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Class Inequality in America: Poverty, the Ghetto and Mark Rank

The Queensbridge projects

The Queensbridge projects

Poverty is a real issue in America that many seem to disregard because they feel prejudice toward the impoverished class: "Rather than an isolated event that occurs only among the so-called 'underclass,' poverty is a reality that a clear majority of Americans will experience during their lifetimes" (Rank 43). Although poverty is common in America, areas of concentrated poverty cause those who are below the poverty line to remain there for much of their life. Many middle-class and upper-class workers believe that those on programs like welfare are just abusing the system, yet, in areas of concentrated poverty, many find it hard to assimilate into the legal working force. The different cultural norms in places of concentrated poverty (i.e. ghettos and trailer parks) reduce an individual's ability to achieve social mobility. To clearly understand this concept, we must first analyze the work of Mark R. Rank.

Rank analyzed poverty in the U.S. regarding welfare, the lack of a national safety net and America's declining labor market within his work, "American as Apple Pie: Poverty and Welfare." Here, Rank compares poverty and welfare to the most common, American dessert, alluding to the fact that poverty is almost inevitable in many Americans' lives today. One of the major causes of poverty is the unlivable minimum wage in America; a "factor elevating the risk of American poverty across the life course is the failure of the labor market to provide enough jobs that pay well enough" (Rank 46). The inability to earn a living wage is caused by the lack of payable jobs in our current labor market: "That is, the number of workers in the labor market is far greater than the number of jobs that pay a living wage" (Rank 46). Since the recession, many individuals lost their jobs; a solution to this issue is to create more jobs with a livable wage.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the 2009 poverty line for a single individual is $10,830 yearly. With this income, an individual could live in a rural area, in a small apartment and still have to pay for the number of expenses. If an individual falls above the poverty line, they are supposed to afford food, water, shelter, an education, medical care and clothing. In Los Angeles, it is hard to find a one-bedroom apartment for less than $1,000 per month. If an individual is bordering the poverty line, they could not afford to live in urban areas solely with their income. This lessens their chances of climbing the economic ladder.

It is so common for Americans to slip under the poverty line due to the lack of a safety net. Many other nations assist their citizens when they are in financial crises: "Unemployment assistance is far more generous in these [European] countries than in the United States, often providing support for more than a year following the loss of a job" (Rank 45). If America had a safety net in place, its individuals would be protected from unexpected events that can set them off-balance financially. Sociologists Martina Morris and Bruce Western wrote "Inequalities in Earnings," in which they wrote, "Most people now rely on two incomes to support a family, so that individual earnings losses are marked by income pooling" (Morris and Western 85). If a major wage earner in a household loses their job, and the family doesn't have much income from other members or savings, the family can be forced below the poverty line simply because of a change in the labor market. Social crises can also cause a household to fall below the poverty line almost instantly. Rank writes, "Over so many years, individuals face many unanticipated events--households split up, workers lose their jobs, family members become sick, and so on--that become financial emergencies" (Rank 44). Without government intervention, many will fall into poverty and reduce their chances of climbing the economic ladder.

Poverty can easily take hold of a well-off individual or family, but those who live in areas of concentrated poverty make the most damage on our society. Because most residential areas are homogeneous in both class and race, we find that areas of concentrated poverty are direct results of residential segregation. Within "Deadly Symbiosis," Loic Wacquant explains how American ghettos were formed historically and continue to exist today:

"chattel slavery until the Civil War, the Jim Crow regime of racial exclusion operative in the agrarian South from Emancipation to the Civil Rights revolution, and the ghetto in the 20th century Northern industrial city, have, each in its own manner, served two joined yet discordant purposes: to recruit, organize, and extract labor out of African Americans, on the one hand; and to demarcate and ultimately seclude them so that they would not 'contaminate' the surrounding white society that viewed them as as irrevocably inferior and vile because devoid of ethnic honor" (Wacquant 99).

Because of this segregation, African Americans moved into residential areas which were not as well-kept or protected as white communities.

Highly concentrated residential areas of low-income African Americans created communities that would ultimately create their own social norms and values, which often make it hard for individuals from ghettos to assimilate into the working force: "...African Americans came upon yet another device designed to allow white society to exploit their labor power while keeping them confined in a separate Lebensraum: the ghetto. As the Negro population rose, so did the animosity of whites towards a group they viewed as 'physically and mentally unfit', 'unsanitary', 'entirely irresponsible', and therefore 'undesirable as neighbors'..." (Wacquant 102). This "animosity" forced African Americans into homogeneous neighborhoods with individuals like themselves and therefore created their own cultural norms, which ultimately keep them under the poverty line.

Sociologists Within "American Apartheid," Douglass Massey and Nancy Denton argue that these ghettos prevent their residents from climbing the economic ladder: "Residential segregation is not a neutral fact; it systematically undermines the social and economic well-being of blacks in the United States" (Massey and Denton 154). African Americans from ghettos find it hard to obtain jobs due to the social norms implanted in them (which do not coincide with business-world norms) and their economic status below the poverty line possibly since birth.

