Outline the main sociological explanations of poverty in western societies. Which of these explanations do you think is most useful? Give reasons for your answer.

Outline the main sociological explanations of poverty in western societies. Which of these explanations do you think is most useful? Give reasons for your answer.


Sociologists and research have agreed that the world “POVERTY” doesn’t have a fix definition or fix measure, which can apply or be acceptable to everyone. According to (thinkquest.org) website debates that “some people describe poverty as a lack of essential items, such as food, clothing, water and shelter needed for proper living”, while UN’s world summit on social development, the ‘Copenhagen Declaration’ described poverty as “…a condition characterised by severe deprivation of basic human needs, including food, safe drinking water, sanitation facilities, health, shelter, education and information”. There is no doubt that many questions will be thought according to both definitions, for example, why people have a house, can effort food to eat everyday and have TV in their living room, still classified themselves as in poverty categoryOr why people have one job or two and straggle to have enough money to live onObviously, the answer of those questions can show that there is not a specific definition of poverty, it depends of the lack of something which a person needs or the situation and the views of a person giving the definition.

However, Sociologists and researchers have come up with two different approaches to explain poverty which is absolute poverty and relative poverty. What it means to be poor is an important question for sociologists to deeply look at. In this essay, it will discuss the main sociological explanation of poverty, which is firstly absolute poverty and secondly relative poverty .In that way, it will be easier to clarify the sort of poverty in different situation. Also, this topic will take in consideration western societies for example (UK, U.S, etc…) to explain those approaches. Finally, it will look at which of those approaches can be useful to most of people to understand poverty.

An absolute poverty can be defined as the minimum required sustaining life’ (Collins Educational, 1997) or ‘an absolute standard means one defined by reference to the actual needs of the poor and not by reference to expenditure of those who are not poor. A family is poor if it cannot afford to eat’ (Keith Joseph, 1979).The best way to understand the concept of absolute poverty also sometimes know as subsistence poverty, in western societies, is to measure how many people in a country are to be called poor, for instance the amount of income someone needs in order to buy necessities, or the income of the person who has the twentieth lowest income if the population was hundred. Absolute poverty can only proceed and understand in comparison of income. Taking an example of UK, according to (news.bbc.co.uk) reported that over five million people live in “absolute poverty”, that it is because their incomes don’t cover all necessity their need to live. It is easy to measure the absolute poverty, while comparing individual incomes but it is impossible to search for an objective measure of absolute poverty. For instance, to calculate exactly how much income each person need to be keep out of absolute poverty while things got up each year. People try to fund jobs but because they have no experience, they have to live on benefit, in that condition they have to try to live on their level, like buying cheapest things their found and many times unhealthily .(Bradshaw et al,1987) argue that “The living standards of families on social benefit, particularly those on the ordinary rate of benefit, is harsh: the food is short on calories and even that is only achieved with the most determined of self-control in purchasing only the cheapest items and avoiding all waste”. Furthermore, sociologists have discovered that absolute poverty in western societies; can also be explain looking the concept of underclass, which is defined according to W.G.Runciman as “those beneath the working classes”.Runciman’s definition, means those who live on benefits paid by the state, are unable to participate in the market at all, for example teenage pregnancy, permanent unemployment, crime, drug ect….Sociologists have agreed to point the term Behavioural when explaining absolute poverty in underclass debate. A behavioural explanation consists of kind of people behaviour different in society. For example people don’t want to work at all or instant to buy what their need to survive with the money the state give to them, they use the money to buy drugs, alcohol ect…After all ,researches and sociologists agreed that absolute poverty still have a big place in western societies.

The second approach which is relative poverty can be defined as ‘the lack of resources in comparison with other members of a given society’ (social.jrank.org).In the Townsend’s book “Poverty in the united kingdom” explained the concept of the relative poverty in many ways. This essay will try to outline one of example given. Townsend argued that “any preliminary outline of available evidence about poverty must include evidence about inequality”. Talking about inequality, many researches have agreed with Townsend that inequality is one of the main types of explanations of relative poverty in western societies. Inequality can be on health, income, household or wealth. For instance, inequality on incomes can be explain in two ways.First, a weekly or monthly income of each person received on his wage in the country and then, income can also be explain as a support from the government for those don’t have a job, unable to work for different reasons or are not reaching the average income in the country. In UK, for example, the income is not the same; some people can receive ?200 per week while others can receive ?400 per week for their wages, which make a UK in relative poverty because if the wages are not equal, that means buying needs are not equal as well. “In 2008/09, 13.5 million people in the UK were living in households below the 60% low-income threshold after deducting housing costs. This is around a fifth (20%) of the population” (poverty.org.uk).That shows most of the population in UK live in relative poverty because of the inequality incomes. Also in UK, there is income support from the government to help families, old people or others, in order to get on level on basic standard of living. But the income they receive, are not all equal. For example ,a family with 2 adults and 2 children will not received the same amount of income with a single person, the inequality of those incomes explain also that in the UK incomes are very greatly varied. In the side of USA, inequalities still the main issue which cause the country to live on poverty. ‘The average amount by which poor people’s incomes fell below the poverty line was greater in 2004 than any other year since recordkeeping the poor fell below the poverty line was $7,775 per family in 2004’(usccb.org).

For example, in USA, a singer mum with 2 children, working full-time, would make $10,712 before taxes that will make a wage of $4,355 which is completely below the poverty threshold set by the federal government. (usccb.org).

It is difficult to compare poverty levels in different countries specially in western societies because most of them are capitalist countries, but doesn’t means all of them relative poverty reign .Relative poverty is measured and explained in western societies according to average income of the country. If the income is not equal, that means health, household, wealth, will not be equal as well. For instant, people can get any treatments they need when their income reached the average level of the country while others in low level or low income can not effort it.

In conclusion, even if poverty is defined in different ways, sociologists and researches have come up to one key point which is ‘a family is poor if it cannot afford to eat’ (Keith Joseph, 1979).Basically, if a family cannot manage to buy food, the family is automatically in poverty category. Poverty should also be defined in absolute poverty, because according to the definition given above, if a person is listed in absolute poverty, it cannot effort the basic necessities. When a person cannot get food or basic needs, that person is poor and in absolute poverty.

In other hand, when defined poverty in relative poverty approach, which is measured by comparing incomes from someone to others, it doesn’t clearly describe poverty, because the people in question have all the basic necessities to live a healthy lifestyle but not the luxury .some people will always earn more than the others .

To explain poverty in western societies, absolute poverty should be used to measure or define poverty instant of relative poverty. By comparing incomes, countries should used relative poverty instant of absolute poverty.