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Poverty and Social Causation Hypothesis

There are two identified approaches to poverty on cultural and individual levels as formulated by Turner and Lehning (2007). The premier theory advocates for the idea that an individual’s psychological situation provokes tendencies towards penury behavior (Goldstein, 1973). Therefore, because people possess hereditary psychoses, mood disorders, and depressive illnesses, they become low and act accordingly. The medicalizing perspective explains the occurrence of poverty due to previous medical issues of the persona (Rainwater, 1970). The described theories present juxtaposing views. Thus, the social causation hypothesis explains the state of poverty through the lens of social and economic issues. And the medicalizing theory suggests that illnesses are caused by poverty. In a sense, both introduce a vicious cycle where one cannot escape poverty without battling mental illness and vice versa.

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The medicalizing theory claims that mental issues cause poor financial conditions. Moreover, the acquired financial difficulties in the first place provoke various cognitive illnesses and contribute to their development, making it harder to recover in the long run. Hence, there is a two-sided correlation between one’s mental state and economic prosperity. The medicalizing approach is considered an individual-related theory, concentrating on the person and suggesting that the disorders are the first cause of extreme financial needs (Turner & Lehning, 2007). The medicalization of poverty highlights the need to combat mental health problems on the individual level first.

Nevertheless, the social causation hypothesis proposes that the situation is the opposite, and the economic environment causes humans to experience cognitive issues. Therefore, the social causation hypothesis proposes to focus on poverty as it is a structural issue that causes a person to experience various mental disorders. Hence, a person ends up being in a loop of poverty, and mental disorders appear to be co-leading factors. Both theories complement each other in the explanation of the complexity of poverty and the mental state dilemma. Often, the combined version of these perspectives pre-explain the vicious cycle of poverty of well-being with economic struggle. At the same time, it is essential to differentiate them since they are at the root of understanding poverty as a social construct. Various triggers can provoke both: mental illness and poverty. Finally, within the variety of existing perspectives on poverty, these theories highlight mental diseases. It is essential to talk about the cognitive problems within the low-income population.

The discussed approaches require understanding and empathy from the social worker. The medicalization perspective and a premier hypothesis need a trustful fundament between a social worker and their ward (Turner & Lehning, 2007). However, the specific method may differ based on the chosen theory. While implementing an individual-related approach, medicalizing, a social worker is obliged to help with psychiatric services. The proper medical or psychological treatment should be prescribed in the final stages of assistance. As for the implementation of a structural-related theory, a social worker must assess the person’s situation first. Furthermore, a social worker is responsible for indicating the correlation between mental health and the person’s financial needs to decide on the proper intervention method. However, both ways require a throughout approach to differentiating the mental health problems and whether they stem from the financial state or whether the issue lies within something completely different.

Ashley chose the McClelland Approach for the individual level theory, which proposes that poor people simply did not acquire the need for achievement traits (Turner & Lehning, 2007). This idea is profound when working with individuals who originally come from low-income households. It helps a social worker deepen into the mental and inner motivations of the ward. As for the possible limitation of this approach, it may leave out of sight those who used to be financially stable once and then possibly lost their income source or went down on the social ladder. The Ecological theory focuses on the existing “systems” that include all the social connections. This perspective is valuable when applied to poor areas or households where all members struggle financially, as it illustrates the importance of social influence one gets. However, it fails to consider individual cases of single people that happened to be cut off from their initial social circles. For instance, older adults that happened to be homeless cannot be evaluated through this perspective.

Brenda chose Freud’s Psychoanalytic theory which considers the individual victim experience of a person being abused in the past with a possible co-leading disorder. This approach has a strong understanding of the mental side of the poverty state. Hence, it could be used when working with victims of abuse as kids or survived domestic violence. However, it fails to consider low-income households where people do not experience mental trauma and become poor within recent years (after losing a job, for instance). Norman Garmezy’s resilience theory focuses on the resilience one develops towards recovery and adaptation. This perspective is an excellent source for evaluating a general “resilience” trait common among impoverished people that see poverty as their reality and loop. A social worker can use techniques to alter the client’s thinking into a more positive one. However, this approach lacks the consideration of co-leading factors that caused this type of thinking in the first place. Hence A social worker should combine this approach with others.


Goldstein, A. (1973). Structured learning therapy: Toward psychotherapy for the poor. New York: Academic Press.

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Rainwater, L. (1970). Neutralizing the disinherited: Some psychological aspects of understanding the poor. In V. Allen (Ed.), Psychological factors in poverty (pp. 9-28). Chicago: Markham Publishing Company.

Turner, K., & Lehning, A. J. (2007). Psychological theories of poverty. Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, 16(1/2), 57–72. doi:10.1300/J137v16n01-058

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