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.


American Homelessness in 10 Fast Facts

1. On one night in January, 578,424 people across the country were homeless, sleeping either outside or in an emergency/transitional housing program.

2. In 2014, the national rate of homelessness was 18.3 homeless individuals for every 10,000 people in the general population.

Rates of homelessness in each individual state ranged from only 7 per 10,000 in Mississippi, to a whopping 120 per 10,000 in Washington, DC.

3. In 2015, federal funding devoted to addressing homelessness totaled $4.5 billion, and this aid is slowly but surely helping!

4. From 2013 to 2014, our capacity for rapid re-housing increased substantially from under 20,000 beds to nearly 38,000 beds.

That’s an increase of about 90%!

5. Additionally, he number of permanent supportive housing beds nationwide also grew from under 16,000 beds to over 300,000 beds!

This increase was seen in 35 states across the country, but unfortunately 15 states saw a decrease in permanent supportive housing beds during the same time period.

6. The greatest decreases in homelessness have been seen among veterans and among people who experience chronic homelessness.

Since 2009, veteran homelessness has declined by 33%, and since 2007 chronic homelessness has decreased by 30%.

7. From 2013 to 2014, the number of homeless individuals in America decreased by 2.3% across the nation. However, this change was very different state to state.

Arizona, North Dakota, South Carolina, and Wyoming decreased homelessness by over 20% in each state! Yet other states saw great increases in homelessness, namely Nevada (+25%) and Idaho (+18%).

8. Despite these steps forward, there is still much work to be done. In 2014 over 30% of homeless individuals across the country remained unsheltered (living somewhere unfit for human habitation) on any given night.

Many states are working hard to address unsheltered homelessness, such as South Dakota who decreased this population by 84% from 2013 to 2014. However, Idaho saw a 69% increase and Maine saw a 50% increase in this population.

9. Though the number of chronically homeless individuals has decreased overall, those who remain chronically homeless are unsheltered 63% of the time.

10. Of homeless “unaccompanied” children (anyone under 18 who is not attached to a family or household), in 2014 60% of these children were not in a shelter on any given night.

Of youths aged 18-24 who are unaccompanied, 46% were still left unsheltered.

Works Cited

The State of Homelessness in America 2015. (2015). National Alliance to End Homelessness. Retrieved February 27, 2016, from http://www.endhomelessness.org/page/-/files/State_of_Homelessness_2015_FINAL_online.pdf

6 Statements that Will Shock You about Poverty in America

Almost 15% of American Households had a hard time getting enough to eat at some point during 2012. (Playspent.org)
Due to multiple factors, getting enough to eat in America can be hard for people who are affected by poverty. The nutritional value of that food is very different too, as food with low nutritional value is cheaper and easier to access. This is why people living in poverty are seen by the general public as “fat with hunger.


An estimated 2.3 to 3.5 million American Experience homelessness each year. (Baggett, O’Connell, Singer & Rigotti, 2010)
Even though it is hard to define homelessness because it manifests in so many ways, this is a general estimate of how many people are homeless in our country. These are numbers that can’t be ignored.


Women have higher rates of health problems than do men and face a greater risk of sexual and physical assault. (Boes & van Wormer, 1997)
Women in poverty face a lot of extra hurdles, such as paying for feminine hygiene products and receiving prenatal care during pregnancy.


43% of the homeless are substance abusers, 26% are mentally ill, 23% are veterans, 19% are employed full-or part-time, and 8% have AIDS or related illnesses (Boes & van Wormer, 1997)
A lot of the co-morbid issues that people in poverty face are continually perpetuated by the vicious cycle of poverty. People in poverty can barely afford to live and are spending a lot of time trying to get benefits, so any kind of mental or physical health care is going to be pushed aside


“That’s how I ended up on the streets, alone and uneducated. I couldn’t read or write.” (Youme. & Horton, 2008)
Access to education is a huge problem for those who live in poverty. As addressed in the Play Spent Poverty Simulator, affording a tutor for children in poverty is not a high priority and often, the parents don’t have the education level to help students. This puts people in poverty at a huge disadvantage.


