Academic economist Kenneth Galbraith coined the term “insular poverty” in1969 as a means of distinguishing poverty of groups from individual poverty, which he termed case poverty (97; 325-327). According to Galbraith, case poverty refers to individuals who are poor because of “some quality peculiar” to them (97). Insular poverty, on the other hand refers to groups of people who are poor because the circumstances of their lives trap them in “social islands in which nearly everyone [is] poor, usually in a rural or urban environment that ‘perpetuates its handicaps through poor schools, evil neighborhood influences, and bad preparation for life’” (Horowitz 104).
The metaphor of the island as representative of the concept of insular poverty is apt and fitting because those suffering from the conditions of insular poverty live in isolation from the rest of society, which enjoys relative affluence by contrast (Lowe & Reid 20). Considering that Galbraith’s conceptualization and definition of insular poverty assumes that these poor are not responsible for their socioeconomic conditions, it is important to understand what the causes of insular poverty are, and what measures can be applied by governmental entities and non-governmental organizations in order to reduce this form of structural poverty. Offering a definition of insular poverty outside of the book written in 1969 when conditions were much different in the United States is rather challenging and involves a careful analysis of the situation.
One of the biggest challenges of identifying the causes of insular poverty in a country that is considered so wealthy such as the United States is that there are a number of variables that contribute to the condition of insular poverty, but the causal nature of these variables is complex and confusing (Rural Poverty Research Center 4). The variables are interrelated and it is often difficult to discern to what degree a variable caused poverty or was caused by poverty; often, the case may be both (Rural Poverty Research Center 4). In almost no case is there a single culprit that can be identified as the root cause of individual or communal poverty (Rural Poverty Research Center 4). While the causes of insular poverty are open to debate and are rather numerous, oftentimes such questions are not posed until major national events raise awareness about insular poverty and structural inequality. Far from being separate issues, it should be understood that structural inequality is the parent of the problem and the poor are, as a group, not generally responsible for their conditions.
Insular poverty is considered by sociologists to be one of the consequences of a larger structural phenomenon known as social exclusion (Todman 3). Buchard define social exclusion as existing when a “person is is geographically resident in a society, but (b) for reasons beyond his or her control, he or she cannot participate in the normal activities of citizens in that society, and (c) he or she would like to participate (229). These ideas of insularity and exclusion allude to the fact that there is an agent who has authority and power to create the condition of marginalization among people who are less powerful (Todman 6). As Todman, indicates, the related notions of insular poverty and social exclusion contest the traditional North American discourse about the causes of poverty (6). “In the U.S.,” Todman writes, “agency for disadvantage (and advantage) is typically thought to reside within the individual. Disadvantage is typically thought to be self-induced, resulting from individual-level behaviors, attitudes, values, choices and other personal attributes” (6). The results of a 2001 poll indicated the 48% of U.S. citizens believe that poverty is caused by some deficiency on the part of the impoverished person (Iceland 70).