The Uses of Poverty Analysis

Herbert J. Gans. The Uses of Poverty: The Poor Pay All.
Social Policy July/August 1971: pp. 20-24.
Some twenty years ago Robert K. Merton applied the notion of functional analysis to explain the
continuing though maligned existence of the urban political machine: if it continued to exist,
perhaps it fulfilled latent – unintended or unrecognized – positive functions. Clearly it did. Merton
pointed out how the political machine provided central authority to get things done when a
decentralized local government could not act, humanized the services of the impersonal
bureaucracy for fearful citizens, offered concrete help (rather than abstract law or justice) to the
poor, and otherwise performed services needed or demanded by many people but considered
unconventional or even illegal by formal public agencies.
Today, poverty is more maligned than the political machine ever was; yet it, too, is a persistent
social phenomenon. Consequently, there may be some merit in applying functional analysis to
poverty, in asking whether it also has positive functions that explain its persistence.
Merton defined functions as “those observed consequences [of a phenomenon] which make for the
adaptation or adjustment of a given [social] system.” I shall use a slightly different definition;
instead of identifying functions for an entire social system, I shall identify them for the interest
groups, socio-economic classes, and other population aggregates with shared values that ‘inhabit’
a social system. I suspect that in a modern heterogeneous society, few phenomena are functional
or dysfunctional for the society as a whole, and that most result in benefits to some groups and
costs to others. Nor are any phenomena indispensable; in most instances, one can suggest what
Merton calls “functional alternatives” or equivalents for them, i.e., other social patterns or policies
that achieve the same positive functions but avoid the dysfunctions.
Associating poverty with positive functions seems at first glance to be unimaginable. Of course, the
slumlord and the loan shark are commonly known to profit from the existence of poverty, but they
are viewed as evil men, so their activities are classified among the dysfunctions of poverty.
However, what is less often recognized, at least by the conventional wisdom, is that poverty also
makes possible the existence or expansion of respectable professions and occupations, for
example, penology, criminology, social work, and public health. More recently, the poor have
provided jobs for professional and para-professional “poverty warriors,” and for journalists and
social scientists, this author included, who have supplied the information demanded by the revival
of public interest in poverty.
Clearly, then, poverty and the poor may well satisfy a number of positive functions for many
nonpoor groups in American society. I shall describe thirteen such functions – economic, social and
political – that seem to me most significant.
The Functions of Poverty
First, the existence of poverty ensures that society’s “dirty work” will be done. Every society has
such work: physically dirty or dangerous, temporary, dead-end and underpaid, undignified and
menial jobs. Society can fill these jobs by paying higher wages than for “clean” work, or it can force
people who have no other choice to do the dirty work – and at low wages. In America, poverty
functions to provide a low-wage labor pool that is willing – or rather, unable to be unwilling – to
perform dirty work at low cost. Indeed, this function of the poor is so important that in some
Southern states, welfare payments have been cut off during the summer months when the poor
are needed to work in the fields. Moreover, much of the debate about the Negative Income Tax
and the Family Assistance Plan [welfare programs] has concerned their impact on the work
incentive, by which is actually meant the incentive of the poor to do the needed dirty work if the
wages therefrom are no larger than the income grant. Many economic activities that involve dirty
work depend on the poor for their existence: restaurants, hospitals, parts of the garment industry,
and “truck farming,” among others, could not persist in their present form without the poor.
Second, because the poor are required to work at low wages, they subsidize a variety of economic
activities that benefit the affluent. For example, domestics subsidize the upper middle and upper
classes, making life easier for their employers and freeing affluent women for a variety of
professional, cultural, civic and partying activities. Similarly, because the poor pay a higher
proportion of their income in property and sales taxes, among others, they subsidize many state
and local governmental services that benefit more affluent groups. In addition, the poor support
innovation in medical practice as patients in teaching and research hospitals and as guinea pigs in
medical experiments.
Third, poverty creates jobs for a number of occupations and professions that serve or “service” the
poor, or protect the rest of society from them. As already noted, penology would be minuscule
without the poor, as would the police. Other activities and groups that flourish because of the
existence of poverty are the numbers game, the sale of heroin and cheap wines and liquors,
Pentecostal ministers, faith healers, prostitutes, pawn shops, and the peacetime army, which
recruits its enlisted men mainly from among the poor.
