Social Mobility Is Difficult for the Poor

Topics: Social Mobility

In many societies, people accept meager wages and conditions with the idea that it is simply a stepping-stone to better things in life. Namely, “the American dream”, a common belief is that one born with nothing can work hard to gain anything, when in reality this is most often not the case. Each human is born into a household that belongs to some social class that represents their level of education, their work position, and their financial status. For people who stand on the poverty line, when trying to proceed upwards in societies, social mobility becomes harder to achieve.

Models and/or perspectives created by sociologists such as: Emile Durkheim, Kingsley Davis, Wilbert E. Moore, and Robert Merton  has become so deeply imbedded in countless minds that they often operate without individuals in society being fully aware of them. Because of this, many people do not have the choice in social mobility. Society uses unequal social models and perspectives that hinder the movements between various classes.

Keeping the poor – poor and the rich – richer!

Emile Durkheim laid the ground work in sociology for functionalism. Functionalism is one of the sociological perspectives embedded in society that focuses on the ways in which a complex pattern of social structures and arrangements contributes to social order. This model was designed to carry out the essential functions of human life. However, a flaw in functionalism is that we have rarely seen anything approaching equilibrium in human society.

Ultimately, change is seen as a dysfunction within this school of thought.

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 Functionalists have a positive view about inequality; to them it is seen to motivate the less fortunate to aspire to the income and status enjoyed by the rich and wealthy. Therefore, they applaud the existence of the class structure seeing it as promoting effort, motivation and success. Functionalists believe it is appropriate and right to highly reward those in the higher social classes since they believe they are there through merit. Rewarding those at the top only serves to motivate those at the bottom more, they argue. Inequality is therefore beneficial to society and the existence of a class structure becomes functional in providing that inequality.

Functionalists like the competitive values that the class structure provides and genuinely believe society is open to social mobility thereby allowing the most talented to rise to the top of society. A fluid and flexible class structure rewards individual achievement by granting the ‘glittering prize’ of income and status to those who work hard. Despite class inequalities of the class structure a meritocracy offers the opportunity for anyone to get to the top. The ideas of functionalism are probably best expressed through the culture of the USA where the ‘American Dream’ is the widespread goal of almost every citizen. The argument that those at the bottom are held back by structural constraints such as poor housing, poor education and general poverty is dismissed by functionalists with the argument that they are simply not trying hard enough.

This social model view that the lower classes are held back by their own faults of laziness and values, rather than acknowledging the genuine structural disadvantages created in society; Thus, halting the rise of the less fortunate and preventing change within social class, keeping the underprivileged exactly where they are.

Sociologists Kingsley Davis and Wilbert E. Moore also had a very similar view in society and social stratification. They published the Davis-Moore thesis, which argued that the more functional significance of a social role is to society, the reward must be just as significant and worthy. The theory puts forward that social stratification speaks to the naturally unequal estimation of various work. Certain tasks in society are more valuable than others. Qualified people who fill those positions must be rewarded more than others. Davis and Moore stated that, in most cases, the degree of skill required for a job determines that job’s importance. They also stated that the more skill required for a job, the fewer qualified people there would be to do that job. Certain jobs, such as cleaning hallways or answering phones, do not require much skill. The employees don’t need a college degree. Other work, like designing a highway system or delivering a baby, requires immense skill.

However, The Davis-Moore thesis in “Some Principles of Stratification” can be questioned as to what determined a job’s degree of importance. The Davis-Moore thesis cannot explain why media personalities are able to star on reality television to become rich and famous; which both increases their status economically and socially with little to no effort, skill, talent, and in most cases a higher education. Davis-Moore perspective of social stratification prevented qualified people from attempting to fill roles in society. Comparatively, an underprivileged youth has less chance of becoming a scientist, no matter how smart she is, because of the relative lack of opportunity available to her.

The Davis-Moore thesis also does not explain why a basketball player earns millions of dollars a year when a doctor who saves lives, a soldier who fights for others’ rights and a teacher who helps form the minds of tomorrow will likely not make millions over the course of their careers. The Davis-Moore thesis, though open for debate, was an early attempt to explain why stratification exists. The thesis states that social stratification is necessary to promote excellence, productivity, and efficiency, thus giving people something to strive for. But when analyzed it is easy to see how this model of social stratification prevents a person in lower classes upward movement in society despite how hard you’ve worked and greater your social role is.

American Sociologist Robert Merton, is best known for his theory of structural-functions. Merton observed closely at social actions and proposes his theory that calls attention to how social patterns have both a manifest and latent function. A manifest function is usual interpreted as positive outcomes of conscious and deliberate actions; most often open, obvious, and intended. Take, for example, society social institution of higher education. The conscious and deliberate intention of the institution is to produce educated young people the knowledge and practical skills to be productive members of society. Whereas, latent functions are less deliberate, conscious, intended and unexpected. Nonetheless, in return they can have positive consequences.

For example, Latent functions of attending college include the formation of lifelong friendships, networking, and a life experience of opportunities. However, latent function can also cause harm which Merton classified as dysfunctions; because they cause disorder and conflict within society. Using the example of attending college/universities above, shows a perfect example how striving for a higher education can not only place you as a productive member of society, in addition to perhaps changing or enhancing your knowledge, status, income, respect, opportunities and more; but for many the latent dysfunctions, of becoming in debt, struggling to keep a job while being a full time student, and even just not having the correct guidance from the lack on intergeneration experience of attending school or poverty are often caused by unintentional social problems, laws, policies and norms hindering lower classes on advancement in society.

After analyzing different models and/or perspectives created by sociologists such as: Emile Durkheim, Kingsley Davis, Wilbert E. Moore, and Robert Merton; it is fair to say that to a certain extent society uses these models to limit the movements between various classes and because of this many people do not have the “choice” in social mobility. The people in society that are neglecting to acknowledge that there still is inequality and imbalance are the fortunate ones who rise well above the poverty line, and usually live relatively economically stable lives. It is important that we can improve and implement different societal models and perspectives that can help benefit the lives of not only the people on top but the people who are striving to live a better life for their selves and generations to come.


  1. Davis, Kingsley, and Wilbert E. Moore. “Some Principles of Stratification.” American Sociological Review, vol. 10, no. 2, 1945, pp. 242–249. JSTOR, JSTOR,
  2. Gans, Herbert J. “The Positive Functions of Poverty.” American Journal of Sociology, vol. 78, no. 2, 1972, pp. 275–289. JSTOR, JSTOR,
  3. Hertz, Tom. “Understanding Mobility In America.” Https://, American University For the Center For American Progress, 26 Apr. 2006,
  4. Robert King Merton, “Culture Chapter 9 Manifest and Latent Functions.” Classic Contemporary Cross-Culture, by Free Press, 1968, p. 38.
  5. Solon, Gary. “Intergenerational Income Mobility in the United States.” The American Economic Review, vol. 82, no. 3, 1992, pp. 393–408. JSTOR, JSTOR,
  6. Weber, Max Functionalist perspective (class textbook)

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