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How the poor stay poor

This is an excellent research paper by Jeremiah Ashbaugh - Spring 2008

I chose this topic because there does not seem to be a week that goes by that I hear some comment from a friend, family member, the media, or just someone in passing that seems to falsely explain the poverty situation. It has become obvious to me that American's in general really buy the "pull yourself up by bootstraps" theory, hook, line and sinker. My mother, who raised me, came from a poor family of twelve brothers and sisters and sometimes around mealtime, it was survival of the fittest. Needless to say, I have also been socialized to think that the homeless and poor create their own problems and if they wanted to do better, they could, just like my mom and her siblings. That the lower class and poor are lazy and that they do nothing but drain the money out of the hard working pockets of people who have pulled themselves up by their boot straps. Through much observation, life experience, a decent amount of reading, and some informative classes I have concluded that this issue is far more complex then the general public understands.

I will attempt to explain other causes, other than that they are simply lazy, for the poor staying poor. There are many reasons that lead to the lower class and people in poverty staying in poverty, I will focus on just a few of these. I will explore how the middle class helps to keep the lower class and those in poverty in their respective classes. I will discuss how media gives the false promises and helps the poor stay poor by making unconscious consumers out of them. The media also makes unconscious consumers out of the middle class, and by doing this, it facilitates growth for the wealthy. I will also look at the disproportionate amount of access to resources that the lower class has as compared to the rich or middle classes and how this helps keep them down. By discussing these things, I hope to shed some light on the difficult issue of poverty.

How the middle class helps keep the rich rich and the poor poor.

A developing theory of mine has been that as long at the middle class stays relatively content, they will never push for the reform it takes to truly help the lower classes. It is almost as if the middle class acts as a mere buffer to keep the lower classes of the backs of the wealthy. It is not my idea that the middle class consciously holds down the lower classes but that the middle class has been somewhat of an unconscious control mechanism. Most social reform seems to come at a time when poverty strikes a society, the rich have gotten to rich and not shared this wealth and large numbers of the middle class join the lower classes. Leonhardt talks about this trend as it is currently happening by stating (2008), "But the larger point is still crucial: the modern American economy distributes the fruits of its growth to a relatively narrow slice of the population." The middle and lower classes do not receive much of this "slice", but unless the middle class recognizes this, things tend not to change. The lower classes never have enough people to turn back the ways that support the upper classes, unless the middle classes join them.

During the depression, Ohio History Central noted that (2005), "By 1932, twelve million Americans were unemployed. Approximately one out of every four American families no longer had an income." Those numbers show a middle class that shrank and thus a lower class that was enlarged and emboldened. There was sweeping social reform during this era with new programs and policies like, more restrictions and regulations on corporate behavior, the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Civil Works Administration, and the National Industrial Recovery Act. All of these came under the New Deal administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt (Ohio History Central, 2005).If the middle class had not been impacted by policies that made the rich richer and had been kept moderately stable, I doubt there would have been such sweeping changes. The U.S. Department of State further states that (n.d.), "Indeed, historians generally credit the New Deal with establishing the foundations of the modern welfare state in the United States." Ironically, Roosevelt never liked the term welfare, as he was more apt to be against direct handouts and preferred work programs (Starnes, n.d.). It is possible that Roosevelt merely redefined the idea of what welfare was or could be. As modest as our welfare state is in comparison to that of other modern European societies, it was none-the-less a step in the direction of taking care of the lower class and poor. Our current economy could lead to one of those times when the middle class wakes up and looks to help the lower class, or they may just join the lower class. Lumby states (2008), "Unlike what happened during the economic boom of the 1990s, lower- and middle-class families did not share in the prosperity of recent years, the report found. In fact, the United States has had its longest jobless recovery and slowest rate of payroll growth during this decade." I see this as a sign that we could be heading to a new "New Deal".

