Poverty is a complex yet highly disregarded social issue affecting millions of families and people across the United States. According to the U.S Census Bureau, the population survey recorded that in 2017 the poverty rate for the Latino population was approximately 18.3% which translates to about 10.8 million people suffering from poverty(U.S Census Bureau 2017). When comparing it to the African American population, the poverty rate was about 21.2% representing 9.0 million people in poverty. The U.S Census Bureau states that official poverty is 12.3% which an estimated 39.7 million people lived in poverty in 2017. Despite the fact that cultural/behavioral theory help us understand how individuals values influence their behavior, I believe it does not take into account the constraining social structure that often encourages deviant behavior like participating in illegal activities.
I will argue that the majority of poverty cases in the Latino population are better understood under the lens of structural theory because it allows us to fully understand the circumstances people are often forced to endure all while trying to make ends meet. It is not that poor people are lazy to work it is just that they aren’t given the same opportunities as other groups of people. To improve the life chances of those that live in poverty, I recommend implementing some form of rent control and raising wages where it allows people to live comfortably.
Both cultural and structural theories of the causes of poverty have their pros and cons. As stated by some scholars in Dohan’s The Price of Poverty, cultural theory suggests that people are in the state of poverty because of the different cultural values and norms they are socialized into believing without adopting the mainstream norms that lead to economic success(Dohan 2003: Chapter 1). It assumes that people are poor because they are lazy and irresponsible who do not want to work. This also challenges the individual’s cultural values and norms due to the belief that they have not adopted a sense of pride for working and earning your way to the top.
It also proposes that people will seek government assistance programs because they do not want to work or take responsibility which allows them to heavily rely on this kind of aid without having to worry about earning some form of income. In addition, this theory mentions this idea of immediate gratification which indicates that people rush to seek pleasure without thinking about it. For example, one may think about buying a new pair of expensive shoes after payday. They seek to buy unnecessary things to feel a temporary pleasure that they often end up regretting after realizing it was an unnecessary purchase. This theory emphasizes individualism because it demonstrates the importance of these learned norms and values that then shape a person’s behavior to their situation. They might prefer to work towards upward social mobility or they might remain in place by only accepting welfare. This gives the person the freedom of choice to either overcome poverty or remain stagnant based on the norms and values they have internalized. A strength of this theory is the close analysis of the individual by demonstrating how the person or group would respond to the issue at hand.
This theory helps us understand how and why a person reacts to their given situation. However, this theory is flawed by the idea that culture remains the same throughout generations. Surely these foundations of our culture and what it teaches is not easy to just replace, but as newer generations come and adopt that same culture it is bound to have the definitions of norms and values change. Culture is something that keeps constantly changing and with these new changes, it allows for new values and norms to replace the old ones. In addition, this theory puts the blame on the poor people for their living situation and it does not consider external factors that may affect the individual.
While cultural theory focuses on explaining an individual’s behavior based solely upon the cultural values and norms they have internalized, structural theory seeks to demonstrate the impact of structural obstacles people face while enduring the effects of poverty. The structural theory of poverty suggests that people are living in poverty because of the lack of opportunities that they have at their disposal. This theory assumes that there are social and economic inequities within these institutions that spawn issues like racism, employer discrimination, etc.
For example, Wilson’s research highlights that African Americans are put at a disadvantage during the hiring process of a job because employees tend to have bias and preference for specific workers by calling African Americans lazy and dishonest(Wilson:111). An employer may prefer a white worker who has fewer qualifications compared to a person of color who has more qualifications based solely on their skin color and the stereotypes they may hold against certain groups of people. People of color but primarily the Latino population tends to work in low wage jobs because it is the only work opportunity that they have at their possession.
