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Theories of Poverty



Theories of Poverty: Individualistic theories

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The C19th sociologist, Herbert Spencer, blamed poverty on the poor. He claimed that the poor were lazy, and those who did not want to work should not be allowed to eat. He attributed poverty to bad moral character. He argued that the State should intervene as little as possible. It was he that coined the phrase, "the survival of the fittest". This attitude still prevails today, and Golding and Middleton claim that newspapers regularly report benefit claimants as "scroungers". However, this attitude seems to be in some decline. According to a survey conducted by the European Commission into attitudes in 1976 43% of British people blamed poverty on laziness compared to 18% in 1989. Furthermore, Britain was the country where people were most likely to blame poverty on the individual characteristics of the poor. According to American writer William Ryan this individualist theory is an example of "blaming the victims". The Thatcher and Conservative regime was associated with the "New Right", who claimed that the benefits system created a culture of dependency. The sociologist David Marsland typifies this approach, arguing that low incomes are caused by the generosity of the state; additionally, public expenditure on income support withdraws money from investment in industry. He argues that benefits should be targeted at only those in "genuine need", such as the disabled. He writes: "Critics of the universal welfare provision are not blaming the poor, as welfarist idealogues argue. On the contrary, these are the foremost victims of erroneous ideas and destructive policies imposed on them by paternalists, socialists, and privileged members of the professional New Class." However, Bill Jordan opposes Marsland, claiming that poverty is caused by a welfare system that is means-tested and too mean. The way to tackle poverty is to have "universal provision, which brings everyone up to an acceptable level. Far from creating dependence it frees people from dependence." Dean and Taylor-Gooby have also attacked the "myth" of a dependency culture. In addition to attacks on the theoretical basis of this idea, they also conducted research in 1990 based on in-depth interviews with 85 social security claimants in London and Kent. They found that (1) the vast majority of claimants wanted to work; (2) problems associated with the benefits system did discourage people from looking for work; (3) such disincentives did not lead to a dependency culture - people wanted to earn their own living and looked on the state only as their last resort.
Contents of
Theories of Poverty

1 Theories of Poverty: Structuralism or not
2 Theories of Poverty: Individualistic theories
3 Theories of Poverty: The Culture of Poverty
4 Theories of Poverty: The Underclass, Charles Murray - the underclass in Britain
5 Theories of Poverty: The Underclass, Frank Field - Losing Out
6 Poverty and the Welfare State, Conflict Theories of Poverty
7 Theories of Poverty: Poverty and Power
8 Theories of Poverty: Poverty and stratification
9 Theories of Poverty: Marxism and poverty
10 Theories of Poverty: Poverty and Capitalism

Related articles: (1) Attitudes to Work, (2) Theories of Poverty