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Poverty, psychological theory-How do these theories inform social work practice with individuals and communities struggling with poverty?

Poverty, psychological theory-How do these theories inform social work practice with individuals and communities struggling with poverty?


According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of individuals living in poverty in 2004 rose to 37 million, an increase of 1.1 million from 2003 (DeNavas-Walt et al., 2005). Such an alarming statistic is of par-

Kelly Turner and Amanda J. Lehning are doctoral students at the School of Social Welfare, 120 Haviland Hall, University of California, Berkeley, CA 94720-7400.

Address correspondence to: Amanda Lehning (E-mail:

Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, Vol. 16(1/2) 2007 Available online at © 2007 by The Haworth Press. All rights reserved.

doi:10.1300/J137v16n01_05 57

ticular concern to the social work profession, whose primary mission has always included enhancing the well-being of those who are vulnera- ble, oppressed, and living in poverty (NASW, 1999). The applied field of social work incorporates the theories of a wide array of social science disciplines, including psychology. It is important, therefore, to identify and assess the various psychological theories used to explain poverty. How do these theories inform social work practice with individuals and communities struggling with poverty?

This literature review examines the theories of both the causes and impacts of poverty emerging from the field of psychology. The first sec- tion includes a historical look at theories concerned with the study of the mind and behavior of an individual or group. The next section presents a brief overview of the debates and changes within psychology from 1980 to 2000, as the field of psychology sought to create more of a balance between the understanding of human behavior and the impact of the social environment of poverty. The third and final section examines psychological theories of poverty that have emerged from this more bal- anced point of view. The conclusion addresses some of the implications of these theories for the social work curriculum, especially regarding human behavior and social environment.


This literature review included keyword searches in the most popular social science databases, including PsycINFO, PsycARTICLES, PubMed, Social Service Abstracts, Social Work Abstracts, and Sociological Ab- stracts. Each database was searched using the keywords “poverty,” “poor,” “socioeconomic,” “economic,” or “class” in combination with the terms “theory” or “analysis” and “psychology.” Once an article or chap- ter was selected, the reference section was searched to identify addi- tional sources.

The limitations of this literature review include the small number of articles devoted to theories of poverty within the psychology literature, the authors’ limited experience with psychological theories related to poverty, and a reliance upon published reviews of theories in psychol- ogy. A more comprehensive review of psychological theories of pov- erty is yet to be found in the literature.



Theories on the Causes of Poverty

Over the course of the second half of the twentieth century, psycholo- gists developed a number of theories that reflected either the field’s bi- ases about poor people (Carr, 2003; Allen, 1970) or its tendencies to view them in terms of their pathologies (Carr, 2003). These theories tend to locate the source of poverty within the individual (e.g., Pearl, 1970; Goldstein, 1973) or within an impoverished culture (e.g., Pearl, 1970; Rainwater, 1970), and do not address the larger societal or struc- tural forces affecting the poor.

One theory, known variously as the naturalizing perspective, constitu- tionally inferior perspective, or nativist perspective, holds that intrinsic biological factors lead directly to poverty, an argument often supported by psychologist-designed intelligence tests (Rainwater, 1970; Pearl, 1970; Ginsburg, 1978). While this perspective has historically reflected public attitudes (Rainwater, 1970), it appears that this perspective was held by some psychologists as recently as the 1970s (Rainwater, 1970; Pearl, 1970; Ginsburg, 1978). Although IQ tests produce quantifiable evidence that has been used to support this theory, many argue that intel- ligence is not a measurable construct (Pearl, 1970) and even researchers disagree about the exact definition of the word (see Ginsburg, 1978), therefore calling into question the validity of these intelligence test results.

A related theory involves the role of language development and the accumulated environmental deficits that can lead to poor academic achievement and the continuation of the cycle of poverty (Pearl, 1970; Ginsburg, 1978). Based on the inadequate development of the language skills poor children in comparison with their middle-class counterparts, researchers claim, have cognitive deficiencies (Pearl, 1970; Ginsburg, 1978). There is very little research, however, that substantiate any signifi- cant class-based differences in language abilities (Ginsburg, 1978) and this perspective has been denounced as based on middle-class arrogance, rather than science (Pearl, 1970; Ginsburg, 1978). As an alternative the- ory, Ginsburg (1978) proposed a developmental view that acknowledges that there may be class differences in cognition but that children share cognitive potentials and similar modes of language.

