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Sociological Themes and Perspectives

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In this assignment, I intend to visit the problem of pensioner poverty in the UK today. I will describe what pensioner poverty is and how sociological theories may offer insights into how it is constructed. I will also describe how C Wright Mills talks about the sociological imagination and how this could help social workers to understand pensioner poverty.

Poverty is the state or condition of having little or no money, goods or means of support, the condition of being poor, indigence’ (

Individuals in the population are said to be in poverty when they lack the basic resources needed to participate in activities and have the living conditions that are seen as acceptable in the society to which they belong.

There are two types of poverty relative poverty and absolute poverty. Absolute poverty is the minimum needed to sustain life. Relative poverty is lack of money, which people in poverty need to provide them with enough food, clothes, fuel and social inclusion with their friends and local communities. There has been a reduction in pensioner poverty in this country over the last four decades. In the 70s and 80s, 40% of pensioners in this country lived in poverty, as a society We’ve got that figure now right down to 14%. As good as this is it is still a problem faced by many pensioners living amongst us. An estimated 1.9 million pensioners were in poverty in 2015/16, out of a total 12 million across the UK.

Why was there a difference in earlier decades? Pensioner poverty tends to increase in times of high economic growth, according to past research. That’s because the incomes of people in work can rise a lot faster than prices during these periods, while pensions tended in the past to track prices more closely. Meaning that pensions do not rise at the same rate. This can see the working-age individuals pulling ahead leaving pensioners behind and unable to afford basic amenities.

When prices go up especially with fuel and food. The worry goes up, in the winter months and if they haven’t got enough money for both they may have to choose just one if any. In the UK today 1 in 6 pensioners in the are living in on or below the poverty line. The rising prices for fuel and food mean during the winter means sometimes pensioners find themselves having to choose between the two. Rising energy prices, leaky and energy inefficient housing and low incomes have resulted in a catastrophic fuel poverty situation that we find ourselves in today. With 1.14 million older people in England living in fuel poverty. and, most shamefully there were 31,000 ‘excess winter deaths’ in England and Wales last winter. Most of these deaths occurred in people aged 75 and over. As well as the health effects such as respiratory problems and depression to name a few that living in a cold home can cause. There are also the social effects to consider such as social isolation with some people having to make stark choices between heating their home or buying the food they need.

Pensioners that are living on low, fixed incomes may only be getting by because of their resourcefulness and determination of avoiding getting into any debt. Some pensioners can be proud and unwilling to ask for help. Many people do not realize when they’re entitled to benefits, but also says some feel too proud or embarrassed to claim, while others find the process of claiming too intrusive. (Age, Uk)

They may be suffering in silence and not express how hard life has become for them. Thing such as bills, shopping using coupons or looking for the cheapest deals or going without maybe some of the daily struggles they have. Older people are not taking up the full range of benefits available to them, with a massive amount up to ?5.5 billion going unclaimed each year. There are several big barriers which prevent older people living in poverty from claiming crucial means-tested benefits like Pension Credit. Sometimes this can be down to a Lack of knowledge and even knowing what’s available to them. Not knowing enough about pensioner benefits has been identified as a key factor behind older people not applying for them. Sometimes pensioners assume that they would not be eligible. When in reality they would be. The vast majority of older people say they would make a claim if they believed they were eligible. However, often older people assume this extra money is only for those who are worse off than they are, or that being a homeowner automatically disqualifies them which is incorrect.

Also, there is sometimes a reluctance to claim benefits Older people may feel that there is a stigma attached to being a ‘benefit claimant’ a term they may not want to be attached to them. With their incomes becoming stretched. Some older people who struggle daily may be worried if their money was to run out. Worries such as Cost of care. This could include what they may have currently or if they needed it in the future. According to the latest figures from November, there were 1.9 million people claiming pension credit, or 2.2 million if you include their partners, although there has been researching suggesting that about one-third of people entitled to it are not claiming.

Sociology offers many theories as to why poverty exists in our society I have looked at what insights functionalist, Marxist and feminist perspectives could have on the issue of pensioner poverty.