In the State of NY, according to Gov. Cuomo, if it’s under 32 degrees, DDS must pay for homeless to be housed, regardless of any situation.. (Kelly, Guest Speaker)
While this movement is done with good intentions, our guest speaker Kelly informed us that the NY state government didn’t supply extra funding for this notion, so this can be difficult for shelters in the state to execute. Policy is a huge factor that plays into helping people in poverty, and this is an example of moving one step forward and one step back.



Baggett, T., O’Connell, J., Singer, D., & Rigotti, N. (2010). The Unmet Health Care Needs of Homeless Adults: A National Study. Am J Public Health, 100(7), 1326-1333. http://dx.doi.org/10.2105/ajph.2009.180109

Boes, M., & van Wormer, K. (1997). Social Work With Homeless Women in Emergency Rooms: A Strengths-Feminist Perspective. Affilia, 12(4), 408-426. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/088610999701200404

Playspent.org,. (2016). SPENT. Retrieved 28 February 2016, from http://playspent.org

Youme., & Horton, A. (2008). Pitch black. El Paso, TX: Cinco Puntos Press.

Homelessness and Healthcare

By: Mindy Barnes

According to Baggett, O’Connell, Singer, and Rigotti, it is a disappointing reality that, “[a]n estimated 2.3 to 3.5 million Americans experience homelessness each year” (2010, p. 1326). When it comes to their healthcare, many homeless people visit emergency rooms. Because social welfare programs are constantly being eliminated, emergency rooms are replacing these programs as the primary providers of healthcare for poverty stricken individuals. There is also high ER use among the homeless because most do not have health insurance, especially those with past year employment, and insurance is the key determinant of access to healthcare (Baggett, O’Connell, Singer, & Rigotti, 2010, p. 1329). Healthcare providers will need to address the many negative ways in which homelessness and poverty affect individuals. Such unfortunate impacts on the health and wellbeing of homeless men and women include:



1.It has been found that more than one half of the homeless population suffers from some form of mental illness. But because they lack money and insurance, they are not able to get the proper medication to help with their illness. (Baggett, et al., 2010, p. 1326)


2. This inability to access prescription medications for mental illness can also lead many  down the path of drug and alcohol abuse, particularly as a form of self-medication. (Baggett, et al., 2010, p. 1326)


3. It has also been estimated that two thirds of homeless individuals have severe dental problems, and about 40% have vision impairments. (Baggett, et al., 2010, p. 1326)


4. Most individuals who are living in poverty, are also living in what are called “food deserts”. This means that they do not have access to good quality food, and are often forced to buy unhealthy food from convenience stores or fast food restaurants which can lead to obesity and other health problems. (Kelly Robertson, 02/23/16, Guest Lecture)


5. The population of homeless women is growing rapidly, and they are considered to be an extremely vulnerable population with higher rates of health problems than homeless men. Homeless women are more likely to be victims of physical violence and sexual assault, which can lead to bodily injuries or STDs. (Boes & van Wormer, 1997, p. 409)



Boes and van Wormer point out that, “[h]omeless people are at a greater risk for health problems than is the general public because of the harsh living conditions associated with being homeless and because of the inadequate system of health care delivery that is especially punitive toward people who have no health insurance (Belcher & DiBlasio, 1995)” (1997, p. 409). But it is also important to note that homeless individuals cannot be treated in the same way as the average patient. It is best for healthcare providers to take a social work approach when dealing with this extremely vulnerable population. One example of such an approach would be the strengths-oriented and feminist framework, which, “allows social workers to approach women’s needs both on a personal level and within the larger political and social context. In contrast to a diagnostic, pathology-based approach, social work practice from this framework looks beyond a client’s symptoms—for example, an unkempt appearance and suspicious demeanor—to positive qualities that can serve as an important resource even in the most desperate circumstances” (Boes & van Wormer, 1997, p. 410). This may include allowing the patient to shower, offering her (or him) a hot meal, and showing the individual unconditional kindness and support (Boes & van Wormer, 1997). Homelessness can happen to anyone, so it is important for healthcare providers and social workers alike to treat these individuals with the respect and compassion they deserve.