Intelligence-based psychological theories of are not the only theories that suggest that individual deficiencies contribute to an individual’s in- ferior social and economic status. For example, Carr (2003) describes

Kelly Turner and Amanda J. Lehning 59

the McClelland approach, which gained popularity in the 1960s and the 1970s. This approach suggests that the poor have not developed a par- ticular trait, called Need for Achievement (NAch), which therefore pre- vents them from improving their situation. This approach was embraced as a way to help the poor escape poverty, and researchers sought to test this theory on populations in third world countries (Carr, 2003). Simi- larly, in the 1980s psychologists viewed attribution theory as a prom- ising explanation of poverty (Carr, 2003); namely, the poor tend to attribute their failures to internal factors, while attributing successes to external, uncontrollable factors. On the other hand, the rich take the op- posite view. Both of these theories drew criticism for maintaining the status quo and failing to produce real results (Carr, 2003).

Other psychological theorists identified poverty as a manifestation of moral deficiencies (Rainwater, 1970) or psychological sickness (Rainwater, 1970; Goldstein, 1973). While a rare view among profes- sional psychologists, the moralizing perspective, labels the poor as sin- ners who need to be saved (Rainwater, 1970), and the medicalizing perspective views the behavior of poor people in terms of psychological disturbance (Rainwater, 1970). A number of studies reveal a high con- centration of schizophrenia and other psychopathologies among the poor. The social selection hypothesis posits that these mental illnesses actually determine one’s economic position (Goldstein, 1973; Murali & Oyebode, 2004). The social drift variant of this hypothesis suggests that most schizophrenics are born into middle- or upper-class families, but their illness prevents them from earning enough money to maintain this social status and they eventually drift into poverty (Goldstein, 1973). There is considerable debate surrounding this hypothesis, however, and the author of one theoretical piece concludes that social selection is one of many different factors explaining the concentration of schizophren- ics in the lower class (Goldstein, 1973).

Many social service workers employed by public welfare agencies in the 1950s also relied on psychological theories to explain the economic dependence of the poor on the state (Curran, 2002). They subscribed to Freud’s theories regarding the ego and psychosexual development by perceiving welfare recipients as victims of psychologically abusive his- tories resulting in character disorders that kept them in poverty. In essence, inadequate socialization and broken homes led to a poorly de- veloped ego and low levels of self-sufficiency (Pearl, 1970). Feeling overwhelmed by sexual and aggressive drives, this theory suggests that the poor acted out this psychic conflict, much like a child (Curran, 2002). The appropriate role of the caseworker was to act as a parent


substitute, setting limits and assimilating welfare recipients into the dominant culture (Curran, 2002). This theory was embraced by a pros- perous postwar America concerned with the rising numbers of African Americans on the welfare rolls, and disinclined to entertain the idea that the same society that led to their own financial success could also con- tribute to poverty (Curran, 2002). Looking back almost 50 years later, Fraser commented that this approach reflected “the tendency of espe- cially feminine social welfare programs to construct gender-political and political-economic problems as individual, psychological prob- lems” (1989, p. 155, as quoted in Curran, 2002, p. 382).

Social work’s earlier characterization of the poor as children seeking to satisfy their aggressive and sexual urges (Curran, 2002) supports the once-popular culture of poverty thesis. Although the culture of poverty theory developed by Lewis (1975) emphasizes the role of the social en- vironment in “creating” a culture of poverty, he still “describes” that culture in pathological terms, claiming that the poor suffer from flat affect, family tension, a brutal nature, and a lack of refined emotions (Carr, 2003). The cultural-relativistic perspective suggests that while the poor have a different culture from the rest of society, it is not neces- sarily inferior or superior (Rainwater, 1970). Similarly, the normalizing perspective includes middle-class stereotypes that lead to pity or con- cern for the poor. For example, the poor were perceived as having their own culture that serves them quite well, and it would be best to insulate them from the outside world, rather than force them to integrate with the larger society (Rainwater, 1970). As noted in the next section, the ten- dency to emphasize the individual’s culpability for being poor occurs not only in theories of causation, but also in theories on the impacts of poverty.

Theories on the Impacts of Poverty

Historically, psychologists tended to neglect larger structural forces when exploring the impacts of poverty, especially when treating psy- chological distress (Goldstein, 1973; Javier & Herron, 2002; Luthar, 1999). Some critics attribute this to the profession’s middle-class bias (Pearl, 1970; Javier & Herron, 2002).

One of the potential impacts of poverty is the prevalence and incidence of psychiatric disorders. Many studies have shown that psychiatric dis- orders, such as depression, alcoholism, anti-social personality disorder, and schizophrenia, are more common in urban, poverty-stricken neigh- borhoods than in more affluent communities (Murali & Oyebode, 2004).

