). Therefore, there are only two options for people raised in the poor families, either to participate in crimes or to compete for the legitimate but limited sources of income.

This paper will examine the causes of poverty, its effect on the society and the relationship between poverty and crime. Moreover, this paper will offer additional ways that can be employed by the American government and society to eliminate poverty.

Causes of Poverty

America is often viewed and described, as a land of greener pastures and opportunities. However, the rising poverty is a reality that is being witnessed in this great nation. The most troubling aspect of this reality is the great divide between the wealthy and the poor. It is one thing when a country experiences a gap between the rich and the poor due to the lack of adequate resources to change the circumstances.

It is another thing when a country has enough resources to address the stark contrast between the rich and the poor but does nothing about it. Unfortunately, the second scenario describes the American society. Several factors cause poverty to increase in America. These are capitalism, high divorce rates, government spending, racism, lack of education and drug abuse.


Zastrow states that capitalism is one of the major causes of poverty in America. This is because capitalism creates a large gap between the elite, middle and poor social classes. The main reason for this disparity is attributed to the capitalism, which lays in the foundation of the American economy (118). A capitalist economy is structured in such a way that minor elite manages and dominates majority of the capital e.g. factories that are used to generate wealth.

Therefore, in capitalism, elite owns a bulk of a countrys wealth and resources, breeding conditions for dearth and poverty in the rest of the society (Zastrow 118). This is because the majority of the society is forced to share the remaining meagre resources left by the elite among themselves. Consequently, poverty exists in America because the economy is configured to encourage wealth accumulation among a few privileged persons.

Another way that capitalism causes poverty is that in the quest to generate huge profits, competition and productivity are valued above employees and their rights (Hartman 36). Therefore, companies seek to minimize costs by lowering wages, replacing man-power with machines or moving manufacturing plants abroad in the quest for cheaper labor and maximum profits. This contributes to high unemployment rates, what means that many workers are unable to find jobs, thus, end up poor and unable to satisfy their basic needs (Hartman 36-37).

High Divorce Rates

Divorce contributes to poverty because single-parents have lower incomes and are more likely to fall into poverty than married couples are. In reality, two low incomes are better than one and with the right planning, may be sufficient to sustain a family above the poverty line after attending the expenses. Social mobility rates are also higher among children and young adults who come from stable families rather than those who come from broken households or were raised by a single parent.

For example, children born to a single never-married mother in the lower fifth of family income is three times more likely to stay in the lower fifth than a child born to a mother who has been married before (Sawhill, How Marriage and Divorce Impact Economic Opportunity).

Zastrow further argues that in divorce settlements in which mothers are awarded with child custody, the entire economic well-being of the children is dependent on the father honoring his child support payments. This is because husbands typically earn more than their wives do and failure to make sufficient and consistent child support payments contributes to the financial troubles of divorced mothers. The mothers then face the burden of divorce-related poverty (184). These mothers will in turn be unable to raise their children in the right way due to meagre resources if their monetary income is insufficient.


Racial stereotyping and persistent discrimination against people of color is a contributing factor towards poverty in America. This is because non-white people are more likely to face prejudice when it comes to access to quality housing, healthcare, education and other ways to sidestep poverty such as consumer credit. White Supremacy is one of the pillars on which America was built. However, the long-term effects of this system have seen the depression of the economic status of African Americans and other minority groups (Hartman 228).

The past century has seen a massive internment of adults and young adults who come from poor communities and minorities. This happens because the young adults are the future of these communities and their incarceration will have a negative impact on the growth and enlightenment of their groups. Marginalization of individuals with criminal records and the creation of permanent obstacles that hinder employment and re-admission to society after incarceration have resulted in a growing number of impoverished people.

It is difficult for a person with a criminal record to secure employment because of the tag that society has placed on him/her, which is the tag of a criminal. Reintegration efforts into the society tend to be an uphill task, as not many people will want to associate or be seen with an ex-convict. Common stereotypes such as those that portray black Americans as dysfunctional and unworthy of assistance have contributed to negative stereotypes about people of color (Hartman, 227).

Government Welfare Programs and Policies

Government welfare programs have shredded Americas social fabric. They are the key factor in the rising number of out-of-wedlock births that have many complications. Welfare programs have also destabilized the work ethics and contributed to soaring crime rates in the country. Most of the people prefer to live on government subsidies rather than make a living by working. Others turn to crime to earn the money they need. The most tragic consequence is that the philosophies are passed from one generation to the next, and, thus, never cease to exist.

Nevertheless, welfare programs have had their share of positive attributes. It has led to modest reductions in poverty among single mothers and children. Some individuals who left the program have also secured employment and are on their way to sustain themselves. However, the government still needs to do more in eliminating poverty by first addressing the root causes of poverty to make significant progress in eliminating this vice (Tanner, More Welfare).

