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Looking at Herbert Gans’ Functions of Poverty

Updated on November 15, 2019
Rhylee Suyom profile image

Rhylee Suyom has hopped in three different worlds: the academe, the corporate, and the media. He enjoys being with nature and his family.

Functions of Poverty


Looking at Herbert Gans’ Functions of Poverty

Poverty has always been an unending issue all over the world which many people condemn and wish to eradicate. This term has a corresponding negative notion that the next thing connected to it are suffering, disadvantage, and burden. Contrary to this common notion, Gans presented the functions of poverty through his essay by enumerating and explaining each point on how poverty works in the society and how it contributes to other people. Through his essay, the function of poverty is shown and how it helps the society operate.

The Operational Definition of ‘Function’

Primarily, function is described by Merton to be “those observed consequences which make for the adaptation or adjustment of a given system” (Gans, 1972). In a general sense, it makes the entire system move or operate with the effects that are produced from certain circumstances. This can be related to world building process as function helps in building the society. The system of the society will not work without the functions of every individual. Even in a small group, each member has their function that they must fulfill to achieve the common goal that the group has set. The same goes with the world building. The entire society would not be as it is right now without the functions of every member.

The Functions of Poverty

Talking about function, the author has elaborated that the poverty has numerous functions. He even mentioned about the “undeserving poor” have a positive function as they serve fifteen economic, social, cultural, and political functions to the non-poor sector of the society (Gans, 1972). They create opportunities for the non-poor and other fields that existed because of the existence of poverty per se. Several jobs that became existent because of poor people provide opportunities for the non-poor group. Aside from that, the poor purchase the products that other groups will not patronize. The poor people keep the balance in the society. They do the menial work which no one will do if everyone happened to be all affluent, and they make the society operate as well. they also give benefits to the rich as they supplement their status. They also help the non-poor feel more humane and compassionate as they remind these people how fortunate they are for not being poor.

Aside from these, the poor always helps those above them to move upward in the social ladder. They work at the lowest or lower parts of the ladder for those who are on top hoping to reach a higher destination or to maintain their status. They support various businesses which the affluent will less likely to patronize. They also have their cultural function as they create their own practices different from the other groups.

Gan’s Positive Perspective on Poverty

Gans presented the positive functions with an enumeration to clearly present how poverty works in the society. He divided his explanations based on the dimension that the function is working on. He has enumerated economic, social, cultural, and even political functions for the readers to see clearly what he is trying to point out in the essay. These served as salient and evident arguments for him to prove that poverty indeed has a function in the society.


With Gans’ points, people would still push that poverty should be totally eradicated since no one deserves to suffer in this world. In a humanistic sense, this is true and correct. However, by looking at the different dimensions and functions of poverty and the society, if these poor people would all become non-poor, who would fill in their shoes? Who would do the things that they do? Who will fulfill their role in the society? Recognizing the function of poverty and its negative impacts brings about a moral dilemma that will never be easy to handle.


Gans, Herbert. (1972). “The Positive Functions of Poverty”. Chicago: Columbia University and Center for Policy Research, pp. 1 – 30. Print.


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