Functionalism is a perspective created by Emile Durkheim. He believed society was made up of inter-connected institutions (for example education, family, government) which depended on each other to function.

Functionalists see society as being similar to the human body. In the same way, the body relies on the heart to pump blood round to other vital organs like the lungs and brain. Functionalists see society as being constructed of different inter-dependent components like the family and education. (reference)

Functionalists believe that poverty is a positive function for all of Society although it is so hard to think of any benefits that could come from being in poverty. Functionalism is interested in large-scale structural explanations of social life, therefore, poverty is understood in terms of the benefits that provides. For example, pensioner poverty means more and older people are remaining in work until a later age as they just can’t afford too. This means there are more people willing to work for a low wage, helping to ensure the profit and function of some industries.

Poverty also provides jobs for doctors and nurses, If people don’t get ill they would be out of work, Charitable organizations would also cease to exist meaning those working within them would be out of work also. Poverty also offers reassurance to the rest of society in some way, Poverty gives us something to measure ourselves against, If we can see we are doing better than those on the poverty line it drives us to work harder. If we can see pensioners in poverty it will also help to drive us to save money to ensure we do not find ourselves in the same predicaments when we are in old age.

Marxism first introduced by Karl Marx he argued that poverty benefits The higher classes as there’s always people willing to do lower paid jobs to keep the economy flourishing. The existence of poverty and unemployment and there is always a reserve army of individuals willing to work later in life. Capitalism and the bourgeoisie, therefore, benefit for them from the existence of poverty. According to this view, the major cause of poverty is inequality. Inequality in the form of uneven distribution of the wealth. A main consequence of capitalism. There is a considerable controversy about poverty and its relationship with inequality. From one point of view, any society with inequality is bound to have poverty. In other words, poverty is more likely to occur in a society which allows inequality. Social inequality means that certain individuals or groups have more material or resources than others, for example, a young workers wage increasing alongside inflation – Or bankers receiving a bonus in the reflection of an old person’s pension remaining the same. This creates a capitalist society.

I also wanted to also look at feminists perspective of poverty. Feminist perspectives would argue that some pensioner poverty would stem partly from females in the UK living longer so needing to live off an old age pension for longer. A pension that has been mentioned previously is increasing at a very slow rate.

‘A woman born in 1951 will have been 15 when she left school to start work; 24 when the Sex Discrimination and Equal Pay Act came into force; 32 when the Equal Pay for Work of Equal Value Amendment was added; 43 when every working woman won the right to take maternity leave. She will have experienced direct and indirect sexism both at home and in the workplace – marital rape was legal until 1991 – and had little personal or state support in caring for dependants. If she was married, the unpaid labor she contributed in the home will have meant more money in her husband’s pocket, not hers’. (the independent)

So it may also become a factor that female pensioners that have spent their younger lives looking after the family and the home and may have lived their life relying financially upon a husband. One of the issues here could be that they have no private pension to fall back on. This could become a bigger problem;em if they were then to find themselves widowed and surviving off their pension alone.

C Wright Mills introduced the idea of the sociological imagination.

‘Mills defined sociological imagination as “the vivid awareness of the relationship between experience and the wider society.” C Wright Mills

He encouraged people to think of all the issues political and personal that may have influenced how an individual or group has come to find themselves where they are in regards to problems and issues they may have such as pensioners finding themselves in poverty. He implied that we look at our own problems as social issues. Mills recommended that social scientists should work within the field as a whole, Instead of just concentrating on their own area of expertise. This idea is often ignored. He argued that it was important for sociologists to transform personal problems into public and political issues.

As social workers it is important that we try to understand the society in which we work, Why is pensioner poverty a rising problem in our society it is imperative that we adopt the sociological imagination in our thinking when we are working with a service user. There are many sociological theories to help us to understand why pensioners find themselves in poverty. It is important that we engage with older people. That we help to make them aware of the money they are entitled too. And although functionalists would argue that pensioner poverty has a place in society and Marxists would argue that poverty keeps the economy flowing, It is still a huge issue today. For whatever reason, a pensioner finds themselves in poverty we as social workers need to drive the realization that more measures need to be put in place to end such a terrible situation that many older people find themselves in.

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