Psychological Theories of Poverty
Amanda J. Lehning
ABSTRACT. Social work education, practice, and research are heavily
influenced by theories developed by psychologists. A review of the liter-
ature was conducted to identify theories of poverty emerging from the
field of psychology. In general, until 1980, psychological theories of
poverty emphasized the role of the individual or group to explain the
causes and impact of poverty. Between 1980 and 2000, psychologists
began to consider the structural and societal factors that contribute to
poverty and moved beyond the explanations of individual pathology.
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, an increasing number of
psychological theorists acknowledge the role of social, political, and
economic factors in the creation and maintenance of poverty. Implica-
tions for social work education, practice, and future research are dis-
cussed. doi:10.1300/J137v16n01_05 [Article copies available for a fee from
The Haworth Document Delivery Service: 1-800-HAWORTH. E-mail address:
© 2007 by The Haworth Press. All rights reserved.]
KEYWORDS. Poverty, psychological theory
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: AJLehning@berkeley.edu).
Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, Vol. 16(1/2) 2007
Available online at http://jhbse.haworthpress.com
© 2007 by The Haworth Press. All rights reserved.
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-
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.
58 JOURNAL OF HUMAN BEHAVIOR IN THE SOCIAL ENVIRONMENT
PATHOLOGIZING THE POOR
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
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
60 JOURNAL OF HUMAN BEHAVIOR IN THE SOCIAL ENVIRONMENT
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
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
62 JOURNAL OF HUMAN BEHAVIOR IN THE SOCIAL ENVIRONMENT
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.
UNREST IN THE PROFESSION: 1980-2000
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).
IMPACT OF SOCIAL FORCES
Theories of the Causes of Poverty
Taking a broader perspective on the impact of the social environment
on human behavior, Moreira (2003) sees globalization (including the
spread of capitalism) as the major cause of both wealth and poverty.
Specifically, she explains that, “globalization works in a selective fash-
ion, including and excluding segments of economies and societies from
information networks, giving us pockets of rich and poor” (Moreira,
2003, p. 70). Moreira particularly condemns globalization for dissemi-
nating Western culture’s greed for material goods, which she considers
to be responsible for a particular kind of poverty called “Consumerist
Poverty” or “Consumerist Syndrome.”
Drawing upon theories from other social science disciplines, some
psychologists have adopted the Empowerment Theory of an economist
(Sen, 1999) to explain the existence of poverty (Moreira, 2003; Carr,
2003). Whereas traditional definitions of poverty use “extremely low or
no income” as the sole criterion for the term, Sen proposes that poverty
is more than just low income: It is a lack of political and psychological
power (Sen, 1999). More specifically, Sen suggests that modern society
deprives “certain” citizens of power and control, which then results in
poverty for those citizens. In order to escape from such poverty, Sen
believes that a society must provide all of its citizens with three things:
(1) political, economic, and social freedom; (2) security and protection;
and (3) transparent governmental activities (Sen, 1999).
The World Bank Development Report for 2000-2001 expanded upon
Sen’s Empowerment Theory to develop a three-pillar theory of poverty
related to the absence of security, empowerment, and opportunity (World
Bank, 2001; Carr, 2003). Carr (2003) and other psychologists view this
as an extremely solid theoretical foundation from which the profession
of psychology can proceed to investigate poverty. As Carr (2003) ex-
plains, “Without all three pillars together, there is no real foundation for
concerted development out of poverty. One pillar does not carry the
roof” (p. 8).
64 JOURNAL OF HUMAN BEHAVIOR IN THE SOCIAL ENVIRONMENT
The World Bank’s concept of “security” includes factors such as clean
water, adequate food and housing, and the reduction of vulnerability to
natural disasters (World Bank, 2001). The concept of “empowerment,”
similar to Sen’s definition, entails providing the poor with the means
to acquire a greater voice to help them fight for justice within their soci-
ety (World Bank, 2001). When applied to psychological treatment,
“empowerment” encourages psychologists to work “with” the poor, not
“for” them (World Bank, 2001; Carr, 2003). Of course, a society in which
only a portion of its citizens (i.e., poor persons) lacks empowerment im-
plies that discrimination and prejudice is at the root of the problem
(Carr, 2003). Finally, the World Bank’s third concept is “opportunity.”
