In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Poverty

  • Introduction
  • Data Sources
  • History of the Field
  • Classic Works
  • Conceptualization and Measurement
  • Urban Poverty
  • Rural Poverty
  • Protest and Politics of the Poor
  • Ideology and Attitudes
  • The Welfare State and Poverty Across Affluent Democracies
  • US Welfare Programs
  • Education
  • Family
  • Feminization
  • Crime
  • Health

Sociology Poverty
David Brady
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 October 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 July 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0041


The sociology of poverty focuses on the nature, causes, and consequences of poverty. Sociologists have explored why poverty varies across countries, across urban and rural places, and over time. Sociologists have also examined why some individuals are poor, scrutinizing the characteristics that differentiate the poor from nonpoor and that describe the experience of poverty. This is truly a multimethod field, with equally influential traditions utilizing ethnography and intensive interviews, as well as sophisticated statistics. Poverty sociologists have linked the consequences of poverty with a myriad of social domains, ranging from education to employment to health. In addition, poverty sociologists anchor the roots of poverty in workplaces, families, neighborhoods, and politics. As a result, the sociology of poverty is a very heterogeneous field. There are even disconnections between some subfields, and there has been little attempt to identify the common themes across subfields. Partly, this results because the majority of the sociology of poverty concentrates on the urban United States. The study of poverty in other affluent democracies and research on the developing world often operate as separate areas. Nevertheless, one can discern a common (albeit loose) theoretical orientation that poverty is the result of the structures and institutions of society, as opposed to the deficiencies of individuals. This orientation has often been debated within sociology, reflecting the discipline’s debates about structure and agency more broadly. Sociology has seemingly always had some interest in poverty, such as in the early Chicago school’s interests in urbanization, industrialization, immigration, and neighborhoods. The classic figures of sociology like Max Weber, Émile Durkheim, Talcott Parsons, Georg Simmel, and Auguste Comte did not write much about poverty; however, concern with poverty exists in the work of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. In recent decades, sociological poverty research has probably been most active among those studying race and cities in the United States and among those examining cross-national differences in welfare states. In the 2010s and 2020s, it is likely there will be growing pressure to shift sociological attention away from so disproportionately studying urban poverty in the United States. Also, there is growing interest in unifying the sociologies of poverty and paying more attention to poverty in the developing world—where the overwhelming majority of poor people reside. Hence, this bibliography tries to straddle the dual goals of reviewing the main literatures in the field as it exists and seeking to identify frontier directions for emerging research.

Data Sources

There is a great deal of data available on poverty. Though historically publicly available datasets are typically quantitative, there is an increasing availability of qualitative and multimethod datasets. One tradition utilizes individual-level data in the United States. Within this tradition, probably the most common approach is to longitudinally or cross-sectionally examine the background and characteristics of the poor in comparison to the nonpoor. Perhaps the most used longitudinal quantitative datasets is the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, commonly known as the PSID. One multimethod longitudinal panel dataset of children and unmarried parents that has been very productively utilized in recent years is The Fragile Families and Child Well-Being Study. Another popular multimethod dataset is Welfare, Children, and Families: A Three City Study, which was an intensive study of Boston, Chicago, and San Antonio on the well-being of low-income children and families after the 1996 US welfare reform. Perhaps the leading international dataset for poverty research is the LIS, previously known as the LIS, which contains harmonized income microdata from over thirty-five countries at multiple points in time. For developing countries, one of the most promising datastets is the Demographic and Health Surveys, which provides individual-level survey data on several dozen developing countries, often at multiple points in time.

  • Demographic and Health Surveys.

    Individual-level survey data on several dozen developing countries, often at multiple points in time. Contains information on health (including HIV infection for some countries), family, and population variables alongside some measures of wealth, assets, and economic resources. Datasets are organized into samples of households, male and female adults, and children.

  • The Fragile Families and Child Well-Being Study.

    Multimethod longitudinal panel of nearly five thousand children born in US cities between 1998 and 2000—about three-quarters of which were born to unmarried parents. Focuses on unmarried parenting and considers relationships, child well-being, welfare, and work. Interviews are conducted at birth and at ages one, three, and five years.

  • LIS Cross-National Data Center.

    Archive of standardized and harmonized income and wealth microdata from over thirty-five countries at multiple points in time. Archive contains nationally representative individual- and household-level samples on labor market and demographic variables. Features set of standardized income variables allowing for precise estimation of inequality and poverty.

  • Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID).

    Nationally representative panel study of almost ten thousand US families. It has followed the same families and individuals since 1968, contains oversamples of low-income families and racial/ethnic minorities, and is typically conducted biannually. Contains rich detail on economic resources and behavior, health, family, and other characteristics of households and individuals.

  • Welfare, Children, and Families: A Three City Study.

    Multimethod study of Boston, Chicago, and San Antonio on the well-being of low-income children and families. Examined how 1996 US welfare reform affected poor families. Began in 1999 and contains longitudinal surveys (in 1999, 2001, and 2005), embedded developmental studies (in 1999 and 2001), and contextual/comparative ethnographic studies.

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