Within several contemporary perspectives and modern social topics, functionalism and rational choice theory were chosen together with their sociological approach to analyze the issue of poverty. The discussion is supported by Gans’ (1972) research on the positive functions of poverty and Luebker’s (2014) analysis of redistribution and poverty in terms of rational choice theory. Poverty refers to the complex social institutions that generate observed inequality, a social differentiation of the society where its members are ranked into socioeconomic tiers based upon economic, educational, financial, and other social factors.
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The presence of poverty might have a beneficial impact on the nonpoor groups in the United States. To emphasize the basic functions of poverty, Gans identifies functions for groups and aggregates with common values or akin statuses (276). First, the poverty presence in society contributes to dirty work implementation, which makes many economic activities rely on the poorer part of the population. The poor subsidize activities that benefit the rich that might result in higher incomes for both poor and rich; however, it may not advance the poor’s position in the socioeconomic society.
Poverty creates jobs for professions that serve the poor or buffer the rich from the poor. Moreover, the poor purchase the goods no one else wants due to their economic usefulness. They also can be punished to enforce norm legitimacy because of the lack of political and cultural power to redress the stereotypes the affluent part of the population seizes the poor. As a result, they are perceived commonly as lazy and careless with money.
The sociologist identifies the separate group of deserving poor that provide an emotional outlet for society. According to Gans, the allegedly poor are traditionally described as ineligible and “culturally deprived or pathological” (280). The poor enact the rich’s fantasy life of scandal, as it is perceived that the poor are more given to unrestrained action. Furthermore, Gans believes that poverty guarantees the nonpoor’s social status (281).
Therefore, the poor serve as the “permanent measuring rod” for the comparative review of statuses, specifically for the working class (Gans 281). In addition, poverty assists upward mobility of nonpoor caused by the limited educational opportunities and being stigmatized with the low academic background, which enables better job positions for others. The poor keep the social lives of the rich busy, as they promote the “social viability of noneconomic groups” (Gans 282). They perform a beneficial function for charitable funds at other levels of the social and economic hierarchy.
Moreover, the poorer strata perform several cultural functions; they construct large structures of social “civilization” for society, such as the world’s most noble monuments. Consequently, the poor create a culture that rich people want to adopt and enjoy. Within the political functions, the poor performance, they act as allies or enemies for political groups, the symbolic constituents. Considering the ideology of laissez-faire as the economy’s framework, it demands disadvantaged people who are reluctant to work. With the lack of power, the poor can absorb the economic and political costs of societal change in America.
The high costs of agriculture industrialization in the United States were covered by the poor, who were pushed off the land without compensation (Gans 283). Ultimately, the last function provided by Gans implies that the poor play a fundamental role in shaping the political process in America (283). The poorer population does not vote as much, which allows the rich to ignore them in terms of politics. This resulted in the “centrist nature of American politics” (Gans 284). However, such statistics made the political process more stable.
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As an alternative contemporary perspective, the rational choice and human behavioral aspects give another insight into the issue of poverty in the economic sector. A rational choice theorizes that higher-income disparity is reflected in the more significant redistribution by forming the median voter’s preferences. Luebker states that the risk of over-simplification causes income poverty that serves as a function of two factors, “the level of average incomes and their distribution between households and persons” (133). In the case of the income levels’ stability, poverty, in general, will be more serious when the incomes are dispersed more unevenly. Hence, those countries with comparable income levels might have different outcomes regarding poverty prevalence.
The primary rational choice theory involves automatism, which implies the higher initial income lead to higher measures of redistribution. Such an outcome is beneficial for those who aim at poverty eradication because redistribution would in a bigger supply where it is required to correct inequities of the market and social context. The core premise of rational choice provides for individuals as rational actors who “maximize their own utility” (Luebker 134). It is based upon methodological individualism to deduce from the assumed individual behavior to foresee developments at the macro level.
Two central aspects of the rational choice model include that the political system reacts to the needs of the average voter who aims at maximizing personal and identified utility. Behavioral economics addresses the utility paradigm to examine the role of social norms and analyze human behavior with the emphasis on the role of “altruism, inequality aversion, and fairness orientations” (Luebker 143). A better comprehension of the regulatory approach to income redistribution through the taxation and payment systems facilitates the need to contrast rational choice and behavioral perspectives, and their differentiation in perceiving a human motivation.
The Social Issue of Poverty
Poverty is a persistent social phenomenon, which can be examined from both the functionalist and rational choice perspectives. It is inherently connected to economic and social dysfunction, as well as unstable income measures. As its rates increased, poverty became a public concern, which relates to the moral, cultural, educational, and other sociological aspects. As described by Gans, poverty survives in part since it is a useful concern for the specific societal groups (284). Furthermore, the enhanced poverty outcomes are caused by an unequal redistribution of governmental resources and opportunities across members of society.
The poorer strata are commonly stereotyped in a negative way, as mentioned in the researches above. Hence, from the sociological perspective, it is vital to focus on the structure and organization of the society, as well as its linkage to the social issues concerning an individual agent with rational choices. As such, the social classes and people’s position in them also have an impact on further opportunities and living standards improvement for oneself.
Similarities and Differences in Contemporary Perspectives
The functionalist approach is based on the researcher’s statement that almost every social system and society in general consists of groups or aggregates with distinct values and interests. Hence, since this study was designed on the groundwork of Mertonian functional analysis, “items may be functional for some individuals and subgroups and dysfunctional for others” (Gans 276). The set of fifteen positive functions is provided, including economic, social, cultural, and political aspects of disclosing the role of poverty for nonpoor groups in the United States. A similar approach can be traced from the rational choice perspective by Luebker, where the researcher presents income poverty as the function of two factors, the level of median income and its distribution between families and individuals.
However, functionalism provides a positive view of the issue of poverty concerning the nonpoor part of the society that benefits from the fundamental role of the poor. Gans also points out the risk of poverty reduction, as it will put more pressure on the political and social arena in general (286). Such a perspective differs from the rational choice approach, which presents positive outcomes for those who seek poverty eradication since the premise of a rational choice theory involves automatism. It enables the higher initial income to lead to higher measures of redistribution.
Personal Interpretation of the Best Perspective
Within two contemporary perspectives, functionalism demonstrates a more in-depth analysis of poverty with the beneficial aspects for both the poor and nonpoor parts of the population. Gans does not focus on whether poverty should persist, although his analysis discloses reasons the society is so reluctant to spare it of poverty. The empirical study by Luebker demonstrated that the simple mechanism of a rational choice model is not a proper means to explain redistributive outcomes.
By depicting humans as “rational fools,” the rational choice neglects the fact that people are integrated with a society and share values and views of “fairness and social justice” (Luebker 134). Henceforth, the poverty phenomenon can be eliminated only when the functional alternatives become dysfunctional for the rich or when the poor can be authoritative enough to modify the system of social stratification.
Gans, Herbert J. “The Positive Functions of Poverty.” The American Journal of Sociology, vol. 78, no. 2, 1972, pp. 275-289.
Luebker, Malte. “Income Inequality, Redistribution, and Poverty: Contrasting Rational Choice and Behavioral Perspectives.” Review of Income and Wealth, vol. 60, no. 1, 2014, pp. 133-154.