Poverty in African American Communities


Povertyin African American Communities

Povertyin African American Communities

Roleof Social Workers in the Development and History of Poverty amongAfrican American Populations

Socialand material disadvantage, poverty, as well as social exclusion arecrucial issues in the stratified society that is the contemporaryhuman society. Nevertheless, professional and policy ideologies havein more ways than one failed in tackling the structural elements thathave a bearing on the inequalities. For a long time, debatepertaining to tackling poverty has been dominated by the socialpathological model, with social work failing to tackle theassumptions that form the basis for the approach (Saleeby, 2007).Historically, social work has concentrated on tackling poverty withinthe individual level while giving no consideration to the sources ofthese inequalities.

Itis imperative that emancipator social work acknowledges theideological and structural factors that affect the persistence ofpoverty and the widening of gaps between the rich and the poor wherethe latter are affected in greater numbers. It is worth noting thatthe persistence of poverty among African American populations cannotsolely be credited to family traits rather it is imperative that theexternal factors that may inhibit or restrict the opportunities ofindividuals and hinder them from getting out of poverty be modifiedin the long-term. Indeed, scholars have acknowledged that it isimperative that poverty be located in the context of society so as todetermine the causes that result in poverty and inequality in thesociety (Lum, 2007).

Previously,there have been suggestions that social workers have propercomprehension pertaining to the impact that poverty has on people’slives. However, as much as some workers comprehend the impact ofperpetual low income on parenting, there exists some evidence thatsocial work has a bad record as far as the comprehension of orcombating of family poverty is concerned (Rooney, 2002). While socialworkers are required to consider the wider environmental factors, thecomprehension of social exclusion and poverty is usually not seen asfundamental to the evaluation approaches in social work. There is anincreasing trend where the managerialism and bureaucracy in socialwork leaves the practitioners as gatekeepers to resources since theservice users are expected to be more closely in line with theeligibility criteria (Rooney, 2002).

Oneof the strategies that the social workers can use in accomplishingthis is lobbying for a more inclusive society. This would involvetaking forward tasks that would enable individuals from every otherbackground to participate and feel that they belong in the modernUnited States. In this regard, social workers would promote regularcontact between the individuals from varying backgrounds and seek tolower prejudice through highlighting the shared values. This goes along way in eliminating the social tensions that exist between thegroups and assist the communities in dealing with economic and socialchange (Lum, 2007). It is imperative that social workers lobby forpolicies that concentrate on bottom-up strategies that encouragesocial responsibility and makes use of ideas and energies ofcitizens, voluntary sector and communities in building an integratedsociety that allows for the participation of all individuals.

Inaddition, social workers must establish or come up with developmenttrusts that allow the deprived communities to respond to thelarge-scale changes at a local or micro level. This would involvekick starting the local economies and promoting neighborhood-basedself-determination, as well as engaging individuals on their ownterms (Skelcher, 2003). Such a program would function as achange-management business that would reverse the cycle of poverty ina sustainable manner. The programs would entail getting the localpeople to come up with their own solutions and cultivating thenetworks and skills that they need so as to optimize their chances inlife. Researchers have acknowledged that development trusts aremainly active in neighborhoods in the long-term, with a large numberof them using enterprise to retain, circulate and create wealthwithin the local areas (Lum, 2007). The success of this model orprogram rests on the fact that it does not primarily depend on grantsfrom the government or other external entities rather it is upon theAfrican Americans to take part in programs within their neighborhoodsthat promote economic progress.

Theoriesand Analysis of Poverty

Inexplaining the varied causes and effects of poverty, scholars havecome up with varied theories. Until recent times, little attempt hadbeen made to extend theories to the changes, extent and forms ofpoverty. Indeed, social scientists such as Marx were primarilyconcerned with the evolution of the social, political and economicinequality where economists devoted a large proportion of theirinterest to factor shares of production, as well as the distributionand not the unequal distribution of resources. In instances wherethey studied the latter, economists would confine themselves toexamination of wages (Lum, 2007). On the other hand, sociologistsusually generalized discussions pertaining to the origins andnecessity of equality or even restricted their work to discussionspertaining to the topics that were only directly related or partlyassociated such as mobility and occupational status, persistence andstructure of local community. Nevertheless, two theories have comeout clearly as the most fundamental in sociology as far as offeringan explanation pertaining to the fundamental issues of poverty inAfrican American communities.


Thistheory is primarily concerned with questions pertaining to thefunction and purpose that stratification serves in the society. Thistheory underlines the notion that every part of the society includingpoverty contributes in one way or another to the stability of thelarger system. Indeed, structural functionalists have always noted ormaintained that inequality and stratification are beneficial andinevitable in any society (Shirlow &amp Murtagh, 2004). Thestratification comes as extremely useful as it allows or ensures thatthe most appropriate individuals are at the highest echelons of thehierarchy while the individuals that are less worthy remain at thelower levels of the pyramid. Essentially, the individuals that are atthe top have power and other rewards bestowed on them as a result fthe high capabilities, with the high rewards existing in order tooffer qualified individuals with appropriate incentives it accomplishthe most crucial tasks pertaining to the high status occupations(Skelcher, 2003). In line with this theory, the inequality betweenindividuals ensures that the jobs that are most functionallyimportant are occupied by the most qualified individuals.