Poverty exists, in part, because the poor are deprived of opportunities to
participate independently in the global economy (World Bank, 2001).
Such opportunities range from a lack of an affordable education to a dearth
of living-wage, entry-level jobs (World Bank, 2001). The World Bank’s
three-pillar view of poverty seems to be a comprehensive theory from
which psychologists can proceed with both research and interventions.
Instead of focusing on empowerment, psychologist Lott (2002) ap-
proaches poverty by focusing on discrimination linked to a theory of
classism that explains the preservation of poverty in our society. As she
defines it, classism is what results from the combination of three nega-
tive sentiments: stereotypes, prejudice, and distancing. Similar to dis-
crimination, “distancing” describes how the wealthy distance themselves
emotionally and physically from poor people. Although classism is
considered to be an impact of poverty, Lott also states that, “Barriers
erected by classist bias maintain inequities and impede access to the re-
sources necessary for optimal health and welfare” (Lott, 2002, p. 100).
In other words, Lott sees class-based discrimination as both a cause and
effect of poverty.
Lott (2002) bases her views on Williams’ 1993 theory that the upper
class purposefully categorizes people into lower, middle, and upper
classes “in order to maintain its power” and to prevent the lower classes
from receiving an equal share of resources (Lott, 2002). This approach
has been described as “social poverty” (Lummis, 1991), which occurs
when the upper class purposefully keeps the lower class in poverty via
economic control, thereby keeping themselves in power (Moreira, 2003).
Lott (2002) describes two theories that examine the mechanisms
behind such unfair discrimination: Moral Exclusion Theory and Dehu-
manizing Theory. Moral exclusion theory, developed by Opotow, suggests
that upper-class citizens incorrectly assume that lower-class citizens are
less moral than those in the upper classes, thereby causing or passively
Kelly Turner and Amanda J. Lehning 65
allowing poverty to become more acceptable in the minds of upper-
class citizens (Lott, 2002). Similarly, Bar-Tal, and Schwartz and Struch
both propose that the upper classes dehumanize poor people, believing
that lower-class citizens have different (i.e., unacceptable) values and
emotional tendencies (Lott, 2002). This dehumanizing process makes it
easier for upper-class citizens to reduce their empathy as well as dis-
criminate against poor people (Lott, 2002).
The most recent comprehensive discussion of poverty within the
field of psychology is found in the Resolution on Poverty and Socioeco-
nomic Status by the American Psychological Association (APA, 2000).
Intended to represent the collective opinion of psychologists nation-
wide, it clearly states, “perceptions of the poor and of welfare–by those
not in those circumstances–tend to reflect attitudes and stereotypes that
attribute poverty to personal failings rather than socioeconomic struc-
tures and systems” (APA, 2000, p. 2). Thus, the APA acknowledges
that both structural forces in society as well as discriminatory practices
contribute to the perpetuation of poverty.
Theories on the Impacts of Poverty
In 1979, Urie Bronfenbrenner, one of the field’s most influential de-
velopmental psychologists, proposed his now-famous ecological theory
about how an individual is influenced by “systems” of interaction that
include family and friends, community, and society, and constantly
change and influence each other over a lifetime (Bronfenbrenner, 1979).
This was one of the first developmental theories that took into account
the effects that the social environment can have on human behavior and
life course development. This theory of interacting systems was used to
explain the experiences of children and adults living in poverty, espe-
cially the causes and impacts of poverty (Fraser, 1997).
For example, whereas psychologists of the 1960s and the 1970s
tended to attribute the relatively low IQ score or sub-standard scholastic
achievement of the poor to inherent moral or genetic deficiencies, most
psychologists today recognize that the multiple systems of a person’s
life can have an impact on such scores or performance (Fraser, 1997).
As a result, psychologists have moved from blaming the individual vic-
tims of poverty to incorporating the social environment into their under-
standing of people in poverty.
