Social Class, Social Change, and Poverty

What You Need


Social Class, Social Change, and Poverty Photo Credit: Phillies1fan777, via Wikimedia Commons.


To show how sociological research and literature can add to our understanding of poverty.


This lesson is part of a group of lessons that focus on the social, behavioral, and economic sciences. These lessons are developed by AAAS and funded by the National Science Foundation Grant No. SES-0549096. For more lessons and activities that take a closer look at the social, behavioral, and economic sciences, be sure to check out the SBE Project page.

Every human is born into a social and cultural setting that includes family, community, social class, language, and religion, among other factors. How we respond to these influences can vary and is not necessarily predictable. Being raised in the same cultural surroundings, however, usually brings about similar response patterns, which can become so deeply imbedded in the human mind that they often operate without the individuals being fully aware of them. The values of a single culture that dominate a large region can be so influential that those values are considered to be right and therefore promoted by the community and government. Subcultures can form and create their own individual influences, but movement between social classes can still be hampered by circumstances. (Science for All Americans, p. 89.)

Throughout human history, most people live and die in the social class into which they were born. If they were born poor, chances are they will die poor. One way societies can help people rise in social class is to initiate new enterprises, like improved educational opportunities or technological advancements. When this happens, the need for workers in higher-class jobs motivates and enables people to move up in social class, which can help them to escape poverty. (Science for All Americans, p. 90.)

In this lesson, students can begin to explore poverty and its implications on society and future generations. In order to do this lesson, students already should have had experience with identifying social change that happens gradually and social change that happens quickly because of natural disasters and war. They also should have some background in the history of poverty.


Students have already formed some understanding of social class and poverty based on their own life experiences. Using the Poverty in Literature student sheet, ask students to answer these questions:

  • What kind of social distinctions can you think of?
  • Do you think that the community in which you live has different social classes? What are they?
  • How would you define poverty?
  • What do you think are some causes of poverty?
  • If you think about the history of our society, how might being poor 100 years ago compare to being poor today?
  • What are your own views on social class and poverty?

    Answers will vary. Encourage students to explain their answers.

Then they should read the short story "The Gift of the Magi" by O. Henry and think about how the story influences their views and definitions of poverty. They should complete the student sheet and be prepared to discuss the story, what it teaches them about living in poverty, and how it may change their understanding of what it means to live in poverty.


In this part of the lesson, students will continue to examine poverty in the United States and how sociological research can add to our understanding of social class, social change, and poverty.

First, provide students with a copy of the essay/transcript, “Poverty’s Children” by Clarence Page of the Chicago Tribune. Ask students to read this article. Once they are done, hold a discussion about the article by eliciting students’ thoughts on these questions (they can write their responses on the Social Class, Social Change, and Poverty student sheet):

  • What is the first “face” of poverty described in this essay?
    (The first “face” of poverty is that of the migrant farm workers of the 1930s, who were mostly white.)
  • What is the face of poverty as described by Claude Brown in the 1960s?
    (The face of poverty described by Claude Brown was a big city face of young black males fighting to survive.)
  • How was it that Claude Brown was able to overcome poverty?
    (He had the help of the Wiltwyck School for boys in upstate New York. He had someone who cared about him.)
  • What is the culture of poverty argument as put forward by Oscar Lewis? What do you think about that argument?
    (Poverty creates a debilitating culture, Lewis argued, one that the poor cannot lose even if they ceased to be poor. Answers will vary.)
  • What is the new face of poverty in the age of welfare reform?
    (The new face of poverty is the working poor, trying to make ends meet, trying to raise their kids with wages too low to lift them out of poverty.)

To follow up on this new face of poverty, have students use their Social Class, Social Change, and Poverty student esheet to go to Jerry's Story. When they’re done watching the video, they should answer these questions:

  • What struck you the most from this short video about Jerry’s work day?
    (Answers will vary.)
  • How much does he pay for his room?
    (His rent is $530.)
  • What is his hourly wage? Do you think that’s enough to live on?
    (It is $12 an hour. Answers will vary.)
  • Do you know what the current, national minimum wage is? If Jerry has a hard time getting by on $12 an hour, what kind of struggles do you think someone who makes the minimum wage faces?
    (The minimum wage is $5.15 an hour. Answers will vary.)
  • What are some of Jerry’s fears?
    (One of his fears is being homeless, not being able to pay his bills on time.)

Finally, students should read Why Poverty Persists in Appalachia. Discuss these questions when they’re done:

  • According to Dr. Duncan, what are the primary causes of chronic poverty, and how has government allowed it to continue?
    (The primary causes of chronic poverty are long-term neglect and lack of investment in people and communities. Other causes include local elites or employers controlling everything about their workers' lives. Government has allowed this to continue by not investing enough in people and communities.)
  • List the effects of long-term underinvestment in people and communities, according to Dr. Duncan. How does this underinvestment reveal itself at the individual level in Chris’s and Cody’s lives?
    (The effects of long-term underinvestment include low education, low employment, high disability, and chronic problems. "Country Boys" shows the importance of eduction. The underinvestment in the case of Chris and Cody translated into poor quality schools, low expectations, and family instability.)


Have students write a short essay on what they would do if they were in Cody’s or Chris’s shoes and trying to rise above their circumstances. They should think about what they would do differently that might ensure their success.

Finally, discuss these questions with your students:

  • How visible is poverty in your community?
  • How do you see poverty in your community affecting the children and youth of your generation? How do you think it will impact generations to come?


Country Boys has links to additional background information and interviews with both the filmmaker and the two boys. Students can learn why Sutherland thought it was important to expose the living conditions in this region as well as read more conversations with Chris and Cody.

Students can read other short stories about poverty. One in particular, “Think Rather of Zebra: Dealing with Aspects of Poverty Through Story,” is by Jay Stailey and Ruby Payne. This collection of stories includes discussion questions.

Grant Info
National Science Foundation
Some of the above content was created with support from the National Science Foundation. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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