Theoretical Approach to Generational Poverty Term Paper

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Theoretical Approach to Generational Poverty

Poverty is one of the most pressing social problems and the generational nature of poverty remains one of the reasons it is so difficult to eradicate poverty. While there are several different theories suggesting why poverty is transmitted from generation to generation and theorists sometimes strongly disagree on those reasons, there is almost universal acceptance of the idea that poverty is transmitted from one generation to another. In fact, there has been a significant amount of study directed at chronic poverty in the developed and developing countries. This research suggests that while poverty may be simplistically defined as a lack of money, the problem of poverty actually addresses the "absence of transfer of different forms of capital: human, social-cultural, social-political, financial/material and environmental/natural" (Moore, 2001). This more complex definition of poverty helps explain why simply providing financial resources to a family does not generally fix the problem of generational poverty, and may, in some circumstances, actually exacerbate the underlying issues contributing to poverty. In order to understand this position, it is important to examine some of the theoretical models that are frequently used to describe and explain generational poverty.

Theoretical Models

When examining poverty it is important to keep in mind that poverty has a fluid definition and what is considered impoverished in one location and time period may not be considered impoverished in another time period. This is an important factor to keep in mind because scholarly and practical approaches to solving the problem of poverty have often approached the issue as if there is a single definition of poverty. For example, "one frequently employed perspective can be designated as a minimum needs or subsistence approach to the concept of poverty" (Retzlaff, 1978). Under this approach, only those people who lack the resources to meet their own basic subsistence needs are considered impoverished. The problem with this definition is that it incorporates some of the assumptions about resource allocation that actually define some of the sociological theories that define poverty, by suggesting that some people should only be entitled to that allocation of resources that will sustain them, rather than having a right to access to a fair division of resources. Examining the transmission of poverty from generation to generation, one sees how versions of this idea that some people should consider themselves lucky to get enough to survive help drive poverty in communities and families.

This paper will examine the concept of generational poverty from three sociological perspectives: conflict theory, social learning theory, and feminist theory. It will focus on the common issues these theories highlight as causes or contributors to generational poverty issues, to help determine which factors are most likely to contribute to this endemic social problem. It will also focus on differences in the theories, and how different theorists may find different causes and explanations for the same social phenomenon, in order to determine if there may be multiple causes for poverty in different generations, and also to examine whether interventions proposed by advocates of one position might actually be considered harmful or otherwise counterproductive by advocates of another perspective.

Conflict Theory

Conflict theory is one of the most appealing ways to explain poverty because, in many ways, it focuses on the idea that resources are limited and access to resources is at the heart of many intergroup conflicts. Conflict theory was developed in the wake of the industrial revolution, which highlighted and exacerbated existing class differences in industrialized nations. While many theorists are associated with conflict theory, Karl Marx is the theorist credited with originating and defining the theory. "Karl Marx led a kind of conflict scholarship that produced credible and powerful analyses of conflict between classes" (Bartos & Wehr, 2002). However, while Marx was not the traditional scholar in that he engaged in a significant amount of political activity, it is important to separate Marx's scholarship from the political perspective commonly referred to as Marxism because there are salient differences in the two approaches. Conflict theory focuses on the differences in power between different groups. Moreover, conflict theories challenge the notion that the dominant perspective is the result of a consensus of the people, even in democracies, but, instead, suggest that the dominant perspective is the way that the groups that are in power retain control over those groups that are not in power.

Conflict theory relates to poverty in a number of different ways, depending on the location of the dispute, but is perhaps best demonstrated by the scorn that many Americans had for the 99% protestors in the summer of 2011. There is almost universal support for capitalism in America, despite the fact that the distribution of wealth in America has grown increasingly uneven, and concerns that the American middle class may largely disappear, to be replaced by what is currently the upper-middle class with members of the true middle class sliding into the lower economic class.

Social Learning Theory

Social learning Theory posits that people learn from their social contexts and that much of social behavior is learned through observation and then practiced through modeling. Social Learning Theory is associated with a number of theorists, but Albert Bandura is considered to be the pioneer behind Social Learning Theory. Bandura believed that people learn social behaviors through observational learning, which can occur in three ways: live modeling, instruction, and symbolic learning. Social learning theory is an interactionist model, because, just as the social environment influences the learner, the learner influences the social environment. Bandura did not believe that social learning was passive, but that several elements had to exist in order to promote learning. These elements include attention, retention, reproduction, and motivation.

Feminist Theory

Feminist theory if considered an alternative sociological theory because it presents a non-mainstream view of social conditions. Women make up half of society, therefore, the fact that feminist theory is considered alternative should, in and of itself, give one insight into the role that women play in society. Feminist theory is a subgroup of control theory and it looks at gender, with the perspective that males have traditionally exercised power in society and continue to advocate laws, policies, and social norms that reinforces male dominance. Feminist theory suggests that there has been intentional, systemic oppression of women by men, and that this dominance is not only current, but also historical in almost all societies. Feminist theory argues that the fact that women and children are disproportionately represented among the impoverished is an intentional by-product of choices that have intentionally been picked in order to keep women dependent upon males.


Clearly, there are a number of different ways to approach the study of poverty. While these different approaches may find different macro-causes for poverty, the micro-causes for poverty are well established. Lack of access to educational resources, job training, nutrition, housing, and other societal resources are all known to contribute to poverty. Likewise, related social issues such as criminality, drug or alcohol addiction, teenage parenting, divorce, and incarceration rates all impact poverty in the community. It is important to keep these common causes in mind when examining poverty from any particular perspective, because the different theoretical perspectives help explain the root of the micro-causes, and may be helpful to anyone seeking to eradicate poverty. Furthermore, as the following discussion highlights, it is unlikely that any single perspective can wholly explain poverty. It seems clear that the wealthy benefit from keeping the lower classes dependent upon them for jobs and assets. It seems equally clear that males benefit from having dependent females. However, logical support for conflict theory and feminist theory (a subgroup of conflict theory) does not mean that poverty is also not a learned behavior, as posited by social learning theory. For the practical sociologist, theoretical perspective is important to increase understanding, but should not dictate behavior.

Conflict Theory

Conflict theory does not view poverty as an unintentional side product of other elements of modern life as some approaches to sociology view it. Instead, conflict theory views poverty as something intentional. The main idea behind conflict theory is that there is an intentional exercise of power by one group over another group, and that the control of resources plays a fundamental role in maintaining that system of power and control. Therefore, it is important to keep in mind that conflict theory does not suggest that poverty is the result of a lack of resources or even the result of a struggle over an inadequate number of resources. Instead, conflict theory is an intentional pitting of one group against another so that the dominant group can retain power. Conflict theory also suggests that as long as the underlying structures that establish a system of poverty are in place, most notably a capitalistic, profit-driven environment that poverty will continue to exist, despite the argument by those who are pro-capitalism that unfettered economic growth will actually be the key to resolving the issue of poverty.

In order to understand the role that capitalism and…

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