Lott (2002) views discrimination directed toward poor people by
the upper classes as yet another negative product of a poor person’s
66 JOURNAL OF HUMAN BEHAVIOR IN THE SOCIAL ENVIRONMENT
circumstances. Lott (2002) calls this particular type of discrimination
“Distancing,” which she divides into the following three subcategories:
1. Cognitive Distancing. Herein the upper classes hold onto nega-
tive, unjustified stereotypes about poor people’s characteristics
and behavior by blaming the condition of poverty on a person’s
2. Institutional Distancing. This involves “punishing members of
low-status groups by erecting barriers to full societal participa-
tion” (p. 104), such as the disparity between suburban and inner
city public schools.
3. Interpersonal Distancing. Herein the middle or upper class indi-
viduals directly ignore, insult, or discriminate against lower-class
individuals to their face (e.g., a shop owner forcing poor children
to wait outside the store while their mothers shopped because they
might steal if allowed to enter the store).
In summary, Lott (2002) views all these forms of distancing as sig-
nificant in their negative impact on people living in poverty.
Moreira (2003) has identified other negative impacts such as the
loss of culture, whereby dominant Western culture obliterates regional
cultures. For example, cultural rituals are disappearing from poverty-
stricken areas, such as a community ceremony to grieve the death of an
infant (often related to poverty and malnutrition). The loss of such cul-
tural rituals that serve to ease the grief of the surviving mother are re-
lated to increasing rates of depression among poor women who have
lost children (Moreira, 2003).
In a similar vein, Moreira blames the invasion of Western society’s
consumerist ideology (i.e., assigning great value to the accumulation of
material goods) for causing consumerism syndrome in poor people;
namely, an unrelenting desire to own more and more material goods.
Since poor people do not have the financial resources to satisfy such a
desire, she believes it unnecessarily exacerbates a self-perception of be-
ing poor and can lead to mental health problems (such as depression).
As Moreira (2003) explains, “it is more probable to find someone who
thinks he is poor without really being poor, and who is, in fact, just the
opposite” (p. 73, emphasis added). Lummis (1991) expands upon this
view and notes that when consumerist ideologies dominate a society,
people perceive that the only things of value are those that are purchased
with money. For example, poor people from regional cultures no longer
Kelly Turner and Amanda J. Lehning 67
want to plant vegetables because they prefer to buy them in grocery
stores (Moreira, 2003).
Depression and misplaced low self-esteem resulting from a consum-
erism syndrome are not the only psychological problems that poor peo-
ple face (Moreira, 2003). Moreira (2003) notes that globalization and
consumerist ideology can cause multiple psychopathologies, ranging
from anhedonia (i.e., no longer taking pleasure in activities that were
previously pleasurable) to nihilism and suicidal ideation. The invasion
of Western culture is particularly damaging to a poor person’s self-
esteem, since it imposes the belief that Western culture is superior to the
cultures it is supplanting (Moreira, 2003). The APA supports Moreira’s
view that the condition of poverty increases one’s chances of experienc-
ing mental illness. As reported in the Resolution on Poverty that “pov-
erty is detrimental to psychological well-being, with [National Institute
of Mental Health] data indicating that low-income individuals are 2-5
times more likely to suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder than those
of the highest socio-economic-status group” (APA, 2000, p. 1). While
psychologists have recognized that poverty can increase one’s chances
of developing mental disorders, today they attribute such illnesses to
broader societal forces as well as intrinsic, personal characteristics.
While societal forces can overwhelm the poor, there are also poverty-
stricken individuals who have overcome the negative impacts to suc-
ceed in school or the workplace. Explanations for this form of success
emerged from the study of risks, which Fraser (1997) defines as any fac-
tor that: (1) increases the probability of a problem, (2) makes a problem
more serious, or (3) helps maintain a problem. Not surprisingly, poverty
is a risk factor for child abuse, illness, family stress, inadequate social
support, depression, and delinquency (Fraser, 1997). Furthermore, be-
cause poverty is typically long lasting, it accumulates and magnifies
such risks, whereby problems like mental illness are magnified (Fraser,
Despite all of the risks and negative consequences associated with
poverty, some individuals succeed despite living amidst such risks
(Garmezy, 1985). According to Fraser (1997), one of the first theorists
to tackle that question was E. J. Anthony, who called such individuals
“psychologically invulnerable” (p. 14). Subsequent theorists criticized
this label, saying it gave the false impression that the successful individ-
uals were completely unaffected by risk factors. As an alternative, theo-
rists such as Garmezy (1985) suggested the term “resilience,” which he
defined as “risk factors in combination with positive forces that contrib-
ute to adaptive outcomes” (Fraser, 1997, p. 14). Garmezy and others
68 JOURNAL OF HUMAN BEHAVIOR IN THE SOCIAL ENVIRONMENT
went on to propose three different types of resilience: (1) success de-
spite numerous risk factors, (2) sustained coping despite chronic stress-
ors, and (3) recovery from a trauma (Fraser, 1997).