Fourth, the poor buy goods others do not want and thus prolong the economic usefulness of such
goods – day-old bread, fruit and vegetables that otherwise would have to be thrown out,
secondhand clothes, and deteriorating automobiles and buildings. They also provide incomes for
doctors, lawyers, teachers, and others who are too old, poorly trained or incompetent to attract
more affluent clients.
In addition to economic functions, the poor perform a number of social functions:
Fifth, the poor can be identified and punished as alleged or real deviants in order to uphold the
legitimacy of conventional norms. To justify the desirability of hard work, thrift, honesty, and
monogamy, for example, the defenders of these norms must be able to find people who can be
accused of being lazy, spendthrift, dishonest, and promiscuous. Although there is some evidence
that the poor are about as moral and law-abiding as anyone else, they are more likely than middleclass
transgressors to be caught and punished when they participate in deviant acts. Moreover,
they lack the political and cultural power to correct the stereotypes that other people hold of them
and thus continue to be thought of as lazy, spendthrift, etc., by those who need living proof that
moral deviance does not pay.
Sixth, and conversely, the poor offer vicarious participation to the rest of the population in the
uninhibited sexual, alcoholic, and narcotic behavior in which they are alleged to participate and
which, being freed from the constraints of affluence, they are often thought to enjoy more than the
middle classes. Thus many people, some social scientists included, believe that the poor not only
are more given to uninhibited behavior (which may be true, although it is often motivated by
despair more than by lack of inhibition) but derive more pleasure from it than affluent people (which
research by Lee Rainwater, Walter Miller and others shows to be patently untrue). However,
whether the poor actually have more sex and enjoy it more is irrelevant; so long as middle-class
people believe this to be true, they can participate in it vicariously when instances are reported in
factual or fictional form.
Seventh, the poor also serve a direct cultural function when culture created by or for them is
adopted by the more affluent. The rich often collect artifacts from extinct folk cultures of poor
people; and almost all Americans listen to the blues, Negro spirituals, and country music, which
originated among the Southern poor. Recently they have enjoyed the rock styles that were born,
like the Beatles, in the slums, and in the last year, poetry written by ghetto children has become
popular in literary circles. The poor also serve as culture heroes, particularly, of course, to the Left;
but the hobo, the cowboy, the hipster, and the mythical prostitute with a heart of gold have
performed this function for a variety of groups.
Eighth, poverty helps to guarantee the status of those who are not poor. In every hierarchical
society, someone has to be at the bottom; but in American society, in which social mobility is an
important goal for many and people need to know where they stand, the poor function as a reliable
and relatively permanent measuring rod for status comparisons. This is particularly true for the
working class, whose politics is influenced by the need to maintain status distinctions between
themselves and the poor, much as the aristocracy must find ways of distinguishing itself from the
nouveaux riches.
Ninth, the poor also aid the upward mobility of groups just above them in the class hierarchy. Thus
a goodly number of Americans have entered the middle class through the profits earned from the
provision of goods and services in the slums, including illegal or nonrespectable ones that upperclass
and upper-middle-class businessmen shun because of their low prestige. As a result,
members of almost every immigrant group have financed their upward mobility by providing slum
housing, entertainment, gambling, narcotics, etc., to later arrivals – most recently to Blacks and
Puerto Ricans.
Tenth, the poor help to keep the aristocracy busy, thus justifying its continued existence. “Society”
uses the poor as clients of settlement houses and beneficiaries of charity affairs; indeed, the
aristocracy must have the poor to demonstrate its superiority over other elites who devote
themselves to earning money.
Eleventh, the poor, being powerless, can be made to absorb the costs of change and growth in
American society. During the nineteenth century, they did the backbreaking work that built the
cities; today, they are pushed out of their neighborhoods to make room for “progress. Urban
renewal projects to hold middle-class taxpayers in the city and expressways to enable
suburbanites to commute downtown have typically been located in poor neighborhoods, since no
other group will allow itself to be displaced. For the same reason, universities, hospitals, and civic
centers also expand into land occupied by the poor. The major costs of the industrialization of
agriculture have been borne by the poor, who are pushed off the land without recompense; and
they have paid a large share of the human cost of the growth of American power overseas, for they
have provided many of the foot soldiers for Vietnam and other wars.
Twelfth, the poor facilitate and stabilize the American political process. Because they vote and
participate in politics less than other groups, the political system is often free to ignore them.
Moreover, since they can rarely support Republicans, they often provide the Democrats with a
captive constituency that has no other place to go. As a result, the Democrats can count on their
votes, and be more responsive to voters – for example, the white working class – who might
otherwise switch to the Republicans.