It is easy pin the responsibly for the raw deal the lower class gets on bulging pockets of the rich and wealthy. They are the ones making windfall profits while the poor and middle class gain the same or as in recent times, less. My reason for putting the blame on the middle class is because the wealthy will always seek more wealth, this has never stopped and I cannot see this way of being becoming extinct in the near future. The only times that I have seen it held in check and think that it can be held in check is when the middle class does not let it self be appeased by the upper class and it joins the lower classes fighting for equality. Maybe, by voting in politicians that are not in the pockets of the wealthy, ones that will create fair tax codes and recycle some of the enormous wealth accumulated at the top back down in to programs that help alleviate the barriers associated with poverty will we gain control of this problem. My idea is, contradictory to that of functional theorist, is that we can have capitalism and that is does not need function with a lower class or the poor but a well regulated upper class, thus creating maybe two classes, the class of enough and the class of a little more than enough.

The media

To me, the media has been one of the main spokespersons for the idea of, "anyone can ascend to the top and they just need to work hard to get there." They share the rags to riches story of Sam Walton in way that makes us all think we can achieve it. Butch discusses, (n.d.) "In his 1992 article "Social Mobility in Television Comedies" (Critical Studies in Mass Communication), Lewis Freeman found that upward mobility in sitcoms of 1990-1992 was achieved through self-sacrifice and reliance, reinforcing the ethic of individualism which makes each person responsible for his or her socio-economic status. Thus one's status is an indicator of one's ability, character and moral worth." In my mind, this creates a false sense of accessibility to the upper classes and a potentially hazardous behavior. If middle and lower classes think they can have all of things they see on TV by just working hard, and then come to find out as the often do, that it is not so possible, they become dejected and defeated. Ironically, all along the way of the journey to become wealthy or move up in class, the middle and lower classes assist the rich becoming more affluent by working hard for others gain and buying the products that are supposed to make them feel like the happy people on television. Beyond sitcoms, my television, radio, and print media experiences have shown me many rags to riches stories but I can hardly recall a story about the person who worked so very hard to only come up with nothing.

The media also demonstrates to the public that to be happy is to consume. By consuming and buying the products that will supposedly make us happy, we fund large corporations getting richer. Even worse, the large corporations make more money by outsourcing the production of the products we buy to other countries, which in turn neglects the consumer who buys the products in the first place. The media, specifically sitcoms, have been portraying mass consumption as the way to be for ages. Butsch shares, "In a 1986 Cultural Anthropology article George Lipsitz examined seven ethnic working class TV sitcoms from the 1950s and found sentimental images of ethnic families combined with themes promoting consumption." It is not that we have to stop consuming as a society; it is that the media portrays consumption on a level that is not sustainable for all classes. The wealthy will not feel the pinch if they over consume or over borrow as much as the middle class and the lower class will.

Unequal access to resources

Easier access to resources like education and healthcare give an upper hand to the upper class and help keep the stratified class system in the United States intact. By not having equal access to things like education and healthcare, the middle and the lower classes have a difficult, if not nearly an impossible time, ascending their respective classes. Whether these systems are conscious creations of the upper class or not, they do work in the favor of the wealthy and they help not only keep them rich but often help them grow richer.


For ten years, I have been witnessing the unequal access to education through my work with an organization called College Summit. I have seen thousands of students with grades good enough to make it in to college, not go to college because of various reasons, the most prominent being financial resources. The College Summit website states, "Up until this point, our education system has not systematically ensured that all young people who are college-ready actually make it to college. National data indicates that low-income students who got A's on a standardized test went to college at the same rate as top-income students who got D's on the same standardized test" (n.d.). This shows me that it is not merely grades that distinguish those who can attend college but more a factor of wealth. Bogle shares (2008), "For some time, US public colleges and universities have responded to cuts in state and federal funding by raising tuition and hiring part-time instead of full-time instructors (presently, approximately one half of the nation's college faculty are working under part-time contracts). Both actions have made it increasingly difficult for middle- and working-class students to attain a quality higher education. As tuition has risen, many students have been forced to work more hours (sometimes at two to three part-time jobs), take out more loans, or simply forgo higher education altogether." The increased cost of higher education serves the wealthy and not the lower classes by eliminating one of the resources that could potentially even the playing field. When the government, "the protector of the people", cut funding for schools, it becomes unclear who they are protecting. College graduates simply make more than non-college graduates do. Via the U.S. Census, Day and Newburger published these findings (2002), Adults ages 25 to 64 who worked at any time during the study period5 earned an average of $34,700 per year.6 Average earnings ranged from $18,900 for high school dropouts to $25,900 for high school graduates, $45,400 for college graduates, and $99,300 for workers with professional degrees (M.D., J.D., D.D.S., or D.V.M.)" When you consider the cost of graduate school, it becomes daunting for a student to consider this amount of dept as opposed to a student who comes from a wealthy family, where they can simply foot the bill for their children's education. The lack of access to education creates barriers for the middle and lower classes and helps keep the current class system strong and difficult to maneuver up out of the lower classes.