Government policies have also played a part in the high level of poverty in America. High taxes and extreme regulatory policies should be reviewed or eliminated. This is because such policies inhibit economic growth and the creation of new jobs through self-employment. This may be vital in reducing the rate of poverty in the country (Tanner, More Welfare).

Lack of Education

According to Zastrow, illiteracy or minimal education is another factor that causes poverty in America. Those from the lower class cannot afford college education that offers them the opportunity to access well-paying jobs (136). This leaves them to settle for low paying jobs that have no benefits since a high-school diploma cannot guarantee a meaningful job, as it was in the past. The demand to meet their own and their families needs may drive them to poverty, as they have to find a way to survive on their meagre income.

This begins a cycle of poverty in which parents, who were unable to receive higher education due to poverty, cannot accord this privilege to their children. This is unless their children are talented and will be admitted into college with academic or sports scholarships. However, this fact is entirely dependent on the hard work and efforts of their children.

Drug Abuse

The drug abuse is another cause of poverty in America. People who are addicted to expensive drugs such as cocaine and heroin can drive an individual who was previously economically stable to poverty. This is because drug abuse is an expensive habit that needs to be supported by any means, be it hard work, theft or sale of personal belongings. Some addicts resort to squandering their salaries and life savings on drugs. Employed addicts soon lose their jobs as they cannot cope with the workload and sometimes find themselves homeless once their savings are drained or they have sold most of their possessions (Akerlof and Kranton 105).

Conversely, drugs are readily available in lower class neighborhoods; therefore, residents have a constant access to drugs and can use them to escape the reality of their squalid life. Akerlof and Kranton illustrate the expensive nature of addiction and estimate that one gram of cocaine costs $100. Therefore, an addict would need $700 a week to sustain his intake of cocaine. Heroin, on the other hand, would require thousands of dollars a week, as it is more expensive than cocaine. Based on this example, it becomes obvious how drug addiction can impoverish addicts and their families (105).

Effects of Poverty on the Society

The effects of poverty on the society are immense. This is because poverty is a difficult cycle to break, as children from impoverished backgrounds are likely to grow up into poor adults. Poverty has a negative effect on a persons quality of life, opportunities available to him/her and, thus, affects their contribution to the society. This diminishes their efforts to build the nation as responsible member of the society.

Low Literacy Levels

Poverty leads to high illiteracy levels in the society because children from poor backgrounds are prone to drop out of school early. This may be due to the need to boost the income of their families. Another factor that may cause school dropouts among the poor is the lack of motivation to work hard because the conditions in which they are brought up left them hopeless in securing a brighter future and escaping poverty (Biddle 12).

The cycle of poverty is then continued because they will end up unemployed or secure low-paying jobs that can barely sustain them. Other children drop out of school to enjoy life in the fast lane by making money through illegitimate means. Therefore, they believe that education is a waste of time since the main reason of living is to earn enough to see the next day.

Social Inequalities and Social Exclusion

Another effect of poverty is social inequality and social exclusion. Social inequality results from economic disparities which appear when a few individuals control countrys wealth and resources (Barrett 4). Social inequalities are detrimental to the stability of any society because such incidences breed hate among the underprivileged. This may result in negative occurrences, such as violence against those in advantaged positions. Poor may also resort to stealing from the privileged because they believe that they deserve a share of their countrys wealth. Social inequality may also lead to the political instability of a country.

For example, the Arab Spring was a result of socio-economic inequalities caused by high unemployment rates and rising poverty. This created feeling of frustration and desperation that fanned the flames of the uprising against the sitting governments.

Social exclusion is another effect of poverty. Social exclusion isolates those from poor backgrounds to the extent that makes them feel left out in terms of making a substantial contribution to the society. This makes the poor portray themselves as inactive members of the society (Barrett 161).

This feeling is usually passed on to their children. Children experience social exclusion differently. They believe that poverty denies them the chance to enjoy the same opportunities or facilities as their advantaged peers. This makes it difficult for them to fit in among their peers and leads to low self-esteem because they are not accepted by the society the way they are.

Lack of Access to Proper Housing

Another effect of poverty is limited ability to acquire standard housing. Poor people are dependent on the government for their housing needs. Housing can be obtained through either subsidized government housing or social housing (Dobelstein 8). Those who are unfortunate may find themselves living in deplorable accommodation or in the worst-case scenario find themselves homeless. Therefore, they are left at the mercy of the government and will accept any form of help in terms of housing rather than not to have a roof over their heads.

Crime and Violence

It is undeniable that crime is one of the major effects of poverty. Crime rates tend to be high in societies where poverty levels are equally high. Impoverished neighborhoods and societies including entire cities display similar problems with illiterate residents from low-income areas. This nurtures increased levels of unemployment and crime, thus leads to a never-ending cycle of poverty (Zastrow 391). Young children will emulate what adults in their society are doing and will take their place when after their predecessors are imprisoned or killed by the police.