Kelly Turner and Amanda J. Lehning 61

A counter-argument to this social selection hypothesis is the social causa- tion hypothesis, which holds that a patient’s economic situation actually causes psychopathologies, rather than the other way around (Goldstein, 1973; Murali & Oyebode, 2004). The conditions of poverty produce in- tolerable amounts of stress, which can lead to mental illness. For exam- ple, stress can occur when there is a wide gap between an individual’s achievements and their ambitions, a situation that is familiar to those living in poverty (Goldstein, 1973). While this hypothesis places part of the blame for the plight of the poor on society (i.e., not providing suffi- cient opportunities for achievement), Goldstein also suggests that indi- viduals play a role in their own psychopathology by noting that:

All of these dimensions of rearing, socialization, and personality development, which seem quite appropriate for adequate adjust- ment to a lower-class environment, also ill-prepares the individual for adequate coping and development in an essentially middle- class society–and especially for adequate coping with the stresses of this society. (Goldstein, 1973, p. 66)

In other words, lower-class individuals are perceived to have fewer coping skills compared to their middle-class counterparts. While the au- thor also calls for social legislation to improve the conditions of pov- erty, his primary recommendation for psychologists is to improve the social and personal skills of poor clients (Goldstein, 1973).

Psychoanalysts also view the poor through a middle-class lens, which could disrupt the therapeutic process (Javier & Herron, 2002). Psycho- analysis has historically been identified with white, middle class, Anglo- Saxon, male values, focusing on the nuclear family and intra-psychic conflict (Javier & Herron, 2002). Some therapists also believe that poor people do not have the proper skills to make use of insight and other therapeutic processes. This lack of understanding, often based on lim- ited contact with those living in poverty and a belief that certain behav- iors (e.g., discipline, hard work, and the ability to delay gratification) will necessarily lead to success, results in countertransference, in which the psychoanalyst’s personal feelings about the patient interfere with therapy and often discourage the patient from continuing with treatment (Javier & Herron, 2002). Some critics believe there are more sinister impulses at work, such as a fear that curing the poor of their psychologi- cal distress will hand them the tools to revolt against the middle and up- per classes (Javier & Herron, 2002). There is, however, an effort among psychoanalysts to provide better treatment of the poor, and the first step


might be to acknowledge this countertransference before it becomes counterproductive in therapy (Javier & Herron, 2002).

Moreira (2003) expresses concern about what she calls the “medi- calization of poverty,” a process involving psychologists and psychia- trists prescribing psychotropic drugs to treat the impacts of poverty, while ignoring other socio-political factors in the process. She accuses the psychology profession of maintaining the status quo by keeping the poor drugged and therefore docile (Moreira, 2003). Without a compre- hensive view of the impacts of poverty that acknowledges external, structural factors, the poor will continue to suffer (Moreira, 2003). Psy- chologists in the 1980s began to embrace this view, recognizing the in- tegral role that social, economic, and political forces play in the causes and impacts of poverty.


In the 1980s, psychologists began to criticize the overly pathological view of poverty held by their profession (Carr, 2003). They argued that applying McClelland’s NAch theory to poor people (i.e., they remain in poverty because they lack motivation) completely disregarded the ex- ternal, societal factors that contribute to the epidemic of poverty (Carr, 2003). Similarly, various prominent psychologists also disagreed with the widespread application of Feagin’s popular attribution theory as a way to explain poverty, believing that it inappropriately blamed a poor person’s lack of self-esteem for his/her plight, without taking external factors into account (Carr, 2003). Mehryar, another prominent psychol- ogist of the 1980s, noted that psychological theories had no effect on reducing poverty and possibly had the opposite impact, namely that “psychologizing poverty was liable to pathologize the poor rather than the system that constrained them” (Carr, 2003, p. 5). Mehryar went a step further by blaming the individualistic view of psychology towards poverty as contributing to keeping the wealthy in power and the poor in poverty (Carr, 2003).

The psychologists of the 1980s, therefore, proposed a return to the cul- ture of poverty theory (Lewis, 1975) that suggests that civilization it- self (compared with pre-literate, tribal cultures) inevitably creates two cultures: one of wealth and one of poverty (Carr, 2003). While some psy- chologists in the 1980s rejected purely psychology-based theories in fa- vor of society-based ones, they did not discount psychology entirely (Carr, 2003). Rather, they believed that psychology could make a positive

Kelly Turner and Amanda J. Lehning 63

contribution toward a new understanding of poverty “if” it was used to describe the psychological processes of the “wealthy” (i.e., not the poor) and how the biases of the wealthy helped to maintain the condi- tions of poverty (Carr, 2003).

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