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Social problems: Who makes them?
Social problems: Who makes them?

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3.3 Poverty as the result of poor people

The second cluster of common-sense ideas about poverty centre around the theme that the character and behaviour of some types of people causes them to be poor. Such people are in some way ‘flawed’. There may, of course, be different types of flaw, but poor people are distinguished from the rest of ‘us’ by some characteristic that makes ‘them’ poor. This might be their moral character (they are lazy, shiftless, workshy); it might be their abilities or capacities (they cannot budget properly); or it might be that they have not been properly socialised (they have not learnt the value of hard work, thrift, etc.).

Activity 4

What is the argument in the following quotation?

Such problems – problems of morals, attitude, behaviour – are not susceptible to a quick fix by social policy … If incompetent shopping is the problem, larger hand-outs will not cure it. Higher subsidies will not reform bad budgeting. Whatever the behaviour cause, be it isolation, lack of parental example in domestic economy, illiteracy, poor motivation, depression, self-indulgent or incompetent expenditure by husband, those husbands selfishly not handing enough over to their wives, a failure to look beyond today, simply increasing social security expenditure will not solve it.

(Anderson, 1991, p. 27)


Two things are being argued here. One is that there is a range of behaviours and attitudes that create poverty (from poor budgeting to selfish patterns of spending). The other is that these are counterposed to suggested solutions to poverty (increased social security expenditure), which, the author suggests, fail to address the causes that he has identified. Particular definitions of problems often proceed by this dual approach – establishing their own line of argument and rejecting others. They do so because ‘what we know about poverty’ is not a simple or self-evident set of truths all of which point in the same direction. Poverty – like other social problems – is caught up in multiple definitions and perspectives, each of which tries to claim for itself the status of truth.

To return to this particular perspective, it identifies the causes of poverty in the behaviour, attitudes and morals of the poor. They are separated from ‘normal’ people by these flaws or failings. To stop being poor, they need to become more like the rest of ‘us’. This differentiation between the normal and others – sometimes described as deviant – is a recurrent feature of how social problems are talked about, both in ‘everyday’ language and in academic analyses. Both are concerned to find the factor or ‘flaw’ that distinguishes the normal from the abnormal. These issues are discussed further in the different contexts of disability, ‘race’ and sexuality.