Individualism in America Overlooks the Core of Poverty

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WASHINGTON D.C. — The United States is seen as a land of opportunity, success and a chance to live out the “American Dream.” As French historian Alexis de Tocqueville says, it is “the charm of anticipated success.” Although the United States is among the richest countries in the world, the poverty rate stands at an estimated 14 percent.

From the poverty rate, it could be interpreted that maybe the “American Dream” isn’t attainable simply by hard work itself. The idea that hard work will bring success stems from individualism — a concept which is defined as the habit or principle of being independent and self-reliant. In America, individualism is deeply ingrained as a core value and is very influential in how poverty is viewed.

The individualistic rhetoric denotes that the poor are inferior and poverty is caused by one’s short-comings and failures, and that poverty is caused by lack of motivation to work as well as individual beliefs. Researchers say that poorly employed adults actually tend to work more hours per week and value education just as much as wealthy parents.

The individualistic approach to poverty tends to be an approach that blames the victim and uses the individualistic rhetoric that ignores race, gender, class standing at birth and other circumstances as ways that also trap people in poverty.

Institutional Racism

Institutional racism is another factor of poverty ignored by individualism in America. This belief is practiced within government and political entities, and has had a seemingly never-ending effect on minorities. Slavery, racial profiling and the Tuskegee Study are a few examples of the forms institutional racism can take.

The United Nations representative Mutuma Ruteere states that, “Discrimination against groups and persons based on their ethnicity, race, religion or other characteristics or factors has been known to encourage exclusion and impoverish certain groups of the population who suffer from unequal access to basic needs and services.”

Gender Inequality

Gender inequality is another poverty factor ignored by the idea of individualism in America. Of the 37 million Americans living in poverty, over half are women. Women are more vulnerable to extreme poverty due to a number of reasons: the burdens of unpaid work, gender-based violence, fewer assets and productive resources than men to name a few.

The wage gap between women and men is another key factor — women earn 77 percent of what men make working full time, a difference mainly due to discrimination.

Social Class 

Social class is another major contributor to poverty. Social class shapes one’s lifestyle in that it has an effect on everything else. People in lower social classes tend to have more mental health problems, failed marriages, lower education and even more dealings with the criminal justice system. These all can contribute to poverty and its creation of a vicious cycle of impoverishment throughout generations.

Individualistic rhetoric concludes that being poor is caused by the lack of motivation to work and because of one’s own shortcomings. Individualism in America ignores causes of poverty that can’t be controlled — such a race, sex and even class standing at birth–  and the factors of race, sex and class standing at birth do not necessarily guarantee poverty. Thinking outside of the individualistic rhetoric can help the American population eradicate poverty through discovering its true root causes.

Danyel Harrigan

Photo: Flickr

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About Author

Danyel Harrigan

Danyel lives in San Antonio, TX. Her academic interests include sociology. Danyel is a military dependent who has lived in a number of places and has also traveled up and down the east coast.

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