Baggett, T., O’Connell, J., Singer, D., & Rigotti, N. (2010). The Unmet Health Care Needs of Homeless Adults: A National Study.  American Journal of Public Health, 1326-1333.

Boes, M., & van Wormer, K. (1997). Social Work with Homeless Women in Emergency Rooms: A Strengths-Feminist Perspective. Affilia, 12(4), 408-426.

Robertson, Kelly. February 23, 2016. Guest Lecture.


Poverty and Homelessness ft. Humans of New York-Julie S.

The images for this week’s listicle feature stories from the famous author of Humans of New York. These are real-life stories of people struggling with the adverse circumstances of poverty and homelessness.

“What was the saddest moment of your life?”
“Probably when I was homeless for a few months.”
“What happened?”
“This city can really chew you up and spit you out. People don’t seem to realize that a lot of the homeless people they pass on the street had homes the week before. (Humans of NY Facebook, July 26, 2013)

“Unless we are willing to say that every other person is lazy, or six out of ten are unmotivated, we must seriously consider the possibility that most poverty is not grounded in personal attitudes or culture, but rather in circumstances often out of the control of those affected” (DiNitto & Mcnee, 2008, 301).

In 2005, 37 million Americans, nearly 13% of the U.S. population, lived below the federally established poverty threshold” (DiNitto & Mcnee, 2008, 302).

An individual making less than $10,160 a year was considered under the threshold.A family of four is considered poor if the household annual income is less than $19,806 (DiNitto & Mcnee, 2008, 301).

According to the study One Nation, Underprivileged: Why American Poverty Affects Us All: 11% of people at age 20 are poor in America, 36% have lived in poverty for at least a year by age 36, and 51% by age 65 (DiNitto & Mcnee, 2008, 303).

“One day a crazy looking homeless guy came to the door, and we were about to close the door on him, but my mother saw him and shouted: ‘Hey Eugene!’ She knew his name! Then she ran around the kitchen putting all sorts of food into tupperware, and brought it out to him. After he left, we asked my mom why she gave him so much food. She told us: ‘You never know how Jesus is going to look when he shows up.’ She was always saying that– it was a spiritual thing. Then you know what happened? Two months later, that same man showed up on the door step, clean shaven, and wearing a suit. And he had an envelope with money for my mother. ‘Ms. Rosa always believed in me,’ he said. I’ll never forget it! Eugene was his name.” -April 4, 2014

Females are found to be at higher risk for homelessness in all of these age ranges (DiNitto & Mcnee, 2008, 303).

In 2003, the average median income for males with a high school diploma was $23, 502 however females annual average was $15, 545. With a bachelor’s degree, both averages increase. For males, to $42,009; and females to $30,426 (DiNitto & Mcnee, 2008, 298).Still we see a significant income gap between men and women.

“We’ve been in the shelter system ever since their father was murdered. We needed his paycheck to pay the rent. We had no choice. He had a good job at the Pepsi factory. We were engaged at the time, and we were about to move upstate. We were even planning to take a trip to Disney World. But when he died, a part of me died. I went into a depression. Everything was moving around me, but I was at a standstill. I didn’t want to do my hair. I didn’t want to be bothered with the kids. We used to go to the park and play, but after their father was killed, we were homebodies. I just wanted to stay at home and cry.” – Excerpt from Humans of NY, May 2, 2015

Poverty levels are surprisingly somewhat higher in rural areas than urban at 14% versus 12% in rural areas (DiNitto & Mcnee, 2008, 304).