The healthcare system in the United States serves the wealthy and to some extent forgets the lower classes. As in education, the access to healthcare is dictated by the amount of resources a person or family has. The more resources, the better health or healthcare one can receive. When economic choices have to be made between education and healthcare, education will lose. Yardley observed (2008) that in Oregon, 600,000 people do not have healthcare and the government money reserved for healthcare will only cover about 24,000 of them. This leaves an enormous gap and this means that the people that do not receive benefits have to direct major portions of the income to cover their health care. Most cannot cover this cost and go in to spirally and insurmountable dept. Add massive dept to the barriers the lower class face and once again it makes it nearly impossible for them to ascend their class. It seems that a middle class family is always one medical disaster away from being moved down in the lower class. One of the uninsured people, like Louanne Moldovan, who Mirchandani shares about (2008), "They are unpaid medical bills, stretching back a year, arising from treatment for Crohn's Disease, the chronic intestinal condition she suffers from. She thinks she owes nearly $15,000", has a hard time of recovering from such giant unplanned bills. The simple obstacle just being able to get work to earn an income comes to mind when healthcare is not provided to all. Healthcare should not be a barrier any class has to face in a modern society but it is in the United States, thus keeping the poor poor and rich rich.

Both education and health care are thing the government could manage in a way that would help create equal opportunities for all. With out these two things being accessible to all, I find it very difficult to imagine the class structure of the United States every changing. From this perspective, I see the government as being somewhat responsible for the poor remaining poor.


I have only discussed three of the sociological obstacles that help keep the United States stratified class system in place, there are many more. By just considering these three phenomena, one can already see how difficult it might be for the middle and lower classes to ever move up in our supposedly open and free system. If pulling your self up by your bootstraps would be all that it took, I image there would be hardly any people in poverty as there would be so many who were rich that the mere scraps they share with the rest of the society would more than cover those who did not grab and pull hard on their straps.

Butsch, R. (n.d.). Social class and television. The Museum of Broadcast Communications. Retrieved June 10th, 2008, from http://www.museum.tv/archives/etv/S/htmlS/socialclass/socialclass.htm

Cheeseman, D. & Newburger, E. (2002, July). The Big Payoff: Educational
Attainment and Synthetic Estimates of Work-Life Earnings. Retrieved June 10th, 2008, from http://www.census.gov/prod/2002pubs/p23-210.pdf

College Summit. Retrieved June 10th, 2008, from http://www.collegesummit.org/school-districts/superintendents-and-principals/college-enrollment-gap/

Great Depression (2005, July 1). Ohio History Central, Retrieved June 10th, 2008, from http://www.ohiohistorycentral.org/entry.php?rec=500

Leonhardt, D. (2008, April 9). For Many, a Boom That Wasn't. New York Times. Retrieved June 10th, 2008, from http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/09/business/09leonhardt.html?_r=1&oref=slogin

Luhby T. (2008, April 8). As income gap widens, recession fears grow. CNN Money.com. Retrieved June 10th, 2008, from http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/depression/overview.htm

The Depression in the United States--An Overview. Retrieved June 10th, 2008, from http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/depression/overview.htm

U.S. Department of State (n.d). A New Coalition. Retrieved June 10th, 2008, from http://countrystudies.us/united-states/history-99.htm

Starnes, R. (n.d.). The History Teacher. Retrieved June 10th, 2008, from http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/ht/35.1/br_3.html

Yardley, W. (2008, Marth 13th). Drawing Lots for Health Care. The New York Times. Retrieved June 10th, 2008, from http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/13/us/13bend.html

Starnes, R. (n.d.). The History Teacher. Retrieved June 10th, 2008, from http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/ht/35.1/br_3.html