According to Garmezy (1985), a person achieves such resilience
with the help of positive forces or “protective factors” which can be any
internal or external force in a person’s life that helps him/her avoid risk.
Garmezy (1985) divides these protective factors into three categories:
(1) dispositional attributes (e.g., positive temperament), (2) family milieu
(e.g., solid family cohesion), and (3) extra-familial social environment
(e.g., extended social supports). According to the theory of resilience, a
protective factor can function in one of four ways: by reducing the impact
of a risk, by reducing a negative chain reaction that might have actualized
a risk, by developing a person’s self-esteem, or by creating opportunities
through social reform (Fraser, 1997). It is not surprising that resilience
theory is the most recent psychological theory to emerge, given psychol-
ogy’s own self-criticism for having been previously too disparaging of
the inherent abilities of the poor.
From this literature review on psychological theories of poverty, two
themes emerged: those that emphasize the role of the individual, and
those that emphasize the role of society. Theories that emphasize the
role of the individual attribute poverty to one’s intrinsic deficiencies,
while theories that focus on society find fault in its broader, structural
forces. Based on this brief literature review, it appears that the field
of psychology now favors the more ecologically-based theories as re-
flected in the APA’s Resolution on Poverty (2000) calling for more at-
tention to the social environment and the nature of resilient human
behavior. For example, the APA (2001) calls for the support of any pub-
lic policies that will help eradicate poverty, such as those that provide
equal public education, living-wage jobs, and affordable housing. The
APA (2000) also calls for further psychological research into the causes
and impacts of poverty, especially economic disparity, classism, and
The conceptual map found in Figure 1 illustrates the major concepts
covered by this literature review. The map is divided into two compo-
nents: The top half represents psychological theories of poverty that
focus solely on human behavior and the bottom half contains theories
Kelly Turner and Amanda J. Lehning 69
of poverty that address the social environment. The theories on the
“causes” of poverty that focus on the individual include such personal
failings as: inferior genes, the absence of a NAch, inherent mental ill-
ness, sinister morals, and/or internal ego/superego conflict stemming
from an unhealthy childhood. These theories focused primarily on in-
ternal deficiencies, whereby individuals bring poverty upon themselves
and contribute to their own mental illness.
The bottom half of the conceptual map illustrates an entirely different
picture, where causes of poverty are attributed to aspects of the social
70 JOURNAL OF HUMAN BEHAVIOR IN THE SOCIAL ENVIRONMENT
FIGURE 1. Psychological Theories of Poverty
environment: Civilization itself, the spread of a consumerist ideology,
structural forces of society (e.g., lack of living-wage jobs), lack of power,
security, and opportunity for certain groups, and/or discrimination by the
upper classes toward the lower classes. Such theories focus on both the
behavioral impacts of poverty (mental illness, consumerism syndrome,
or resilience) as well as the environmental impacts (a loss of culture,
low-paying jobs, a risk-filled environment, and discrimination).
One of the implications for understanding human behavior and the
social environment is to recognize the historical trajectory of the devel-
opment of psychological theories and the recent efforts to balance the
impact of societal forces with the resilient behaviors of poor people.
Further research is needed in order to understand the interaction be-
tween individuals and their social environment, and how this interaction
is exacerbated by the condition of poverty. It is equally important to
gain a more in-depth understanding of how psychological theories were
used to explain poverty and thereby “blame the victim” while ignoring
the impact of the social environment, which has been and will be the pri-
mary arena for eliminating poverty.
