Bell Carolyn Shaw 1995 What Is Poverty essay

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Bell, Carolyn Shaw. (1995). What is Poverty? The American Journal of Economics and Sociology, 54(2) 161-173.

Shaw takes the position that the very definition of "poverty level" -- defined in 1965 by Mollie Orshanksy, an economist with the Social Security department -- was originally used "as the percentage of income necessary to buy a nutritious diet" (Bell, 1995, p. 1). Bell goes on later in the article to refer to Orshanksy as "a brilliant economist" whose work set the stage for the government's system of determining the poverty level There were two alternative methods of measuring the poverty level following Orshanksy's attempt -- one was very flexible and variable, asking people to give what they think was the poverty income level juxtaposed with "official statistics" and the second was comparing poverty levels to "current median income" (Bell, p. 1).

Why have a poverty level category in the U.S. Department of Labor? There are many good reasons why a poverty level is important to compute and to attach to individuals' lives. To mention a few: a) in order to be eligible for public housing, a person's poverty level must be known; b) to qualify for low cost health insurance, one has to prove his or her earnings are on or below the poverty level; and c) applying for a loan to attend college requires statistical data showing the person is earning below the poverty level (Bell, p. 1)

There are guidelines for food stamps and Medicaid as well, and if a person is only earning minimum wage, no doubt that person is "below the poverty line," Bell writes. The article keeps coming back to Orshanksy and her innovative approach, which is noteworthy to Bell because at the time Orshanksy devised the food-diet-related approach to the poverty level, there were no other approaches to the poverty level.

Orshanksy simply knew that most families spent about one-third of their earnings on food to put on the table. It was simple, she figured, the poverty level should be about "three times the dollar amount needed to buy a nutritious but low-cost diet" (Bell, p. 1). The reasoning today seems completely out of whack, because what people spend on food -- nutritious or not -- is largely dependent on whether they shop at big box supermarkets, corner groceries, or farmer's markets.

In fact Bell notes that today people don't spend a third of their earnings on food; it's more like 15%, which is one reason why the formula for calculating the poverty level has long since been upgraded (This article was published sixteen years ago). Bell explains, "Orshanksy herself deplored the continued use of her method years after it was invented," Bell explains on page 2.

So what is the determination for the poverty level? Bell's first answer is vague and not helpful at all. Her second definition is a bit more on the mark: poverty is defined in direct relation to "the current median income, which is higher than what half the population receives and lower than what half the population receives" (Bell, p. 2). So in 1992 by defining poverty as half of the median American income would put it at $13,000 for an "elderly couple" since the median for that category is $26,000, Bell continues. Does that make sense?

Looking quickly at other definitions doesn't provide a lot of brainy input; the "wise geek" says "…the poverty line rises or falls every year according to the Consumer Price Index, and other factors" (Wise Geek). The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) claims the "federal poverty measure" is "updated each year by the Census Bureau… although they were originally developed by Mollie Orshanksy of the Social Security Administration" (HHS). Well thankfully Mollie Orshanksy has not been forgotten for her trailblazing work figuring out how to arrive at a fair formula for those under the poverty level who wish to apply for health insurance, college loans, and other benefits.

Manis, Jerome G. (1974). Assessing the Seriousness of Social Problems. Social Problems,

22(1), 1-15.

The author of this 1974 article sets the rules of assessment firmly at the outset. The "Magnitude" of social problems refers to the frequency or extent of those problems, he says; "primacy" alludes to the "casual impact or multiplicity of influences" of social problems; and "scientific criteria" are the "less erratic" and "less ethnocentric" way to determine the seriousness of social problems. In other words, Manis wants the description of a social problem to be objective and fair, and using science is the best way, he infers.

Manis is also -- or "was" in 1974 -- out in this article to show which social problems are the most significant -- and which social problems can be linked to "anomalies" -- that is, some researchers and scholars use definitions of social problems that amount to "anomalies" (false descriptions) that lead to misunderstandings. Manis wants the theories of social problems to match the reality of those social problems, plain and simple.

On page two Manis goes through a litany of descriptions of social problems, and lets readers know that a key shortcoming in terms of the public understanding of social problems is "the inclusion of possibly spurious or 'phantom conditions'" (p. 2). By "spurious" the author is suggesting that some people view smoking marijuana as a "social problem" and some people view long hair on a young male as a "social problem" -- as long as "the public is in opposition" to those problems. He goes on to suggest that counting on the public to correctly define and identify a social problem is a mistake because there are "distortions" and "absurdities" associated with public opinion (p. 3).

Also on page 3, Manis is arriving at the salient point of his essay: since sociologists have continued to rely on "popular values" as the main criteria of social problems, there is a need for responsible scholars to use a more scientific approach to identifying social problems. His "four perspectives" are offered in the sense of clearing up those spurious anomalies; the four perspectives should prove useful in determining real social problems, which he defines as "…those social conditions, identified by scientific inquiry and values as detrimental to the well-being of human societies" (p. 3). The four that should be taken under consideration when determining real social problems are: a) public conceptions; b) the viewpoint of proven professionals; c) "sociological knowledge"; and d) the "norms and values of science" (p. 3).

Manis insists on the use of science (on page 6 he uses "scientific sociology") when determining social problems because using "personal values" as a litmus test for whether or not a certain issue (like using marijuana) is truly a social problem is inserting "values" where science and objective knowledge should rule (p. 6). Manis goes to great narrative lengths to restate his point over and over, which is not unusual when a sociologist tackles a pertinent issue. The redundancy of his essay makes it tedious, but the alert reader can find nuggets within the gray presentation that stand out and are wholly useful.

For example, there are "primary social problems" (those that have "multiple detrimental consequences for society") and there are also "secondary social problems" (those that are harmful and that result from "more influential social problems" and that tend to generate "additional problems" (Manis, p. 9). The third level vis-a-vis Manis' social problem description he calls "tertiary social problems" (also "harmful conditions" that result from primary and secondary social problems. He offers useful examples that are the most pragmatic, worthwhile portions of his essay. For example, the primary social problem is "racism" and in this instance the secondary problems include "slums," "malnutrition," and "desertion"; spinning off from the secondary social problem of slums is "delinquency" and "addiction"; spinning off from "desertion" is "dependency"; and the tertiary social problems that resulted from "malnutrition" are "illness, mental retardation and apathy" (Manis, p. 10). Sociologists and psychologists in 2011 might not agree with everything in this 1974-produced essay, but it is a fascinating starting point for defining social problems today.

Edelman, Murray. (1988). Constructing the Political Spectacle. Chicago: University of Chicago


While Manis was discussing the definition of social problems -- and how to approach an understanding of social problems -- Murray delves more into the "construction of conditions" that lead to social problems and lead to the continuing control and power of the media and the government over the personal lives of citizens (Murray, 1988, p. 13). Murray tries to "bring into the open" some of the language and actions that relate to social problems and are often viewed with silence. He makes good points on page 13, asserting that many injustices are not seen as "problems" until years later (to those who are biased against minorities, for example, their bigotry is not a problem but the people who advocate "equal rights legislation" are the problem).

Murray has an interesting way of approach a particular subject in his book. His style…[continue]

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