Perhapsone of the most fundamental assertions pertaining to structuralfunctionalism theory is the notion that the structure of the familieshas a direct impact on the likelihood of existing in poverty. Indeed,scholars have acknowledged that nuclear families have exclusive orpreferential enjoyment of the sexual and economic rights over eachother (Skelcher, 2003). Essentially, the theory underlines the factthat single parents and same-sex parents have a higher likelihood forraising their children in poverty, an element that becomes afundamental problem considering that a high percentage of AfricanAmerican children live in dysfunctional or single-parent families ata particular time of their childhood. Research has demonstrated thatin 2006, close to 36 percent of female-headed families that hadchildren lived in poverty, which is quite high in comparison to the6.3 percent of the married-couple families (Saleeby, 2007).

ConflictTheory of Poverty

Theconflict theory, on the other hand, comes as a critique of structuralfunctionalism. This theory presupposes the notion that the society iscomprised of groups that are fiercely fighting over scarce resources.Essentially, this breeds a class conflict where the bourgeoisie orthe owners of the factors or means of production are in control ofthe market system, while the proletariat or working class aredependent on the bourgeoisie for the salaries and wages. One of themajor contrasts between this theory and the structural-functionalisttheory is the fact that the conflict theorists state that thestratification is harmful and dysfunctional in the society. Indeed,the theorists see the stratification as existing for the benefit ofthe powerful and wealthy individuals at the expense of the poor (Lum,2007). Essentially, it is assumed that the individuals that are inthe higher echelons of stratus are perpetually trying to enhancetheir riches at the expense and suffering of the individualsoccupying the lower positions. For instance, a large number ofwealthy families pay extremely low wages to their nannies, gardenersand maids for the tasks that they accomplish at their homes. Thiscompetitive system alongside the structural barriers or hindrances toupward mobility eventually create and perpetuate stratificationsystems (Shirlow &amp Murtagh, 2004). This theory states thatinequality and competition are not inevitable rather they areestablished and maintained by individuals. Nevertheless, it is statedthat without the proletariat, production would essentially beimpossible, in which case it is imperative that the inequality ismaintained so as to safeguard cost effectiveness and stability in thesociety.

Thistheory comes as a proper explanation of the perpetual poverty that alarge proportion of African Americans have been grappling with.Indeed, it is noted that since time immemorial, at no one time havethis minority group been possessing the main factors of production.Their history as slaves means that they have always been dependent onthe salaries and wages that they received for their work particularlyin the fields. In the contemporary society, the increased populationsmean that there would be a reduction in the amount of resources thatwould be available for the public to share. It has been wellacknowledged that the power imbalance between the varied races causesdisparities in the resources that are available to them. Essentially,the individuals that are dispossessed of voice and power have ahigher likelihood of remaining trapped in poverty. As a minoritygroup, it goes without saying that African Americans are sociallyexcluded from accessing resources, whether they are education or evenfinancial resources that would allow for the elimination of povertyin the long-term. The lack of resources with which to put theirchildren through the education system means that the children wouldbe deficient of skills and knowledge that may result in theirexclusion from the labor market. Essentially, they would be trappedin the lower-paying jobs as they are not well equipped to occupy thewell paying ones (Shirlow &amp Murtagh, 2004). On the other hand,the individuals that are in the higher echelons or who own thefactors of production will always have the opportunities to pursuetheir dreams and safeguard their place in the society.

Inconclusion, poverty among African Americans has been on the rise inthe contemporary human society. This may have emanated from thedisparity in their social situations or rather their histories,particularly as slaves, which have robbed them of opportunities togain control over the factors of production. Essentially, the socialexclusion of black people from the resources in the society keepsthem in poverty. To promote anti-discriminatory and anti-oppressivepractice, it is imperative that social workers take part in debatespertaining to social differentiation and social divisions. They haveto comprehend the experiences and effects of divisions andoppression, as well as the institutional and structural contexts ofthe poverty (Shirlow &amp Murtagh, 2004). Challenging the structuralcontexts would go a long way in safeguarding the effectiveness ofsocial work. In this regard, social workers must come up withprograms that seek to ensure the participation of the minorities andempower them in the long-term. The programs would entail getting thelocal people to come up with their own solutions and cultivating thenetworks and skills that they need so as to optimize their chances inlife.


Lum,D (2007). Culturally Competent Practice: A Framework forUnderstanding Diverse Groups and Justice Issues, 3rd ed. PacificGrove, CA: Brooks/Cole

Rooney,E. (2002). Community development in times of trouble: reflections onthe community women`s sector in the north of Ireland. CommunityDevelopment Journal37 (1), 33–46.

Saleeby,D (2007). The Strengths Perspective in Social Work Practice, 4th ed.Boston: Allyn &amp Bacon

Shirlow,P. &amp Murtagh, P. (2004). Capacity building, representation andintracommunity conflict. UrbanStudies41 (1), 57–71.

Skelcher,C. (2003). Governing communities: parish pump politics or strategicpartnerships? LocalGovernment Studies19 (4), 1–16.