Poverty in modern America can understood as a new type of subculture. Through the use of pop culture, ideologies based upon strength in hardship and glamour through material fronting have developed a different face for modern Americans.
A feeling of anomie and disconnection from the American dream led to many dreams becoming unfulfilled, causing people to feel isolated and divergent from projected norms that could be seen through the various agencies of visual socialization and associated art forms. According to Merton “anomie results from the frustration and confusion people feel when what they have been taught to desire cannot be achieved by legitimate means available to them”. These feelings can lead to an almost polemic denigration of said ideals, and an acceptance and pride in one’s own “less than desirable” situations. Merton also stated, ”the gap between culturally defined goals and acceptable means of achieving them causes feelings of anomie, which in turn make some people more likely to choose deviant strategies of various kinds.”
Poverty and deviance are often a result of conflict created through this detached state. Some people may turn to welfare, while others may turn to more deviant forms of crime, such as theft, drug dealing, and even prostitution. Once you feel disconnected from your given culture, morals and values can go to the wayside and may lose a great deal of their power.
The strike of steelworkers in Homestead, Pennsylvania can be seen as an example of the interaction principle at play with poverty. As with the strike, the rational-choice model can be seen at play in modern America. From the smallest of ever developing rural towns to large urban post-industrialized “jungles”, you can always find examples of interactionism.
George Herbert Mead believed, “We are not born with selves that are brought out by socialization. Instead, we acquire a self by observing and assimilating the identities of others. The feelings of projected inferiority on a specified group of people can lead to an outright rebellion against said ideals, which can include the refusal of government employment, leading to more poverty in such regions.
Anomie mixed with daily interactions in the territorial communities causes many people to take pride in their situations in the same way that meekness can be viewed as a virtue. The feeling of disconnection from American ideals caused people to develop their own, personal American dream through divergent measures. After a group’s aspirations change, their values change. After values change, norms are quick to follow.
Differential association is also an explanation for this type of transformation, “White-collar criminality, just as other systematic criminality…is learned in direct or indirect association with those who already practice the behavior; and…those who learn this criminal behavior are segregated from frequent and intimate contacts with law-abiding behavior. Whether a person becomes a criminal or not is determined largely by the comparative frequency and intimacy of his contact with two types of behavior. This may be called the process of differential association” This was an explanation developed by Sutherland.
Great examples of pride amongst groups in lower-paid demographics can be seen in the “gritty glamour” of various street gangs. Miller stated, “Delinquency in areas of high rates of juvenile crime was in fact supported by the norms of lower-class teenage peer groups”. Through the use of various creoles and slang amongst these groups as well as different symbols, these groups learn to use their poverty as a source of group identity and pride, as well as the use of both anticipatory socialization and secondary socialization for young members coming into these groups.
This can be explained through symbolic interactionism, such that, “society itself tends to be seen as a mosaic of little scenes and dramas in which people make indications to themselves and others, respond to those indications, align their actions, and so build identities and social structures”.
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Power and conflict are big factors playing into these groups as well. In response to imperialism and superficiality, you can find examples such as the Marxian concept of the lumpenproletariat, “the “dangerous class” created by capitalism; from its ranks came thieves, prostitutes, gamblers, pickpockets, con artists, and contract murderers”.
As said in the text, “one of the most crucial steps in the process of building a stable pattern of deviant behavior is likely to be the experience of being caught and publicly labeled as a deviant”.
Many people come into these groups either with the label of a social deviant due to primary deviance or develop the label through time spent associating with the group. They continue this behavior through different forms of secondary deviance, then they come to be seen as an obstacle to social control. These factors cause them to further their deviant behavior to protect themselves and their pride. These factors contribute to their inability to benefit from the socially acceptable avenues of money acquisition, thus falling further into the poverty bracket.