The low wage jobs also do not compensate for the high cost of living. Higher wage jobs require more qualifications and a degree above just a high school diploma. The higher requirement for better jobs limits the social mobility of the people within society due to the lack of opportunities available that do not provide enough resources to live outside of poverty. Furthermore, sexism is common in a workplace because society has labeled men as superior to women simply because they are believed to be smarter. This translates to the employer or even institutions having a stronger preference for men because of this idea that men are superior or have a better skill set based solely on their gender. The strength of this type of theory is that it takes into account the external factors that are at times not in the control of the individual but rather the institutions that uphold and support these types of inequalities. A weakness for this type of theory is that it disregards the cultural components of an individual that may influence their decision making in responding to their situation which in this case is how they cope and deal with poverty.
Although the cultural and structural theory has their strengths and weaknesses, I believe the structural approach helps to fully capture the entire scope of the effects of poverty on the Latino population because it examines the power of institutions and how they are reinforced by discrimination, racism, etc. By applying cultural theory to the Latino population it is apparent that they suffer from many social boundaries that do not grant them any kind of mobility. From language barriers to jobs only paying minimum wage, this is only is the tip of the iceberg.
One of the main social factors that cause Latinos to suffer from poverty is underemployment. Dohan’s findings suggest that in both Guadalupe and Chavez, people were employed, however, they worked in jobs that did not provide a liveable wage and had unreliable hours (Dohan 2003: Chapter 2). Companies have the tendency to hire Latinos because of the language barrier they may possess and the persistent work ethic that drives them to work regardless of the treatment and conditions of the workplace. The capitalist system encourages employees to reduce costs, therefore they hire workers who are willing to get paid the bare minimum.
Employees know that even if the Latino workers were to complain about any aspect of the job, they would simply get back in line because these types of jobs are the only ones that are willing to pay without many skills or qualifications. This is also evident in the Foo reading, where the author points out that the employers justify low pay and poor conditions for the Asian and Mexican immigrant women working in the manufacturing factories in Silicon Valley by saying that “they can afford to work for less for assembly line work”(Foo:82). The individual worker then feels powerless and have no choice but to continue working out of necessity. The power dynamic between the employee and the worker demonstrates that structural components can negatively impact the livelihood of those in poverty that are only trying to improve their conditions but are faced with opposing forces that simply want to take advantage of their labor power.
As these low wage jobs unpredictably continue to cater to some of the needs of the Latino population, it ultimately does not provide enough for the cost of living in the United States. The result of working in these types of jobs, unfortunately, impacts the lifestyle of individuals by limiting them to work with what they got. It is no secret that the cost of living as exponentially risen in the past decades.
It essentially does not allow people and families to live in comfort which leaves people no choice but to share an apartment or house. An issue that can arise is overcrowding as seen in the barrios of Guadalupe and Chavez. The story of Ted Galindo’s struggle to find a secure job to pay rent in a shared apartment is an example of the struggles Latinos face in the United States. Ted was not always able to find work and even if he did work, he did not have enough to help with making the payments for the household(Dohan 2003: Chapter 2).
This underlines the economic disparity the Latino population suffers from in these low paying jobs that do not provide the necessary material resources for them leading to overcrowding in houses or apartments just to be able to pay rent. Furthermore, according to the National Low-Income Housing Coalition, “3 full-time jobs paying the federal minimum wage ($7.25) are needed to ‘afford’ a 2-bedroom apt at ‘fair market rent for U.S.” To elaborate, someone needs to work 3 jobs just to be able to secure a two bedroom apartment in the United States. This is not only a shocking statistic but it clearly illustrates the large economic disparity between workers in low wage jobs and those in the good paying jobs. The cost of housing has caused many families and individuals to live fear of losing their household with insecure pay and jobs that are only available to them.
To conclude, structural theory enables us to recognize the structures that aren’t always visible to understand the poverty among the Latino population. From the underpaying jobs, the employer’s perception of its workers, and the high cost of living are only some factors that can explain the causes of poverty among Latinos. These structural components caused a sense of economic insecurity among the Latino population that limited their social mobility in society. The possible solutions to some of these problems are quite simple yet complex to implement. There should be some form of regulations that protect neighborhoods from overcharging residents known as rent control. This would help manage the cost of living to a reasonable amount. Lastly, there should be higher wages for certain jobs because companies often make lots of money already and they should be able to pay their workers a livable wage.
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