Formula for Social Structure, Poverty, & Crime?

 Sharon Cornet

 SOC 402

 Annie Shropshire

 November 23, 2008


Social institutions and poverty are linked.  According to Lauer and Lauer the social structural factors that play a role in poverty include "institutional arrangements of government, the economy, the family, and education" (2008, p. 173).   I would like to address the first two of these in some detail, and then touch on the latter two at the end.  Governmental institutions at the local, state, and federal levels involve political policies that are unequal in its power distribution.  TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) and Medicaid are only available to certain people in poverty-stricken conditions, whereas food stamps are usually a bit easier to apply for and receive.  However, what seems to be helping the poor also aids in the riches of the already-rich (Lauer and Lauer, 2008). 

One example of this unequal power – and money – distribution is food stamps that are used by those who are poverty stricken, or meet the low-income requirements to purchase food, help the poor and the wealthy.  For instance, the use of food stamps to buy groceries at the grocery store also makes the grocery store owners wealthier because of goods sold.  Similar results occur when Medicaid is used at Doctor's offices, making the physicians rich.  Job training helps the administrators of those businesses to make money as well.  People may complain that the poor get free "handouts" but fail to consider that corporate welfare also gives corporations financial benefits (i.e., "handouts") in loans, taxes, grants, credits, and real property improvements.  The argument is one that seems to bring prejudice/ bias – promoting a double standard – to light.  How can one argue against “handouts” to the poor, the homeless, or other low-income households and families, when vast sums of money are just given away to corporations (Lauer and Lauer, 2008)?  It seems simple at first glance.

On the other hand, there is also the argument that government programs that give handouts directly to the poor may be doing a better service (at least in some ways, depending) by giving grants to non-profit organizations (rather than corporations) that use this “free money” to help the poor indirectly.  NGO’s (Non-Governmental Organizations) that use such grants may work locally to organize low-income neighborhoods and bring better housing, infrastructure, weatherization of homes, new construction, the building of a community center with a roomful of computers and other resources, etc., help bring solidarity to areas of great poverty by organizing the people within those communities.  This, from a business perspective, would be a win-win situation.  However, a grant to an NGO is not necessarily the same as a grant to a corporation; but is it that much different?  Corporations using grants to build infrastructure in an area for low-income residential development would offset their expenses, allowing for an end product (low income housing) to be more affordable to the very people (customers, i.e., the poor) they are targeting.

This type of example where grants to corporations (as “handouts” or corporate welfare) may or may not necessarily aid the wealthy, and cause poverty to proliferate, IF the dollars are passed on to the consumer directly, dollar-for-dollar.  The big question lies in the formula used to determine the financial equality/balance regarding such endeavors.  The social structure of government monies as “handouts” has to be incorporated into a cohesive and inclusive (rather than exclusive) view, and how the matter is handled at all levels comes into play.  As an analogy, one could use the Carbon Footprint Calculator <> to determine the full impact of your greenhouse gasses/CO2 emissions in your home for lighting up your Christmas tree and house with lights during the holiday season.  The method most people use is very simple, where total wattage (W) multiplied by the time (T) used is considered the final answer in the total energy (E) used to run the lights (written as WxT=E); however, what happens when you take into account the cost of the electricity used at the factory(ies), etc., to make those strings of lights? 

Consider the energy consumed to mine and purify the metals used in the wiring for a string of Christmas lights, or the energy used to pump the oil from the ground and the process to refine and create plastics for the wiring casing, the manufacturing of the light bulbs themselves, and all their components, the work done by machines or people to put together the strings of lights, cost of trees and energy to make boxes to package them, the cost in fuel and vehicle manufacturing in order to ship them, etc.  What about the offsets, where jobs are created due to all of these necessary steps in such an endeavor?  Would there be other offsets?  If so, what?   In the end, even with offsets, the little string of $5 lights has cost quite a bit in total energy use, not just the watts used when you plug them in for a week or month or more.  After they get old, or the lights begin to quit working, and are thrown away, are any parts recycled or are they hauled to the dump?  How many years are they going to be used before that time comes?   The actual formula, as you can see, is not as simple as WxT=E, and would have to include the true TOTAL energy used.  Of course, it would be a nearly impossible feat to backtrack that far and consider every single energy resource that might be used in order to manufacture a string of lights. 

Similarly, the social structure of governmental and other institutions, and their potential or consequential TOTAL effect on society, especially the direct (or indirect) issue of being a causal factor in poverty, are inherently complex and would require a difficult formula indeed.  It’s not as simple as the dollar amount of handouts to the poor (H), multiplied by the percentage of profit the institutions would make off of that (P), equaling the total dollar amount of extra wealth the “programs for the poor” make the institutions richer (R).  HxP=R is just too simple a formula model, and from another viewpoint that same formula can show that the distribution of dollar-for-dollar monies are actually benefiting the poor more than the rich.   For instance, if $20 in food stamps is spent at the A&B Grocery store, and the grocer profits 30% of the sales of that $20 spent, then that institution gains $6.  Therefore, the conclusion would be that the person(s) using the food stamps gained $20 worth of goods, while the institution gained only a fraction of that amount. 