Violence in the society is one of the effects of poverty. Pent-up frustrations against the society or an individuals despair in life due to poverty may lead to the formation or merger of violent gangs that provide a sense of belonging for individuals. Gangs provide the security and acceptance young people need, and that is why it is easy to convince them to join illegal groupings (Solomon 18). Zastrow states that a sense of misery or frustration may also push individuals to join terrorist organizations. Most terrorists come from impoverished countries that have high unemployment rates. Hence, terror organizations provide an easy avenue to escape hardships and distress by offering higher remunerations than those offered by available jobs- if any (536).

Shorter Life-Expectancy Rates

Impoverished societies experience a shorter life expectancy rate due to unequal access to healthcare. The high cost of medical care is out of the reach for most poor people. This makes it easier for them to die from illnesses that could have been cured if they got the right medical care. Infant mortality rates are also high among the poor because they cannot afford pre and post-natal care, which is vital for the growth and development of young children (Hartman 321-324). Consequently, the overall population growth of a country is affected by such shortcomings.

Negative Effect of Poverty on Mental Health

Money is not an assurance of both physical and mental health. However, the relationship between a low socio-economic status and higher occurrences of mental illnesses and disorders has become progressively ostensible. Rodgers states that the deplorable living conditions experienced by those from the lower social class cultivate perceptions of social realism that are restricted and inflexible. This weakens their capacity to deal efficiently with challenging and stressful circumstances.

As a result, they are prone to mental disorders, some that develop as coping mechanisms in response to stressors that happen in the environment in which they reside (3). The stress coupled up with their lack of access to psychological care leaves them vulnerable to mental illnesses and rapid deterioration of their illnesses when proper attention is not provided.

Poverty and Crime

According Zastrow, poverty and crime are almost undeniably interrelated. Poverty is rarely a circumstance that is chosen by individuals who find themselves in it. Not only the disadvantaged but also the entire society feels the effects of poverty. The genesis of the association of poverty with crime stems from the theory that those who have less will always want to acquire what they lack even if it is via illegal means (136). Astute leaders and politicians identify poverty and crime as the key factors that hinder countrys development.

Therefore, a country that wants to develop economically must tackle both poverty and crime to attain economic success and independence. There are several reasons why the poor resort to crime. This includes, the lack of a stable father figure, drug abuse, possession of a criminal record, toleration of crime among the poor, stereotypes and unemployment.

Lack of a Stable Father Figure

A large majority of low-income adults and young males from minority communities have been incarcerated (Solomon 11). This means that young men lack a father figure to look up to and will most likely emulate the actions of their fathers, uncles or mentors and find themselves behind bars.

Criminal Record

Solomon states that most released convicts from low class areas are more likely to turn back to crime once they have been freed from prison. This is because a criminal record diminishes a persons chance to get employed (381). With no source of income and no avenues to make a decent living, ex-convicts turn back to their old ways to make ends meet. The prejudice attached to those with a criminal record pushes them to turn back to crime to escape the reality of their rejection by the society. Society makes it difficult for such people to be accepted back into the community because of the negativity associated with prisons (Solomon 381).

Toleration of Crime Among the Poor

Criminal activity among the poor has been accepted as the norm among the impoverished communities. This is because crime is rampant in their neighborhoods and police protection is not guaranteed in the areas in which they reside (Hartman 150). They are also not likely to report crimes against them and the society in general, as they have come to accept it as part of their lives.


The poor people especially those from minority communities are labelled with negative tags associated with them (Akerlof and Kranton 97-98). They know that society expects less of them; hence, they reinforce this belief by living up to the expectations of the society that views them negatively.

For example, society believes that it is impossible for a white person to walk through a predominantly black neighborhood without being robbed. Therefore, any white person walking through a black neighborhood will feel threatened and might actually be mugged because he should have known better not to venture into an area he does not belong to (Akerlof and Kranton).

According to Akerlof and Kranton, stereotyping has also led people or communities, who are associated with negative traits, to miss numerous opportunities (98-100). For instance, a person from the Latino minority group can miss a white-collar job due to the stereotype that he/she is only good in manual labor, despite the fact that he/she might have the right qualifications for the job. Such prejudice may lead to unemployment and frustration that may cause an individual to turn to crime to make ends meet in addition to seeking revenge from those they consider to be against them. They will thus form the goal of their attacks, such as robberies or murder, to get revenge and reclaim their dignity.