These ghettos only damage the African American individuals in ways which keep them below the poverty line. Because they have created cultural norms due to their ethno-racial population and separation from mainstream society, they have created a society in which being at the bottom of the economic ladder is normal. Commonly, residents are non-working and perpetuate a culture of poverty; this instability in life leads to alternate means of income. Sociologist William Julius Wilson wrote, "...many of today's problems in the inner-city ghetto neighborhoods--crime, family dissolution, welfare, low levels of social organization, and so on--are fundamentally a consequence of the disappearance of work" (Wilson 143). Without work, citizens of these urban ghettos have less regularity of their daily life, which leads to high crime rates, high rates of birth out of wedlock, and must more instability and safety within the community.

Without routines and regularity, the youth become bored and act out:

"Despite being socially integrated, the residents in Chicago's ghetto neighborhoods shared a feeling that they had little informal control over their children in their environment. A primary reason is the absence of a strong organizational capacity or an institutional resource base that would provide an extra layer of social organizations in their neighborhoods" (Wilson 147).

With more community resources and youth activities, the children would behave more properly, but because there is an absence of routine within their lives, they find less motivation to obey their parents. This behavior will directly effect the child's ability to assimilate into culture outside the ghetto. Similarly, Wilson writes, "...our research revealed that many parents in the inner-city ghetto neighborhoods of Chicago wanted their children not to make eye-to-eye contact with strangers and to develop a tough demeanor when interacting with people on the streets. While such behaviors are helpful for survival in the ghetto, they hinder successful interaction in mainstream society" (Wilson 150). The children are being taught a certain way to act in order to survive within their specific society, yet this is keeping them from possible assimilation into the outside culture.


Because of these behavioral and cultural norms within ghettos, many employers will not hire an applicant from these areas. The employer may support the applicant's choice to transcend poverty, yet they don't want to take a risk in hiring those from areas of concentrated poverty. Rank writes, "...much of the public's resistance to assisting the poor and particularly those on welfare is the perception that the poor are often undeserving of assistance, that their poverty arises from a lack of motivation, questionable morals, and so on" (Rank 47). The ghetto trains its citizens to act a certain way in order to survive. Many of its norms are completely habitual and are hard to break, like language, for example. Wilson interviewed employers who discussed the difficulty of finding an adequate employee for their business from the ghetto. Two of them spoke of the language that these individuals used and how it wasn't proper for their stores. This is not the only issue that citizens from areas of concentrated poverty have with finding jobs. Because many of these individuals were raised in the ghettos, they are left unskilled.

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Wilson describes two types of skills: "soft" skills and "hard" skills. Soft skills are the social aspects of one's job: appearance, professional attitude, and interacting with others in a polite way. Hard skills are "literacy, numerical ability, basic mechanical ability, and other testable attributes" (Wilson 150). Because of the language and cultural norms within areas of concentrated poverty, many individuals find it hard to join the legal working force and sometimes resort to illegal means of income.

With a national safety net, a reanalysis of the national poverty line, and more mixed-income housing within our society, we can assist people out of concentrated areas of poverty, which seem to be the root of our economic disruption. These suggestions are definitely structural solutions, but the difficulty with attempting to eliminate ghettos and areas of highly concentrated poverty, is the cultural change that must take place. In order to achieve this, there must be more opportunity within ghettos for jobs as well as other facilities for the youth. Adding these regulated institutions will allow more routine and dependence onto the greater society, America, rather than the oppressive and individualistic elements that become a vital part of most lives in areas of concentrated poverty.


Denton, Nancy A. Massey, Douglass S. "American Apartheid" in The Inequality Reader. (Cambridge, MA: Westview Press, 2007). p 153-164.

Morris, Martina. Western, Bruce. "Inequality in Earnings" in The Inequality Reader. (Cambridge, MA: Westview Press, 2007). p 80-86.

Rank, Mark R. "As American as Apple Pie: Poverty and Welfare." (Berkeley, CA: The University of California Press, 2003). p 41-49.

The United States Department of Health and Human Services. "The 2009 HHS Poverty Guidelines." <Found at:>.

Wacquant, Loic. "Deadly Symbiosis: When Ghetto and Prison Meet and Mesh" in Punishment and Society, Vol. 3, Issue 25. (Sage Publications, 2001). p. 95-121.

Wilson, William Julius. "The Declining Significance of Race." in The Inequality Reader. (Cambridge, MA: Westview Press, 2007). p 225-238.


Brittany Kennedy (author) from Kailua-Kona, Hawaii on December 16, 2011:

prettydarkhorse, thank you so much for reading and sharing your thoughts. It is a strange system we have in place. If your parent's aren't wealthy, you may not have the same opportunities as everyone else. At the same time, the richest men in the world were entrepreneurs and did not have the wealth to begin with. Thank you again for your thoughts.

prettydarkhorse from US on December 16, 2011:

its cyclical isn't it, no education means you don't have enough options for employment and thus such your status becomes stagnant specially in not so good economy like the US right now. The capacity to uplift oneself is a mix of cultural factors plus the economy.

Thanks for letting me know about this insightful hub.

Brittany Kennedy (author) from Kailua-Kona, Hawaii on November 07, 2011:

Thank you for your comments and your recommendation. That's another book I will add to my reading list.

hush4444 from Hawaii on November 07, 2011:

Great hub on such an important but divisive issue! I highly recommend Ruby Payne's "A Framework for Understanding Poverty". I've been to two workshops about her book and they made me regret any judgements I may have passed.

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