The process required for receiving resources through the Department of Social Services is not easy. We learned this in the class simulation with intense paperwork and also from our guest speaker, Kelly Robertson from Opportunities for Broome Inc. She shared with us that in Broome County, there is a 3-year waiting list for housing programs associated with Opportunities for Broome due to over 2,500 referrals for people in need of utility or post eviction help (Robertson).

Help this Humans of New York Homeless Disabled Man

“My mother and I lost our apartment when the landlord raised the rent. She went to live in my aunt’s attic in New Jersey, but there were too many stairs there, so I had to go to the homeless shelter. Most of the people at the shelter have addiction problems and mental issues. I’m living with people that I never thought I’d have to live with. The M35 is the only bus that goes to the shelter. Disabled people are supposed to get on first. But as soon as it gets to the stop, everyone rushes in until it’s full, and the bus driver is too intimidated to say anything. A lot of times it leaves without me.”

The shelter is not always the most comfortable place for people to go. In fact, for some, it can be dangerous. Thus, many people prefer to continue life on the streets. This is observed in the decisions of the protagonist in the book Pitch Black. He compares the shelter to Hell, and instead finds comfort and safety living in the pitch black tunnels of the subways (Landowne & Horton).

There are many unmet healthcare needs for the homeless, unfortunately. Children with a history of foster care are at significant risk as many face “rates of homelessness, unemployment, mental illness, substance abuse, victimization, and lack of health care insurance coverage (Baggett et al., 2010, p.1331).

“Why were you homeless?”
“It just got to a point where my mom couldn’t maintain anymore. The sad part was that it was during high school. So I had to keep it a secret. Cause, you know, it’s high school.” – May 13, 2013

Most importantly, we must be mindful in regards to the challenges that face the homeless, as well as the factors that can cause homelessness. Sometimes the people with the biggest hearts are those with the least… Truly it can happen to anyone. Some causes are beyond the control of others and, therefore, the next time we see someone facing homelessness, we should be less judgmental and more willing to help.


Homelessness can be very confusing for children, and it comes with a lot of misconceptions. We try to untangle that confusion as soon as they arrive: ‘No, you’re not a bum. You don’t live in a cardboard box. You don’t stink. Mom is not a bad person. She isn’t crazy. This is not forever.’ We want to undo some of the trauma of homelessness because we don’t want children to view themselves as homeless for the rest of their lives.” – Excerpt from Humans of New York, May 2, 2015

If you find these stories inspiring, consider learning more about the organization working with many of the people in this listicle through the link below!

“This is one of a series of portraits featuring residents and staff of the Win Homeless Shelter for Women And Children. In addition to providing programs and services aimed at breaking the cycle of homelessness, Win provides shelter for 4500 people across NYC every night, including 2700 children.” – Brandon Stanton, Author of Humans of NY     

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

Horton, A. (2008). Pitch black : Don’t be skerd (1st ed.). El Paso, TX: Cinco Puntos Press.

Baggett, Travis P., O’Connell, James J., Singer, Daniel E., & Rigotti, Nancy A. (2010). The unmet health care needs of homeless adults: A national study.(RESEARCH AND PRACTICE)(Author abstract). The American Journal of Public Health, 100(7), 1326.



6 Facts You Need to Know About Poverty-Carly Danowitz

  1. The Poor Act Law was the first structured plan giving public officials guidelines on how to go about fighting poverty. It categorized the poor based on their worthiness for aid. (DiNitto & McNeece, 2008, p. 286)




  1. There are many computer programming jobs, and others, which require advanced education being outsourced to other countries. Americans also wear clothes that are made by laborers in other countries that make much less than people of this country. These jobs could be given to Americans, to save many people from facing poverty. (DiNitto & McNeece, 2008, p. 300)