American Psychological Association (APA). (2000). Resolution on poverty and socio-
economic status. Retrieved on November 21, 2005 from www.apa.org/pi/urban/
Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The ecology of human development: Experiments by na-
ture and design. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Carr, S. (2003). Poverty and psychology: An introduction. In S. Carr & T. Sloan (Eds.),
Poverty and psychology: From global perspective to local practice (pp. 1-15). New
York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers.
Curran, L. (2002). The psychology of poverty: Professional social work and aid to de-
pendent children in postwar America: 1946-1963. Social Service Review, September,
DeNavas-Walt, C., Proctor, B., & Lee, C. (2005). U.S. Census Bureau, current popula-
tion reports: Income, poverty, and health insurance coverage in the United States:
2004. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
Fraser, M. (1997). Risk and resilience in childhood: An ecological perspective. Washing-
ton, DC: NASW Press.
Garmezy, N. (1985). Stress-resistant children: The search for protective factors. In
J.E. Stevenson (Ed.), Recent research in developmental psychopathology (pp. 213-
233). Tarrytown, NY: Pergamon Press.
Ginsburg, H. (1978). The myth of the deprived child. In H. Bee (Ed.), Social issues in
developmental psychology (pp. 178-197). New York: Harper & Row.
Kelly Turner and Amanda J. Lehning 71
Goldstein, A. (1973). Structured learning therapy: Toward a psychotherapy for the
poor. New York: Academic Press.
Javier, R. & Herron, W. (2002). Psychoanalysis and the disenfranchised: Counter-
transference issues. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 19, 149-166.
Lewis, O. (1975). Five families: Mexican case studies in the culture of poverty. New
York: HarperCollins Publishers.
Lott, B. (2002). Cognitive and behavioral distancing from the poor. American Psychol-
ogist, 57, 100-110.
Lummis, C. (1991). Development against democracy. Alternatives, 16, 31-66.
Luthar, S. (1999). Poverty and child adjustment. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Moreira, V. (2003). Poverty and psychopathology. In S. Carr & T. Sloan (Eds.), Pov-
erty and psychology: From global perspective to local practice (pp. 69-86). New
York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers.
Murali, V. & Oyebode, O.A. (2004). Poverty, social inequality and mental health. Ad-
vances in Psychiatric Treatment, 10, 216-224.
National Association of Social Workers (1999). Code of ethics. Retrieved on November
17, 2005 from http://www.naswdc.org/pubs/code/default.aso
Pearl, A. (1970). The poverty of psychology: An indictment. In V. Allen (Ed.), Psycho-
logical factors in poverty (pp. 348-364). Chicago: Markham Publishing Company.
Rainwater, L. (1970). Neutralizing the disinherited: Some psychological aspects of un-
derstanding the poor. In V. Allen (Ed.), Psychological factors in poverty (pp. 9-28).
Chicago: Markham Publishing Company.
Sen, A. (1999). Development as freedom. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
World Bank (2001). Attacking poverty: Opportunity, empowerment, and security
(World Development Report, 2000/2001). Retrieved on November 21, 2005 from
72 JOURNAL OF HUMAN BEHAVIOR IN THE SOCIAL ENVIRONMENT
Comparing Individual-Related and Structural/Cultural-Related Theories
All theories, more or less, can be dissected into different dimensions. In other words, all theories will tell you something about the focus or unit of analysis. It will identify the major or key concepts. It will also point to the definition and the cause of the problem. This would then guide how the social worker assesses and intervenes because the theory will also articulate the role of the social worker and how change occurs.
Use this handout for the Week 2 Discussion. Select a theory that focuses on the individual and a theory that focuses on the structural or cultural level. Fill out the table to help you complete your Discussion.
Structural/Cultural- Related Theory
Name of theory
Name of theorist
Focus or unit of analysis
Key concepts or terms
Explanation of the cause of the problem
Explanation of how change occurs or how client improves
Appropriate goals for clients
Role of the social worker
Focal point in assessment
Focal point in interventions
Specific practice intervention strategies
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