Homelessness- Seeing the Link Between Private Troubles and Social Issues

According to Newman (2011) the conflict perspective is the “theoretical perspective that views the structure of society as a source of inequality, which always benefits some groups at the expense of other groups” (21).  In a conflict perspective, class inequality is the result of powerful corporations, businesses and governments working with their primary concern geared towards profit, at the expense of the workers and citizens who are exploited for their gains.  The above photo shows one of the direct results of class and income inequality, especially in a difficult economic recession that the world is currently experiencing.  Rates of homelessness and poverty are continuing to rise in this country, and if there is any hope of ending this trend, one must stop looking at the individual causes for poverty, and start analyzing the macrolevel causes, “way of examining human life that focuses on the broad social forces and structural features of society that exist above the level of individual people” (Newman 2011: 21).  This analysis requires people to use a sociological imagination, “ability to see the impact of social forces on our private lives”, in order to figure out what is truly causing the societal problems that need fixing, including poverty and the subsequent homelessness as shown in the picture above (Newman 2011: 8).  Poverty and homelessness are serious societal problems caused by a lack of adequate education and job opportunities and it results in the condemnation and isolation of the impoverished from the rest of society.

According to Block et al (2006) “the number of people living in catastrophic poverty- in households with incomes less than 50 percent of the official U.S. poverty line- has increased every year since 1999” (242).    The man in the picture above is just one example of the many people in this country who are not able to maintain an adequate standard of living.  He is forced to swallow his pride and risks losing his dignity in favor of survival.  This man is poor, “in a society stratified by social class, a group of people who work for minimum wage or are chronically unemployed”, and subsequently reduced to the option of begging for money in a middle to upper-class college town (Newman 2011: 160).  Many people reduce the plight of the poor by contributing their problems to individual choices and mistakes, relaying public issues to lack of “educational aspirations” and “academic ability” (Raley 2008: 254).  However, Raley (2008) explains that “educational attainment is difficult to disentangle from class and… Although terms such as ‘academic ability’ and ‘educational aspirations’ have a neutral ring, they are factors highly tempered by social privilege” (254).  In addition, “the social isolation of the poorest of the poor creates neighborhoods with few connections to the job market and few opportunities to get a decent education” (Raley 2008: 254).  Therefore, it is possible that the homeless man in the picture did make some bad mistakes, however, when applying a sociological imagination it becomes more likely that when the people of power separate the upper class, “a group of people who have high income and prestige and who own vast amounts of property and other forms of wealth…” from the poor, they benefit from good connections and education while maintaining their power through disadvantaging the powerless (Newman 2011: 160).

Power is the “ability to affect decisions in ways that benefit a person or protect his or her interests” (Newman 2011: 160).  Those who have power maintain their positions through the exploitation of those who are less powerful, for instance the poor and working class people, “a group of people who have a low level of wealth, income, and prestige” (Newman 2011: 160).  Poverty and homelessness occurs when the people in power, corporations and governments, use whatever means necessary in order to further their personal goals.  One of the ways that those in power maintain their positions is by blaming the victims of poverty and homelessness for their own plight.  The man in the photo above probably has to deal with the stigma, “deeply discrediting characteristic that is viewed as an obstacle to competent or morally trustworthy behavior,” of being labeled as poor and homeless (Newman 2011: 82).  Such stigmas include the label of alcoholic or drug addict who is only going to use the money he gets in order to maintain his addictions, in addition to all of the discrediting characteristics that society indentifies with the poor.  Mantsios (1998) describes many of the ways in which society discredits the poor by blaming them for their problems; “Whether blatantly hostile or cloaked in sympathy, the message is that there is something fundamentally wrong with the victims- their hormones, psychological makeup, family environment, community, race, or some combination of these- that accounts for their plight and their failure to lift themselves out of poverty” (238).  The man in the photo has most likely felt the backlash of when society blames him for his troubles, and such individual blame leads to a cycle of poverty with no hope of a widespread solution.

The cycle of poverty can not only affect individuals but it can also be passed down generationally, while those in power also have the privilege to pass down their status to their children.  For instance, Al Jazeera (2011) explains that children who have parents that went to Ivy League schools, are more likely than others to get into such schools themselves.  Additionally, those children will then have a greater chance at getting better, higher-paying jobs than the students who were unable to get into an Ivy League college, even though the educations of most Universities are relatively the same (Al Jazeera 2011).  This means that if the man in the photo had the luck to be born into an upper class family with a history of Ivy League colleges, then the chances of him being homeless now is much lower.  Also, because he was most likely not born into an Ivy League family, his chances as a child were lower than upper class children of getting into a good school, despite personal talents and abilities.  Therefore it is reasonable to label the United States as having a caste system, “stratification system based on heredity, with little movement allowed across strata” (Newman 2011: 159).  This is another example of how those in power are able to maintain power at the expense of the underprivileged, in addition to further being able to see that poverty and homelessness can be contributed to larger societal factors that promote inequality in order to further the positions of the few at the top.

According to Block et al (2006), “Despite the growing poor population and the increasing difficulty of escaping poverty into economic security through paid work, the government is doing less and less to help” (244).  Therefore homeless and impoverished people in this nation are not only struggling to survive because of their lack of opportunities and the isolation that occurs through the stigmatization of the poor, but they also do not have an adequate chance at getting the help they need.  The United States promotes the ideal of an American Dream which allows any person who works hard, to achieve whatever it is that they wish to achieve.  However, with lack of social mobility, “movement of people or groups from one class to another”, it is unrealistic that most people in the U.S. will actually be able to achieve their dreams (Newman 2011: 160).  Therefore it is important to remember when seeing homeless people such as the man in the picture, that homelessness and poverty are the result of larger social forces that help the powerful few to get ahead and remain ahead of the powerless majority.  In order to end poverty and homelessness, the people in power would have to give up some of their forms of wealth, however as long as they control all those who are subordinate, this will not happen.