Poverty is a persistent social phenomenon. A functional analysis (Robert Merton) of poverty may explain positive functions as to why such phenomenon continues to persist, as seen by Herbert J. Gans’ study, “The Uses of Poverty: The Poor Pay for All”, which expresses thirteen positive functions of poverty and further expresses its consistency with the functionalist perspective. In society, everything goes hand in hand, the rich need the poor and the poor need the rich. Gans expresses that the existence of poverty ensures that society’s “dirty work” gets done, the first positive function of poverty. Society has two choices, they can pay higher wages to do “clean work” or they can force the poor to do the “dirty work” for lower wages, which is what in fact is being done in the American society. “Economic activities that involve dirty work depend in the poor for their existence… and could not persist in their present form without the poor” (Gans, p.46).
This is a perfect example of how equilibrium is maintained in society, which satisfies one of the basic propositions of functionalism.
It explains that the affluent and the impoverished are interdependent and therefore maintain a balance as a part of society. Since the rich and the poor are interdependent, they each have to fulfill certain functions in order to maintain equilibrium. Gans clearly expresses that poverty persists because it fulfills certain positive functions. He further explains that the dysfunctions of poverty maintain the functions of the affluent by means of non-intended interactions such as: the poor committing crimes, and in turn the police, the more affluent, have jobs; on the other hand, the wealthy need to continue increasing their wealth and therefore use the poor to do society’s “dirty work” at low wages. In other words, consistent with functionalism, each part (rich and poor, in this case) of this social system fulfills specific functions, whether manifest or latent as a consequence for equilibrium (another basic proposition of functionalism).
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Gans states that “like any other social phenomenon, poverty survives in part because it is useful to society or some of its parts” (Gans, p.48).
Furthermore, he clarifies that although there are alternatives for such phenomenon as is poverty, to be eliminated, it will continue to carry on and only cause dysfunction within the wealthy which in turn would require a form of reorganization (redistribution of wealth more specifically) within the system. In other words, unless the poor become rich and powerful, change for the impoverished can’t really occur. In a sense then, the poor are poor without a choice and society needs the poor to be poor and the rich to be rich. As a result of such condition, there is a consensus from both parts to maintain the equilibrium in society because it would ease the cooperation necessary to meet the needs of the individual, from each part of the system, as well as the needs of the society in its entirety. Finally, this would further maintain socialization and social control to preserve order in society (functionalism’s basic propositions).