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Patricia Stegall 6/30/99

Sociology 1B

Midterm 2 Essay

Identify and discuss sociologically the issues about wealth and poverty in American Society. What do you believe and why?

The distribution of wealth, economic inequality, and the growing numbers of people living at or below the recognized “poverty level” are issues that must be dealt with in the United States. In general, Americans subscribe to the concept that everyone has a right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and family, but the reality is much different.

Depending upon which statistics you believe, either the disparity in the distribution of wealth is growing greater and greater, or statistically, it has remained static. Nevertheless, it is apparent that the country has a growing problem of more and more people becoming homeless, and more people living it poverty.

In Issue 8 of our readings, Paul Krugman indicates that this inequality in living standards arise from technological advances that have eliminated low-skill jobs, imports from low wage countries, and more importantly, the decline of the labor movement. He argues that unions provide a “political counterweight to the power of wealth.” In opposition to his position, Christopher DeMuth claims that the inequality has been greatly exaggerated, that it is “a small tick in the massive and unprecedented leveling of material circumstances” that has been “proceeding for nearly three centuries.? Mr. DeMuth sees the fulfillment of material needs as creating a need to change the way we gauge economic welfare and equality from income to consumption. Each author uses different indicators to support his thesis. Frankly, I don’t accept either premise. In my opinion, the issue is much larger than just the failure of the unions to maintain power or changing the way we determine economic equality. It is a basic, gut-level issue of survival for those people who do not have the jobs, the income, the means to enjoy the current economic “boom”.

In Issue 9, Nicholas Eberstadt argues that the “withering away” of the family as a central social institution has led to the increase in poverty and that the breakup of the family results in both financial and economic hardship, particularly in the fatherless household. His argument continues that this has led to an increasing long-term dependence upon government assistance programs. He also attributes the family breakup and illegitimacy with the rise in crime. Eberstadt believes that the reassertion of individual and familial responsibilites is central to dealing with the dysfunctions in society. Although he does not use the phrase, he seems to be subscribing to the theory of the “culture of poverty”. David Gordon, on the other hand, argues that the sharp decline of job opportunities in low-skill jobs, reserving “good” jobs for those with a college education, and the substitution of short-term jobs for “steady” jobs has been a major factor in the growing poverty rate in this country. He implies that the creation of employment opportunities will reverse the trend. In my opinion, both writers are being very simplistic in their approach to the problem.

I see a definite increase in the disparity between the haves and have-nots over the past twenty to thirty years. For example, the incredible salaries paid to sports figures and to corporate executives are ludicrous to say the least. The “middle class” may enjoy more material things today, bigger houses and labor saving devises, but no real increase in spendable income and a significantly higher level of debt, and frankly, I am not too sure just WHO the middle class is any longer. Further, to maintain this life style requires TWO income-producing workers in the family. Conspicuous consumption appears to be the normal way of life.

In an increasingly service-oriented economy, we need to find ways to provide not just jobs but wages that provide the means to support a family above the poverty level. For example, the wealthiest spend a proportionately smaller amount of income on food and shelter than do the poorest. It may be that some type of government program can compensate for the lack of basic necessities; however, the record to date is pretty dismal. The gap has grown even wider in recent years. Clearly there are no easy answers to the problem of poverty, but I believe there are measures that could halt the increasing disparity. Earned income credit and rent subsidies, if properly implemented, could alleviate the burden on the working poor. There will always be those among us who cannot work due to disability, age or infirmity, and the current “Welfare Reform” seems to ignore these individuals. I don’t believe government “hand-outs” are the solution but the Federal government could develop incentives and a “safety net”.


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