While gangs are one example of the various factors playing into poverty in America, many less heavily sanctioned examples may also be cited. Modern welfare and social security systems enable voluntary poverty. Many people in modern have made the choice to simply quit working and live through the government, existing on the bare minimum pay bracket needed to survive, thus becoming both a statistic as well as contributing nothing.
Many can justify these choices through functionalist concepts, believing the government exists to sustain them, while they are required to contribute nothing. This group can be seen as those that have found a kinship with the pop culture they have socialized themselves with over several years, and do not feel the need to subject themselves to the hard work that the working class is normally expected to endure.
They see themselves on an equal stance with the celebrities they see whenever they turn on their television, so when they receive free money from the government, they feel no guilt because they feel it is owed to them due to a very American feeling of entitlement.
In this situation, the role or status as a blue-collar worker or a white-collar worker becomes blurred and the necessity to be defined as any type of worker becomes overlooked and you are left with a group of people without a feeling of necessity toward aligning themselves with any means of production, thus becoming fruitless.
In a society where all are born as a prince or princess, many feel they should not be required to fill the status quo of the mere “peasants” seated below their regaled position and find themselves in a position where they are falling further into poverty because they are too good to work at a job where their hand may become scraped and they’ll lose their standing with the other caliphates.
America can be seen by many to possess ethnocentrism that often views its shortcomings as strengths, through the use of the fundamental attribution error. The assumed hegemony becomes commonplace and productivity lowers. The necessity for any type of achieved status becomes almost laughable and people focus on their own perceived ascribed status as nobility.
In a heavily individualistic culture, America and the needs of the individual are astronomical in comparison to their fellow brethren.
This is very easy to see through an overview of the United States Navy. The average seaman recruit comes into the Navy these things thinking they are supposed to be in charge of everybody. They are not meant to be a worker and everybody is meant to be a leader. Once actual work is meant to be done there is nobody to do actual work because everybody is too busy being special.
This type of attitude can be seen to be encouraged and everybody learns to project more concern for task completion than is spent feeling any concern for task completion once a person comes up into the higher echelons of a bureaucracy.
Weber’s defined bureaucracy is thoroughly defined, but as with all things that are clearly defined, is also incredibly easy to manipulate, because as with secular humanism, the understanding of what is right is not enough to dictate the necessity of doing what is right, so you are quickly left with a hollow business model.
As Weber said, “the fundamental paradox was the rise of bureaucracies, which greatly expanded the efficiency and rationality of society but “disenchanted the world”.
Once everything becomes based solely on face value, things inevitably fall apart and you find America further dipped in poverty. Once people stop producing and feeling the need to produce, the country becomes a welfare state with no need or value in the concept of capitalism on which our current economic system is based.
Poverty has risen in normality due to a feeling of disbelief in the virtues of capitalism. Conflict to be seen during the stand-off with Wall Street against the perceived power of high-level officials has depleted our belief that we can succeed in such a society as the one we live in.
The subsequent reaction of our society to witnessing such transactions has only heightened these feelings.
Extreme examples of these types of feelings are given in examples such as the bombing in Haymarket Square in 1886 and the fire in Waco, Texas in 1993. In Haymarket Square “The anarchists were devoted to the destruction of the capitalist system of production and private property in the United States and elsewhere. In Waco “The followers of David Koresh, known as the Branch Davidians, were a dedicated religious group with little concern for destroying capitalism but firm, ideas about the need to live a highly spiritual life apart from what they perceived as a corrupt society.
Both examples are great examples in America of the combination of conflict and group interactions leading to dissonance with the government’s financial system which maintains an increase in poverty.
Emile Durkheim reasoned that “as a society becomes larger and more complex, there is a vast interdependence among its members as the labor needed to feed, house, educate, communicate with, transport, care for, and defend them becomes more complex”. This interdependence can have positive as well as negative connotations. Interdependence can work great as long as people also maintain an adequate amount of self-efficacy and production. With an increase in poverty, this increase in interdependence can cause those of greater production values to feel major role strain when working with those who choose not to produce.