Variables could then need to be factored in if we were to dig deeper into this scenario, such as how much the $6 profit helps that business in a depressed economy, and whether the person spending the $20 in food stamps bought generic brands of food or name brands, or whether they work (let’s say bagging groceries) at the very store they are purchasing from, therefore gaining employment.  In a depressed economy, these small profits of an extra $6 here and there might make the difference between the grocer keeping his/her doors open (instead of closing permanently) because the store is finally making enough profit, and has adequate staff to keep the balance tipped in their favor, thanks to the food stamp program serving so many in the poorest area of town.  

The view might change completely in a rich part of town, where very few food stamps are used, and the grocery store is just one of many in a highly successful nationwide franchised chain of stores.  In that case, the simple formula measurement method would also show that the rich do not appear to profit much at all from programs meant exclusively for those in poverty.  These are extreme cases though, and so one has to ask what the structural norm is regarding such institutions, and how these kinds of handout programs affect them and the apparent negative effects of poverty.  At this point, anthropologists, sociologists, social scientists, psychologists, physicists, engineers, economists, and other professionals would have to come together to work on a formula that would more accurately measure just how this dichotomy between the rich and the poor (with an increasingly widening gap, leaving the middle-class as a shrinking entity) actually delivers the well-known fact of the “rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer” issue.

 The economy, at least regarding capitalism in America, appears to proliferate the problem of poverty in a never-ending cycle.  Many of the poor are blamed for their plight, but it is NOT always because the poor are lazy or unwilling to work (a stereotype).   Most work and/or want to work (Lauer and Lauer, 2008).  However, when businesses hurt, such as we see happening today in the news, jobs for the people are diminished, and bailouts (another type of handout) are only helping a few corporations rather than a huge number of large-to-small businesses nationwide that are also suffering.  If the A&B Grocery store mentioned above – employing a nearby resident, who also buys groceries from the store using food stamps – has a financial crisis and has to close the store (perhaps due to a severe storm that broke windows, knocked things off the shelves, and caused a sudden looting problem) then the former employee may realize that he has lost his job and join in the looting process to make up for his own losses.  Or may be he was just working when it happened and he was trying to save the most valuable items by grabbing them up and putting them in a safe place for the owner.  Either way, he is spotted with store items in his arms, running around like everyone else until he had a scuffle with one of the looters and a gun went off, killing the other man, and it is all caught on the store camera.

One would question at this point about the character of the former employee – if he thought it was okay to loot the store alongside his cohorts – and whether or not he had stolen from the store owner previously, perhaps while on the job.  Criminal and violent behavior is very common when there is one or more social structural factors involved: when socioeconomic status is low, education is lacking, the individual is young and male, friends and/or family are involved in behaviors considered a “norm” for them but is socially unacceptable – and even criminal – according to the majority of society (Lauer and Lauer, 2008).  The young man’s former boss might have stereotyped him because of his appearance, but felt sorry for his plight and desperate need for work, and hired him anyway.  Or, after the store was looted and he got arrested, the cops may have questioned the young man about his life, who he knows, why he was there, and any previous criminal behavior (let’s say the man had a clean record and had never done anything against the law, despite his life circumstances of being poor, a high school dropout, coming from a family where the father was an imprisoned felon, and his brother was a well-known drug dealer on the streets, etc.).  The cops would see all of these “indicators” and consider the man as someone who “fits the profile,” in which case, they would be committing the ecological fallacy and pigeonholing him as a life-long criminal who “just hadn’t gotten caught until now.”  

Because of his situation, even if he were completely innocent, the social structural factors would work against the young man.  If the “proof” of the video tape (of the looting, with items in his arms, and the gun fight and death of the other man) were shown at his jury trial, he would have a much higher chance of being convicted and imprisoned, where he would learn from hardened criminals what he would need to know to “get back” at the people who hurt him by putting him there when he didn’t deserve it.  A well-meaning young man, who had somehow managed to break the cycle of poverty by working hard and saving money in his bank account, and was taking classes at night to study for his GED test so he could go to community college, was then – through the years until he got out and “got back” at the cops and others who ensured his imprisonment – turned into a premeditated murdering criminal because of structural violence and selective victimization that worked against him. 

Obviously many variables would need to be weighed into a formula for why poverty is linked to the social institutions of the government, economy, family, and education.  The answer is not short and sweet, nor all of the reasons obvious (although they may seem to be at first glance), but certainly programs for the poor also help the rich get richer, and make the poor get poorer.  Now, with the simple method formula being obviously flawed, more studies need to be done to find out the reasons why… why poverty is affected so deeply by social institutions and how that cycle can be broken rather than made worse as time goes on.



Lauer, R. H., Lauer, J. C. (2008) Social Problems and the Quality of Life (11th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.