Thirteenth, the role of the poor in upholding conventional norms (see the fifth point, above) also
has a significant political function. An economy based on the ideology of laissez faire requires a
deprived population that is allegedly unwilling to work or that can be considered inferior because it
must accept charity or welfare in order to survive. Not only does the alleged moral deviancy of the
poor reduce the moral pressure on the present political economy to eliminate poverty but socialist
alternatives can be made to look quite unattractive if those who will benefit most from them can be
described as lazy, spendthrift, dishonest and promiscuous.
The Alternatives
I have described thirteen of the more important functions poverty and the poor satisfy in American
society, enough to support the functionalist thesis that poverty, like any other social phenomenon,
survives in part because it is useful to society or some of its parts. This analysis is not intended to
suggest that because it is often functional, poverty should exist, or that it must exist. For one thing,
poverty has many more dysfunctions that functions; for another, it is possible to suggest functional
For example, society’s dirty work could be done without poverty, either by automation or by paying
“dirty workers” decent wages. Nor is it necessary for the poor to subsidize the many activities they
support through their low-wage jobs. This would, however, drive up the costs of these activities,
which would result in higher prices to their customers and clients. Similarly, many of the
professionals who flourish because of the poor could be given other roles. Social workers could
provide counseling to the affluent, as they prefer to do anyway; and the police could devote
themselves to traffic and organized crime. Other roles would have to be found for badly trained or
incompetent professionals now relegated to serving the poor, and someone else would have to pay
their salaries. Fewer penologists would be employable, however. And Pentecostal religion probably
could not survive without the poor – nor would parts of the second- and third-hand goods market.
And in many cities, “used” housing that no one else wants would then have to be torn down at
public expense.
Alternatives for the cultural functions of the poor could be found more easily and cheaply. Indeed,
entertainers, hippies, and adolescents are already serving as the deviants needed to uphold
traditional morality and as devotees of orgies to “staff” the fantasies of vicarious participation.
The status functions of the poor are another matter. In a hierarchical society, some people must be
defined as inferior to everyone else with respect to a variety of attributes, but they need not be poor
in the absolute sense. One could conceive of a society in which the “lower class,” though last in the
pecking order, received 75 percent of the median income, rather than 15-40 percent, as is now the
case. Needless to say, this would require considerable income redistribution.
The contribution the poor make to the upward mobility of the groups that provide them with goods
and services could also be maintained without the poor’s having such low incomes. However, it is
true that if the poor were more affluent, they would have access to enough capital to take over the
provider role, thus competing with and perhaps rejecting the “outsiders.” (Indeed, owing in part to
antipoverty programs, this is already happening in a number of ghettos, where white storeowners
are being replaced by Blacks.) Similarly, if the poor were more affluent, they would make less
willing clients for upper-class philanthropy, although some would still use settlement houses to
achieve upward mobility, as they do now. Thus “Society” could continue to run its philanthropic
The political functions of the poor would be more difficult to replace. With increased affluence the
poor would probably obtain more political power and be more active politically. With higher
incomes and more political power, the poor would be likely to resist paying the costs of growth and
change. Of course, it is possible to imagine urban renewal and highway projects that properly
reimbursed the displaced people, but such projects would then become considerably more
expensive, and many might never be built. This, in turn, would reduce the comfort and
convenience of those who now benefit from urban renewal and expressways. Finally, hippies could
serve also as more deviants to justify the existing political economy – as they already do.
Presumably, however, if poverty were eliminated, there would be fewer attacks on that economy.
In sum, then, many of the functions served by the poor could be replaced if poverty were
eliminated, but almost always at higher costs to others, particularly more affluent others.
Consequently, a functional analysis must conclude that poverty persists not only because it fulfills
a number of positive functions but also because many of the functional alternatives to poverty
would be quite dysfunctional for the affluent members of society. A functional analysis thus
ultimately arrives at much the same conclusion as radical sociology, except that radical thinkers
treat as manifest what I describe as latent: that social phenomena that are functional for affluent or
powerful groups and dysfunctional for poor or powerless ones persist; that when the elimination of
such phenomena through functional alternatives would generate dysfunctions for the affluent or
powerful, they will continue to persist; and that phenomena like poverty can be eliminated only
when they become dysfunctional for the affluent or powerful, or when the powerless can obtain
enough power to change society.
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