With the dissolution of most primary groups, the instant and meaningful feedback of those who are in the most direct need of your support or help has also led to the increase in poverty.
Associations and dialogues in secondary groups are more often impersonal than personal and the words spoken often do not have the effect that dialogue with one in a primary group would.
As Cooley described it, “those characterized by intimate face-to-face association and cooperation. They are primary in several senses, but chiefly in that, they are fundamental in forming the social nature and ideals of the individual. [Such a group] involves the sort of sympathy and mutual identification for which “we” is the natural expression”. Once they lose this sense of kinship with each other which has bonded us together since our days of hunting and gathering tribes, our associations become cold and we lose that feeling of need to provide for one another.
This is easy to be seen in many recreational pastimes of modern youths. Modern gaming involves playing a game online with a person who has often made no contact with the other gamer in real life, developing a relationship with a person that is both primary and secondary at a mutual standing.
The need for production is hard to feel when the ones you are producing cannot be seen or felt.
The most extreme examples of detachment from normal society can be seen with skid rows. Once sucked into this lowest level of poverty-stricken existence, it can be very hard to find your way back out. Once enough people come to cohabitate in these types of areas, they come to be self-replicating of each other.
Often these situations come to arise due to the act of labeling whereas “deviance is created by groups that have the power to attach labels to others, marking particular people as outsiders. It is extremely difficult to shed a label once it has been acquired, and the labeled person tends to behave in the expected manner”.
The concept of stigma can also play heavy into these situations. Although a stigma is not necessarily a tool for devaluing a person, they are a concept that “refers to an attribute that is deeply discrediting and reduces the person from a whole and usual person to a tainted and discounted one”. They are the source of a label that a person has a hard time getting rid of. Once you wear a mask long enough, it can be impossible to remove it.
The person who gets stuck in skid row is can develop this label as a master status in the same way as the person who becomes involved with gangs or commits a type of taboo can develop associated labels that can make employment increasingly difficult to achieve, thus increasing poverty and possibly even decreasing the productivity of others due to increased deviant behavior such as crime and drug use.
The concept of social pathology can come into play in a sense in this situation because though it is not an actual physical sickness, the deviance can spread from areas with great amounts of poverty to areas with no poverty simply through associations. Poverty in this sense would not be the culprit at hand, but all associated behaviors would lead to poverty through mutually acquired deviance, thus self-sufficing.
The socially pathological problem would lead to further deviance through all subsequent associations, thus further creating this subculture. Over time the minority group could become the majority and poverty could become the norm, thus blowing through the façade of the tightly knit bureaucracy, thus fundamentally breaking down the system.
This could be a two-fold phenomenon in its attributes. To many, these poverty-stricken deviants would be wrong, as “they are perceived as failing to use the available opportunity for advancement in the various approved runways of society”. To others, as the majority of the population, their deviance could become viewed as the proper venue for advancement.
Once overall deviance throughout a culture becomes consistent, this deviance can no longer be viewed as such and can become the norm of the society, thus creating a nation of poverty.
This would thenceforth break down the bureaucracy and could lead to further problems and more widespread poverty.
Labels can be useful tools for the stratification of people, but over time this can lead to a dominant subculture of poverty because it’s easier to maintain a reputation for deviance once the act of primary deviance has already occurred, therefore there is a great danger in the misuse of such labels.
In closing, it has been made clear the many ways in which interactionism, functionalism, and conflict perspectives can be used to explain the causes of poverty in contemporary America. Poverty has developed into many multifaceted subcultures in the United States, some with their deviant forms of production and group norms. Other groups that have spawned from poverty in America are groups of no productive value but can still be seen as just as prevalent and therefore important. What is important is to bear in mind that poverty has become something with its own cultural value in a sometimes aesthetic sense, but the dangers of mislabeling and misunderstanding its significance can be a err in one’s sociological imagination.
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