The absence of means to earn a decent living is one of the reasons that cause the poor to resort to crime. Lack of income does not mean that one ceases to exist. Life continues and even poor face the responsibilities such as paying bills and buying food and groceries. According to Solomon, the difficulties or impatience that come with seeking employment may cause one to turn to criminal activities such as drug trafficking or robbery (20). This is another way to generate income to meet basic human needs and afford other luxuries. To some it is an act of desperation, since unemployment forces them to turn to crime. For others, it is an acceptable way of making money since they are too lazy or lack the right qualifications to be employed legitimately. It is also an easier method to finance a lavish lifestyle that they ordinarily are unable to afford (Solomon 20-21).

Methods in Which Poverty Can Be Eliminated

The elimination of poverty in America should be a joint effort of the government, the civil society and the citizens at large.

The Government

The government can assist in eliminating poverty by overhauling its welfare system to encourage eventual independence of beneficiaries. The welfare program should act only as a bridge between unemployment and the ability to sustain oneself once employment has been secured, in order to discourage healthy individuals from claiming welfare, which can benefit those who are incapable to take care of themselves (Moses 256).

The government should also introduce better rehabilitation programs to help ex-convicts and give them a better chance at fitting into society and securing employment. Self-sustaining or entrepreneurial skills should be taught more in prisons to help former prisoners earn a living if they cannot find employment. This will enable them to be innovative and resourceful or even become employers if they manage to set up their own businesses.

The government can also avail a subsidy to former prisoners to enable them to embark on a new life once they are out of prison. This can cater for their expenses as they re-adjust to the society and look for employment. Better education opportunities can be offered to those behind bars to help in fighting illiteracy, which is one of the main causes of crimes brought about by poverty (Moses 256).

Moses further states that the creation of more job opportunities by the government is another method of eradicating poverty. The government can also invest more in job trainings and placement programs in addition to service programs that can support young unemployed youth e.g. YouthBuild. Such programs foster a sense of responsibility early in a life of a young adult. They are taught the value of hard work and the rewards that come with it in addition to having an opportunity to interact with their peers.

The Center for American Progresss Poverty proposes that the government should re-establish the federal minimum wage at fifty percent of the average wage, thus letting it increase as the years go by, and, in addition, it should review housing policies to ensure access to quality housing for the underprivileged in the society (256-257).

The Civil Society

The Civil Society should work hand in hand with the government to eliminate poverty. Government support of civil society projects helps to implement and discover new effective methods in eliminating poverty in America. The government and civil society can also co-operate in conducting research to determine the effectiveness of poverty reduction projects and seek alternative solutions if a given approach is not successful. They will also be able to determine successful methods and implement them in other areas (Moses 256).

Private charities establish a moral tie between the giver and the recipient. Therefore, the recipient is likely to appreciate the efforts of the civil society because they are genuinely committed to help rather than just perform a duty, as it happens is the case with government welfare program (Biddle 38).

In summation, the most realistic effort towards eliminating poverty must come from the civil society and not government policies and welfare. Moreover, a large amount of evidence and experience suggests that non-governmental organizations such as private charities are more effective than the government welfare programs. This may be due to the reason that government welfare provides inducements for detrimental behavior; non-governmental organizations can help in fostering self-reliance, self-belief and independence.

Private charities can also customize their methods and direct their efforts at addressing the exact obstacles that are hindering people from overcoming poverty (Tanner More Welfare). It is also a welcome to the government welfare program to change, which despite a few successes, needs to be revamped to encourage beneficiaries to be more independent unless a recipient is severely disabled. This will help them to be responsible members of the society and play their part in building the American economy.

The Society at Large

Society can aid in poverty eradication by providing support to both the government and civil society. Society should also be more accommodating of the less fortunate by discouraging biased behavior and attitudes against poor and minorities, and helping those who are unable to fend for themselves (Biddle 33).

Society can also create a conducive atmosphere to unify social classes. Opportunities should be availed to deserving individuals regardless of their socio-economic status and equality should be observed in all aspects. However, this is a complicated task, which will need maximum co-operation between the classes. This unity can only be fostered by the society being more acceptive and tolerant of the underprivileged and acknowledging that they also have a role to play in the society. Therefore, social exclusion and inequality will gradually be eliminated from the community and reduce poverty that results from these aspects (Biddle 184).

Being more accommodating of ex-prisoners is another step that society can take in eliminating poverty. The stigma these individuals face from their own friends, families and communities can result in them resorting to illegal activities due to social exclusion and depression. Stigma can also make them miss employment opportunities, facilitating unemployment and poverty statistics in the country.


Poverty can only be eliminated if the entire society comes together to address this vice and its negative effects. This includes the government and other organizations, such as non-governmental organizations. Poverty is not only felt by those who are undergoing it, but also by the entire society. Moreover, communities feel its repercussions, as it is impossible for a society and a country to move forward in development of economy if the issue of poverty is not solved. Therefore, poverty needs to be eliminated to enable everyone, regardless of their economic status to enjoy equal opportunities and most importantly, their basic human rights as members of a successful society.

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