Family Poverty Essay

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Social scientists have had a long standing interest in family poverty for at least three major reasons. First, there has been a concern regarding the role that families play in the intergenerational transmission of poverty. Second, the importance of family structure as a causal factor leading to poverty, and in particular understanding the relationship between single parent families and the risk of poverty, has been of interest. Finally, researchers have been concerned about the detrimental effects that poverty exerts upon family well-being and functioning.

Early work addressing family poverty frequently assumed that poverty was chronic and handed down from generation to generation. One argument to explain this pattern was that it resulted from the larger economic reproduction of social class. Families with few resources were unable to provide their offspring with the types of advantages necessary for getting ahead economically, resulting in a perpetuation of poverty from one generation to the next. An important variation of this perspective was the culture of poverty framework derived from the ethnographic work of Oscar Lewis in the 1950s and 1960s.

With the advent of several large, longitudinal data sets in the late 1960s and 1970s, the assumption that family poverty was chronic, long lasting, and intergenerational could be empirically examined. Research indicated that households were typically impoverished for one or two years and then managed to get above the poverty line, perhaps experiencing an additional spell of poverty at some later point in their lives. This work showed a much more fluid and dynamic picture of family poverty than had frequently been assumed, yet at the same time, recent research has also demonstrated a strong correlation between parents’ and children’s overall socioeconomic status.

The rise in the number of female headed families with children during the latter third of the twentieth century (fueled by the high rate of divorce and an increasing number of out-of-wedlock births), led to a second major area of research among US sociologists and social scientists studying the patterns and causes of family poverty. This body of work demonstrated that female headed families with children were   at   a   significant   risk   of encountering poverty and economic destitution. Various studies showed that following a divorce, the standard of living for women and their children declined sharply. Many women worked at lower paying jobs and lacked child support payments. The result was that female headed families with children had substantially higher rates of poverty than other types of families, and experienced poverty for longer periods of time.

These and other research findings spotlighting the significance of family structure have led to an academic and political debate regarding the importance of encouraging marriage as a strategy for alleviating family poverty. Recent welfare reform legislation in the USA has placed a strong emphasis on policies and programs to encourage marriage and to discourage out-of-wedlock births. Others have argued that a more reasonable and effective policy approach is to provide the supports necessary for all families and children to succeed, not just those in married-couple families.

A third area of research has examined the effect that poverty has had upon family well-being and functioning. Poverty has been shown to exert a profound negative influence upon the health and development of family members. For example, poor infants and young children are likely to have far lower levels of physical and mental growth (as measured in a variety of ways) than their non-poor counterparts. Both the duration and the depth of poverty intensify these negative outcomes. The result is that poverty can have long-lasting physical and mental consequences as children become adults. Poverty has also been shown to detrimentally impact various aspects of family well-being, such as the likelihood of violence, stress, and dissolution.


  • Rank, M. R. (2004). One Nation, Underprivileged: Why American Poverty Affects Us All. Oxford University Press, New York.

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