Poverty is the condition of having limited income or resources. At its extreme form, poverty is characterized by a lack of basic human needs such as food, clothing, housing, health services and clean water. Individuals who are victims of poverty lack adequate resources to enjoy decent living standards. Across the world, poverty is the most pressing socio-economic issue. Even in developed countries, poverty is a major problem. In the United States (US), more than 40 million people, or 14% of the countrys population, live below the poverty threshold (Haymes, Maria and Reuben 11). The poverty situation in the US is caused by many factors as explained below.
Lack of assets and income to obtain basic needs is by far the greatest cause of poverty in the US. A study by O'Connor found that lack of human assets (good health and capacity for labor), natural assets (land) and financial assets (access to credit) have made it difficult for many people to escape poverty in the country (547-562). Adverse fluctuations in the national economy cause a dramatic increase in unemployment. For example, during the 2007-2011 credit crunch, the American economy plunged into a severe recession forcing thousands of companies to cut jobs. Other companies closed business, which forced many people to lose their only source of income (Haymes, Maria and Reuben 23). It has been noted that even for those individuals who have jobs, low wages and lack of job security and benefits means that they cannot escape poverty. Loss of employment affects not only individuals but also their dependents. Prolonged unemployment drives people into homelessness and severe poverty, which causes further suffering.
Lack of education is the second leading cause of unemployment in the US. Many people from lower socio-economic backgrounds (especially blacks and immigrants) cannot pursue higher education. Consequently, they can only get low paying jobs with little or no benefits, meaning that they have to support their families on meager salaries. Such individuals are unable to afford a decent education for their children, which means that their children are also likely to be poor. As such, lack of education can cause a vicious cycle of poverty, running across family generations. Researchers have shown that most people are poor because their parents were also underprivileged (Haymes, Maria and Reuben 17).
Rising cost of medical expenses is another important cause of poverty in the US. Over their lifetimes, most people develop severe illnesses, which require urgent medical attention. Some of these diseases strike unexpectedly and require extended hospital stays and expensive medications. Certain treatments such as chemotherapy for cancer, major surgeries, and elderly care can cost households thousands of dollars, thereby leaving families with nothing to save or invest. Although medical insurance may help cater for some of these medical expenses, it is never enough. Philippou reports that some of the costly practices done to manage illness have condemned most households to severe and inescapable levels of poverty (105).
Drug and substance abuse is also a significant contributor to poverty in the US. According to O'Connor, drug abuse is prevalent among low-income people (548). Drugs can cause addictive behaviors and dominate the life of the user. Drug use causes poverty since drugs (such as cocaine and heroin) are very expensive, especially for poor people. Besides spending money on drugs, users also suffer other economic effects such as reduced wages due to decreased job efficiency, loss of employment, the high cost of drug-related offenses, and increased medical expenses due to ill health. All these effects drive drug users and their families to extreme levels of poverty.
Vulnerability is also an important cause of poverty. According to Philippou, individuals from lower socio-economic classes are vulnerable to poor and inadequate housing and lack of stable jobs (108). Their families are prone to diseases such as tuberculosis and malaria. They are also at increased risk of arbitrary arrests and mistreatment by authorities. Women from low-income communities are particularly at risk of social exclusion in addition to being more probable to be targets of violence and sexual crimes. All these risks facing poor people due to their life circumstances make them vulnerable in the society. Associated with this vulnerability is the inability to cope with adverse social shocks, which feeds into the severity of poverty.
In order to overcome all these causes of poverty, it is necessary to improve access to medical facilities, education and means of livelihood for people from poor communities. Also, measures should be put in place to curb drug use among poor people (O'Connor 560).
Responsibilities of the society in helping poor people
The society has a role to play in helping poor people to escape poverty. Poverty is an outcome of political, economic and social processes that reinforce and interact with each other in ways that can worsen the predicament of poor people (Osberg and Xu 51). Therefore, society can tackle poverty by addressing these processes and ensuring that they interact in ways that result in positive outcomes for the poor people. To attack poverty effectively, it requires society to unite in promoting opportunities, enhancing security, and facilitating empowerment.
Promotion of opportunities
Promotion of economic opportunities is critical in the fight against poverty. Poor people suffer from vulnerabilities and lack resources that can help them take advantage of possibilities to acquire wealth. The society can help poor people to exploit opportunities by providing them with necessary resources such as infrastructural facilities and social amenities. Human capabilities like good health and education are important facets in the promotion of possibilities for poverty reduction. Also important is access to and ownership of the means of production such as land, financial services, market, and infrastructure. In addition, opportunities for improving social networks can play an instrumental role in the fight against poverty (O'Connor 558).
Since the state holds the power to raise revenues through taxation and use as an instrument for wealth distribution, it has a central role to play in enhancing access to opportunities by poor people. For example, the state can negotiate favorable land reforms and housing policies to enable poor people to get access to land and shelter. This integral role of the state can be complemented by the corresponding participation of the private sector and the civil society. For instance, private companies can offer jobs and hence lift poor people out of poverty. The civil society can push for social reforms that benefit the poor (Osberg and Xu 61-63).
Empowerment of the poor
Empowerment means enhancing the prospects and capacity of vulnerable and poor people to influence social and state institutions that impact their lives. It can be achieved by strengthening their participation in national and local political processes and decision making. It can also be reached by removing barriers (social, political and legal) that work to the disadvantage of poor people. According to Smith, building financial assets for the poor people empowers them by enabling them to engage in meaningful and profitable economic production (55). For instance, extending second credit facilities to the poor people can help them to start small businesses. These businesses will not only serve as a source of income but will also make them resilient during periods of economic downturns.
Philippou argues that entrenchment and support for democratic institutions are the most important mechanism for empowering poor people (103-115). Democracy reinforces equality, good governance, and accountability in the use of state resources. In countries with mature democratic institutions (such as the US), empowerment of poor people can confidently influence the quality and pace of their economic participation. Improving governance and accountability means reducing corruption and strengthening regulatory and administrative capacity. In non-democratic societies, the state tends to be more responsive to the concerns of the rich people and elites as opposed to the needs of poor people. Therefore, the extent to which poor people are empowered relies heavily on the system of governance in place and whether it is sensitive to the plight of the least advantaged members of society.
Security is critical in the fight against poverty. According to Smith, enhancing security means reducing poor peoples vulnerability to diseases, adverse economic trends, and natural disasters (54-56). Some of the most effective tools for security enhancement include unemployment insurance, old age assistance, affordable health care, promotion of microfinance programs, cash transfers, and workfare programs. Helping poor people to cope with or mitigate these shocks when they occur makes them secure in their communities. Moreover, creating and supporting institutions for helping poor people can make them feel safe enough to venture into high return businesses to lift themselves out of poverty.
Haymes Stephen, Maria Vidal de Haymes and Reuben Miller. The Routledge Handbook of Poverty in the United States. London: Routledge, 2015. Print.
O'Connor Alice. "Poverty Research and Policy for the Post-Welfare Era". Annual Review of Sociology. 26(2000): 547562. Print.
Osberg Lars and Xu Kuan. "International Comparisons of Poverty Intensity: index decomposition and bootstrap inference". The Journal of Human Resources. 35(2000): 5181. Print.
Philippou Lambros. Public Space, Enlarged Mentality and Being-In-Poverty. Philosophical Inquiry. 32.1(2010): 103-115. Print.
Smith Stephen. Ending Global Poverty: a guide to what works. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. Print.
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