Poverty and Social Inequality

Download Key Findings

Whether you teach poverty as a topic in its own right or as a dimension of social inequality there’s always a tension between individualised and structural explanations: in basic terms, those that locate the causes of poverty in the behaviour of individuals and those that locate causes in a range of structural factors.

While “deficit models” – explanations that generally explain poverty in terms of the personal characteristics those in poverty lack (such as talent, personal motivation, hard work, persistence, grit…) rather than the structural features of a society that ensure some will both experience poverty and find it almost impossible to escape it, regardless of their “personal attributes and orientations” – are arguably the dominant form of explanation in our society, I’ve found a couple of resources that might be useful in redressing the (im)balance:

1. The Poverty Premium reflectsthe idea that poverty is both more expensive for the poor and the fact “the poor pay more” for essential goods and services makes it (structurally) difficult for them to escape poverty.

A useful resource here is Davies, Finney and Hartfree’s (2019) research (“Paying to be poor: uncovering the scale and nature of the poverty premium”) ) that shows how “low-income households pay more for essential goods and services” and explains how and why this is significant in terms of our understanding of the mechanics of poverty.

While the full Report goes into a lot of useful detail, the Key Findings summary is likely to prove more-useful for most teachers (and students) because it provides:

  • an A4 infographic illustrating how the Poverty Premium works.
  • a summary of the Key Points from the research.
  • a short explanation of the origins of the Poverty Premium.
  • Overview…

    2. The Poverty Trap is a fairly standard way to illustrate how structural factors conspire to keep people poor and this recent Report by Balboni et al. – “Why Do People Stay Poor?” (2020) – is a useful, empirical, way to demonstrate how poverty is not simply a matter of individual failings.

    While the Report itself may be useful for teachers, students are likely to find a quick overview of its basic argument more understandable and helpful: in basic terms, the research used data collected from a Bangladeshi project that targeted help for the ultra-poor as a potential way to help them escape from poverty and concluded:

    People are poor because of a lack of opportunity. It is not their intrinsic characteristics that trap people in poverty but rather their circumstances. Poverty is not an innate condition”.

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