Transition Events in the Dynamics of Poverty. Other Theories

09/01/2002

Still other theories highlight the role that character and opportunity play in poverty. Schiller (1976) groups theories focusing on able-bodied, nonelderly adults into categories of “flawed character” and “restricted opportunity.” The flawed character theories assume that the poor have ample opportunities for improving their economic status, but lack the initiative and diligence necessary to take advantage of them (Duncan 1984). Oscar Lewis’ “culture of poverty” theory (1968) is an example of a flawed character theory. This theory maintains that a culture of poverty forms among a significant minority of the poor such that people are not psychologically geared to take advantage of opportunities that may come their way (Duncan 1984).(7) Using the PSID to examine the earnings of prime-aged white men Duncan confirms the findings of earlier studies and finds no support for the culture of poverty theory: “educational attainment is relatively powerful in distinguishing individuals with different levels of earnings, while attitudes and a simple measure of cognitive ability are not” (p. 123).

The restricted opportunity theories contend that the poor lack sufficient access to economic opportunities and cannot avoid poverty unless their economic opportunities improve (Duncan 1984). The dual labor market theory is an example. In this theory the labor market is split into two sectors with little mobility between them—the primary sector offering steady employment, higher wages, and better promotion opportunities, and the secondary sector with low wages, poor working conditions, and few promotion opportunities.(8) Using the PSID, Duncan (1984) finds little support for the dual labor market theory: “The fact that very few male workers appear to be locked into a given economic position, coupled with the movement found from ‘bad’ jobs to ‘good’ ones, contradicts rigid theories of dual labor markets” (p. 124). With these theories in mind, we now turn to findings in the poverty transitions literature.

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