Introduction to Marxist Theory on Poverty

Reasons for Poverty

Reasons for poverty and social exclusion can come from a variety of theoretical approaches including anti-racist, postmodern and religious approaches. In this article, I am going to analyse the key sociological perspective of Marxism and the Marxist Theory of poverty based on class.

Marxist Theory of Poverty

The Sociological Perspective of Karl Marx

Karl Marx focused his search for the basic principles of history on the economic environments in which societies develop. Karl Marx believed that society is divided into those who own the means of producing wealth and those who do not, giving rise to class conflict. Dialectical materialism is Marx’s theory that development depends on the clash of contradictions and the creation of new, more advanced structures out of these clashes.

Marxist Theory maintains that poverty, like wealth, is an inevitable consequence of a capitalist society. Marxists argue that poverty benefits the ruling class, as it ensures that there is always a workforce willing to accept low wages.  Similarly, the existence of unemployment and job insecurity means that there is always a ‘reserve army of labour’ able and willing (or, unable to be unwilling!) to take their place if they are not happy.  Capitalism and the bourgeoisie therefore benefit from the existence of poverty (Cunningham, 2007).  It is not simply that there are rich and poor.  It is rather that some are rich because some are poor (Kincaid, 1973).

For Marxists then, poverty is an intrinsic and integral feature of capitalist society, which is a direct consequence of the inequality inherent in the class system.  Until the bourgeoisie are overthrown by the proletariat and the capitalist system is replaced by an egalitarian socialist system, there will always be poverty, irrespective of any half-hearted attempts to alleviate it by the welfare state (Cunningham, 2007).

Marxists then, clearly locate the source of poverty in the structural nature of society; they identify the welfare system as an instrument of the state, which acts to maintain gross inequalities of wealth that see some people living in dire destitution with little chance of ever really escaping from it. All from Chapter 2: Poverty and Social work service user Cunningham 2007, Learning matters.

A Critique of Marxist Theory of Poverty

With Reference to Social Work Practice and Policy

If poverty can only be ended by the replacement of a capitalist system by a socialist one, how then, do Marxists explain the existence of welfare institutions including social services departments that are designed to assist the poor and eradicate poverty?  Jones and Novak (1999) note that it is essential for capitalism that poverty is maintained and managed, hence welfare benefits like the rest of the welfare state, are not designed to assist people out of poverty.  Rather the welfare state is a palliative, or partial cure that it is there to ease the worse affects of capitalism, whilst ensuring that social harmony and the status quo is maintained.

Social work is regarded as an instrument of the state, which further exists to maintain the status quo.  Social workers help people to adjust to their difficulties, by providing services, or a listening ear; and in doing so, structural problems become individualised with attention shifted away from the real cause.  In this sense, poverty is maintained as poor people internalise their own failings, are partially soothed by the help being provided, and any revolutionary threat arising out of discontentment is negated.

Becker is very critical of the role of social workers in understanding and influencing state politics on poverty.  Becker argues that social workers have little understanding of the complex processes that generate and maintain poverty; they have limited insight into how their political and welfare ideologies and attitudes to poverty affect their daily practice with poor people; they have failed to place poverty on the agenda for social work theorising, education, policy and practice. (Becker, 1997, p.114)

This links in with the ongoing debate “between the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’, between ‘copers’ and ‘non-copers’, and so on” (Becker, 1997, p116). Becker suggests that most social workers believe they can have little strategic impact on poverty itself and believe therefore, that they should intervene with individuals rather than on a structural level (Becker, 1997. p116).

Many social workers want to intervene to bring about change, but placements (often those in statutory social services) tend to find their initial ideas constrained by cultures in organisations which are mostly based upon the ideological premise that change is not possible at a structural level.  Research by other academics backs this up (see for example, Jones, 2001), but it is our view that bringing about change in social work, is always possible, however small and however insignificant it may at first seem.

Task centred practice could be used to work with service users who are in poverty, in very practical ways (see for example, Doel and Marsh 1992; Reid and Shyne, 1969).  Service users have often been critical of social workers for failing to help them with practical problems, such as those of debt, housing difficulties, and other ‘problems of living’.  Task centred practice offers a very practical model which is potentially very empowering to service users as it is they who choose which areas they wish to work on.  Task centred practice is based on the premise that the service user will work in partnership with the social worker and learn new methods of problem solving which will equip them in the future.

In this sense, workers could adopt a very practical way to address some aspects of poverty.  However, perhaps this still doesn’t go far enough, as this method of practice is based upon an individualised approach and doesn’t address the bigger picture.   Possibly by combining task centred working with other more radical methods of working might address this.

I am interested to hear your thoughts, so please leave your comments below.

You might also like to read about the four noble truths and eightfold path in Buddhism.