Poverty Facts and Myths


Poverty Myths May Benefit the Nonpoor

Fifty years ago, the sociologist Herbert Gans wrote a provocative essay detailing the economic, social, and political functions of poverty. Gans argued that in order for poverty to exist and persist, it must be serving a function or purpose within American society. He went on to describe over a dozen potential functions that poverty could be fulfilling. For example, it ensures that there is a labor pool willing to work at low-wage, dead-end jobs, which are undesirable but necessary.

In thinking about why the myths of poverty persist, we can ask a similar sociological question–who benefits from the existence of these myths? Furthermore, what functions might these myths play for the wider society?

With respect to the question of who benefits, several groups immediately come to mind. Perhaps most obvious are political actors. Politicians of various stripes have used the myth of the welfare freeloader to score political points with their constituents over the decades. A classic example of this is the case of Bill Clinton during his 1992 campaign in the Democratic presidential nomination race. Clinton was running well behind the frontrunners, when he began emphasizing that he would “end welfare as we know it.” Internal polling showed that this resonated with voters in the early primary states, and indeed he began to rise in popularity as he increasingly used this issue to demonstrate that he represented a “new Democrat.” Clinton exploited the myth of the undeserving welfare recipient to his advantage in appealing to more conservative voters. This was an important element in his winning the nomination and attaining the presidency.

Likewise, Ronald Reagan was notorious for his use of the “welfare queen” and the “strapping young buck” myths to appeal to voters who had become disillusioned with the Democratic Party. Reagan was able to use this messaging (along with others) to convert blue-collar Democrats into the Republican fold. The myths of poverty and welfare recipients clearly helped to facilitate Reagan’s rise to the executive office.

These are but two examples of politicians who have strategically used various poverty myths to further their political careers. The myth of the lazy poor living off welfare has been utilized repeatedly by politicians to appeal to voters, and to garner their support in the ballot box. It has also been used as a code word for “black” in particular, again appealing to a certain segment of the population.

A second group that has clearly benefited from the myths of poverty has been the affluent. The myth that poverty is the result of individual inadequacies rather than structural failings, provides a convenient justification for the status quo of rising inequality. According to this myth, those at the top have earned it, while those at the bottom have deserved it. Consequently, no policy change is needed to redistribute some of the enormous gains in wealth over the past decades. The myths of poverty allow and justify the greater accumulation of income and assets for those with much to begin with.

One could also argue that the myth of poverty being the result of individual failure has discouraged low income groups from forming alliances to advocate for their shared interest. This, in turn, weakens the position of lower-income workers and their unions, which in turn, facilitates the desire of big business over the past 50 years to seriously diminish the labor union movement in this country. The stigma of poverty, fueled by myths and stereotypes, works against people acknowledging their low income status, which then weakens any sense of a collective interest. Again, the argument is that the myths of poverty persist partially because specific groups within society are benefitting from their perpetuation.

This is not to say that the process is always a consciously deliberate one. For example, it is unlikely that big business sits around a conference table to discuss how the myths of poverty can be used to weaken union activity. Nevertheless, the persistence of poverty myths helps to undercut a collective impetus to organize, which in turn, dovetails with one component of the long-term stated agenda of corporate America.

It is also important to recognize that each of these groups–politicians, the wealthy, corporate America–yields considerable power. It is therefore not just a question of various groups benefitting from the myths, but who in particular benefits, and to what extent are they able to shape the narrative. Each of these groups, in various ways, are able to influence the discussion around poverty and welfare.

On a broader level, we can also ask what functions do the poverty myths serve for American society as a whole? In answering this question, we would argue that the myths ironically serve to legitimize the status of America as exceptional. The ideology of the United States has been steeped in the concept of the American Dream. The American Dream represents the idea that anyone can achieve economic success through their own hard work and talent. America is viewed as a land of abundant opportunities, with everyone having an equal chance to climb the ladder of success.

On the other hand, poverty represents the American nightmare. Given the ideology of the American Dream, how then do we explain the fact that many Americans are living in poverty. We do so through the poverty myths that have been described throughout this website–that those in poverty have simply not worked hard enough; have made poor decisions in their lives; have not acquired enough skills; or any number of such explanations. The implication is that there is something wrong with the individual, rather than the system. The alternative would be to question the very structure of American society. Consequently, the poverty myths provide for a ready explanation to the fact that some Americans do not achieve economic success in a land of plenty.

To acknowledge that poverty is simply endemic to America as a whole, is to challenge the very core of the nation’s ideals and creed. Such a task is not taken on lightly. Rather, the cognitively easier approach is to explain those in poverty as outliers and exceptions to the rule.