Poverty is not a simple concept. It can not be defined with just one definition, it is much more complicated than that. There are three basic types of poverty: biological, relative, and official poverty. Biological poverty is the lack of basic survival sources. It can refer to malnutrition or starvation. Biological poverty also refers to people who suffer from an inadequate source of housing or clothing. Relative poverty is the most common type, it is the comparison of people’s standard of living and concluding that some lifestyles are better than others. Relative poverty is a lot less serious than the other types of poverty. Lastly, official poverty is defined by the government. It is what the government recognizes and constitutes as poverty. This is measured through income and family size. Falling under the poverty line grants access to welfare benefits. Those even one dollar above the poverty line excludes them from welfare benefits. Where that line is drawn defines who the poor is, which determines the welfare benefits given.


The United States government considers the official “poor” as those who are below the poverty line. Even if you are barely above this line, you will not be classified as “poor.” Those who fall below the poverty line do not stay there for long. Most people become classified as poor due to injuries, illnesses, or layoffs from work. As people fall into poverty, many also rise above it, the number is constantly fluctuating. Factors such as geographical region, race, age, gender, and wage make a large difference in a person’s chances of poverty. For example, poverty is concentrated in larger cities and to be born there increases the chances of poverty.


Statistically, more than 40 million Americans are below the poverty line and this number is mostly made up of minorities, women, children, and minimum wage workers. Race is very relative to poverty: Latinos, African Americans, and Native Americans are twice as likely to be poorer than Asian Americans and Whites. Poverty is also predicted by using age as a variable, children are twice as likely to below the poverty line than the elderly. Poverty among women and children is a social pattern Sociologists refer to as the feminization of poverty. Children who live with one parent are likely to be poorer than children with both, and in a single-parent household it is usually the mother who cares for her child. Single mothers on average, earn just one third of what two working parents earn. This pattern has created a large percentage of poverty among women and children. Minimum wage workers also make up America’s poverty.

“The United States has a large underclass made up of people who are locked onto minimum wage jobs.” -Social Problems, A Down To Earth Approach by Henslin

The income for an minimum wage worker is not sufficient and leaves people below the poverty line.


The United States’ official poverty guidelines were developed in 1964 by the Social Security Administration. These guidelines created a poverty line and those who fall financially below this line are considered as “poor.”

The official poverty measure was developed in the 1960s in conjunction with President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. Each September the U.S. Census Bureau releases an update of the national poverty rate for the prior year.

"The official measure measure today is based on data from the Current Population Survey Annual Social and Economic Supplement. The survey is sent to U.S. households, so the poverty estimates do not include those who are homeless. The sample also excludes military personnel who do not live with at least one civilian adult." -Center for Poverty Research, University of California Davis

Incomes even a dollar above the poverty line are not considered “officially poor” and are ineligible for welfare. Government agencies hold the power to draw the poverty line, they can change the definition of poverty. By changing the definition, the amount of people who are considered “poor” can either decrease or increase. Where the poverty line is drawn is dependent on numbers and these numbers determine who the “poor” are. Drawing the poverty line is a serious task that influences a large population. The definition we use for the poverty line

“determines who will receive aid and who will not” -Social Problems, A Down To Earth Approach by Henslin

The way poverty is defined is impactful and holds serious consequences that are very real to people. Where we draw the line of who is “poor” and who is not, roots many other social problems.


One problem with the poverty line is that it is not adjustable according to different costs of living. Sociologist William Julius Wilson and Patria Ruggles have criticized the poverty line to be be stuck in a time warp. They have

“pointed out that food preferences and cooking patterns have changed since the 1960s, but not the government’s definition of poverty” -Social Problems, A Down To Earth Approach by Henslin

The government’s definition of poverty had relatively stayed the same without evolving with time, this translates to many problems. The poverty line does not adjust for different living costs. The costs to live in San Francisco, California is much more than a small town in Idaho,

“the poverty line does not distinguish between urban and rural families” -Social Problems, A Down To Earth Approach by Henslin

The Census Bureau has recently addressed this and have developed alternative measurements. Although the largest problem has yet to change, which is the official line that strictly separates the “poor” form the “non-poor.” Poverty is also the root to many social problems, it is connected to prostitution, rape, murder, and drug abuse. The government’s definition of poverty is attached to many consequences.



Different social theorist comment on the concept of poverty. Symbolic Interactionists stress that the meaning of poverty changes as social conditions change. They believe poverty is best understood through relativity. The way people viewed poverty in the 1700s was extremely different than how people view it today. Symbolic Interactionists state that poverty was once a personal problem and not a social problem like it is now. On the contrary, functionalist believe that poverty is necessary to society’s well being. They believe that society depends on income inequality. Conflict theorist comment more on why the poor are poor. They compare the inequality of wealth between the poor and rich. Conflict theorists believe the problems of the poor are due to their deprived position in a system of stratification Each theoretical approach shows a different understanding on the concept of poverty.


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