Why Are People Poor? Explained Through Three Theoretical Perspectives

Poverty is often misconstrued and largely defined by ones experiences living in or around impoverished communities. It takes on many forms, and affects people from all walks of life at any point in life. Why does poverty exist? What does poverty look like? How do people become poor? These are questions that have been raised by researchers and society at large, as poverty continues to remain a constant social injustice in our nation. Here are three different theoretical explanations for poverty.


  1. Individualistic Perspective

  • Poverty is seen as a result of one’s personal failings, bad choices, and shortcomings.
  • Genetic Inferiority- individuals who have severe disabilities or illnesses that prevent them from earning a living (DiNitto & McNeece p.  293-294)
  • Failure to function for psychological reasons- due to lack of motivation, laziness, and irresponsibility (DiNitto & McNeece p.  293-294)
  • Poverty is viewed as a choice
  • Opportunities are there, however these individuals choose not to pursue them
  • Characteristics of the poor based on this perspective: They are, “taking advantage of the welfare system, living off of the government, dirty, lazy, irresponsible, ‘did it to themselves’, & worthless.

  1. Cultural Perspective

  • Poverty is defined in terms of the values, beliefs, and behaviors among the poor that are handed down from one-generation to the next (DiNitto & McNeece p. 294-295)

As stated by Oscar Lewis, it can be broken down into four categories

Social Engagement:

  • Because the impoverished are less likely to enjoy the benefits of social supports and networks, community resources and other mechanisms known as social capital, they are distrustful of social institutions. (DiNitto & McNeece p.294)

Communal Engagement:

  • Focuses on communities that lack organization or activities beyond the family unit. Because residents lack the ability to engage in positive activities, they suffer from lower-quality public services, schools and lack of safety ((DiNitto & McNeece p. 295)

Family Unit

  • Families may fail to socialize children to become healthy, empowered, active adults (DiNitto & McNeece p. 295).
  • Youth in these families are likely to give birth at an early age endangering single-parent households that lack resources (DiNitto & McNeece p. 295).

Individual Conduct:

  • People living in poverty typically suffer from weak egos, have poor impulse control, find delaying gratification difficult, and have a sense of doom and fatalism (DiNitto & McNeece p. 295).


  1. Systemic Perspective

  • Poverty is a result of failings in larger social and economic systems, including the capital market, public assistance programs, and other institutions of power (DiNitto & McNeece p. 296)
  • Beyond the control of the individual
  • In order to address poverty, there needs to be changes in the social, political, & economics spheres that create opportunities for the impoverished to succeed (DiNitto & McNeece p. 296)
  • Institutional discrimination such as sexism, racism, & homophobia prevents people from escaping poverty (DiNitto & McNeece p. 296)
  • Corporate welfare, off-Shore tax-havens, tax-exempt bonds, tariffs on foreign imports, privatization of public services, military excursions, are ways in which the ruling class continues to keep the concentration of wealth within their social class


DiNitto, D., & McNeece, C. (2008). Social work: Issues and opportunities in a
challenging profession (3rd ed.). Chicago, IL: Lyceum Books.


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