  1. “Culture of poverty” is the set of beliefs, behaviors, and values passed down from one generation to the next that differs from those of the people who are not poor. (DiNitto & McNeece, 2008, p. 294)




  1. The social workers that work for the Head Start preschool program, started in the 1960’s, serve as advocates for family outreach and work with families from low-income backgrounds to help their children prepare for elementary school. (DiNitto & McNeece, 2008, p. 304)




  1. The poverty rate for blacks and American Indians is 25%, 22% for Hispanics, 11% for Asians, and 8% for whites. It is highest in the West and the South, and lowest in the Northeast and Midwest. Poverty also tends to be higher in rural areas compared to urban areas. (DiNitto & McNeece, 2008, p. 302)




  1. Social workers don’t believe that there is evidence that any group is genetically inferior to another or genetics is a reasonable explanation for the large amount of people and families who fall into poverty. (DiNitto & McNeece, 2008, p. 293)




DiNitto, D., & McNeece, C. (2008). Social work: Issues and opportunities in a

challenging profession (3rd ed.). Chicago, IL: Lyceum Books.


12 Shocking Facts about Poverty in the US

1. The thought that poverty is caused by poor work ethic, or personal choice is deep seeded in American culture. The perception originated with the first Puritan settlers in America, whom had a hard work ethic and no remorse for the poor, despite having lived in similar conditions before.  (DiNitto & McNeece, 2008, p. 286)

2. Children who grow up in poverty, are very likely to remain in poverty throughout their life, as they are “enveloped in the culture of poverty” and “have absorbed its values.”(DiNitto & McNeece, 2008, p. 295)

3. The formula for calculating poverty has not been updated since the 1960s, despite so many things changing in this time! This means that families who are truly struggling but don’t meet the outdated standards of the poverty threshold, will be less likely to receive benefits and much needed assistance. (DiNitto & McNeece, 2008, p. 301)

4. 37 million Americans were considered to be living in poverty in 2005. This is a huge proportion of the American population, at 13%! (DiNitto & McNeece, 2008, p. 302)

5. Of those 37 million Americans in 2005, 39% were Black or Hispanic single women. (DiNitto & McNeece, 2008, p. 302)

6. Poverty seems to have increased since estimates taken in 2005. In 2014 nearly 15% of the American population, or 46.7 million people were considered to be living in poverty. (Hunger and Poverty Facts and Statistics)

7. Poverty affects nearly everyone: By age 65, every 1 in 2 Americans will live in poverty for at least a year. (DiNitto & McNeece, 2008, p. 303)

8. Poverty stricken neighborhoods are often the homes of landfills, sewage plants, & prisons. These same neighborhoods are usually the homes of minorities, who experience poverty at unprecedented rates. (DiNitto & McNeece, 2008, p. 299)

9.  Programs that assist the homeless can have extremely long waiting periods. For example, Opportunities at Broome currently has a 3 year waiting period! (K. Robertson, personal communication)

10. DSS can ban people from receiving services if they continue to miss appointments, despite the struggles they may have getting to and from their local offices! The bans can last anywhere from a few months to a lifetime. (K. Robertson, personal communication)

11. There is a huge stigma associated with living in poverty. In fact, some children whom receive free lunch at school, choose to go hungry instead of being labeled poor. (J. Vassello, personal communication)

12. There is hope. Programs such as Head Start, which assists low income children, have been proven to be effective in reducing poverty in future generations. (DiNitto & McNeece, 2008, p. 304)


DiNitto, D., & McNeece, C. (2008). Social work: Issues and opportunities in a
challenging profession (3rd ed.). Chicago, IL: Lyceum Books
Hunger and Poverty Facts and Statistics. (n.d.). Retrieved February 23, 2016, from http://www.feedingamerica.org/hunger-in-america/impact-of-hunger/hunger-and-poverty/hunger-and-poverty-fact-sheet.html
Robertson, Kelly. Personal communication. February 23rd.
Vassello, John. Personal communication. February 23rd.