Offering a definition of insular poverty in the United States and determining its causes can be a dangerous task as it is too easy to place responsibility where it does not actually belong. While it may be the case that certain personal or familial characteristics may make an individual in America more likely to experience poverty, many contemporary poverty researchers and sociologists contend that structural factors exert a far stronger and more sinister influence over the likelihood that an individual will become impoverished and find himself or herself a member of an insular and marginalized community of fellow poor people (Iceland 71). Because disadvantage, at least in America where productivity determines so much of personal value, is perceived as being caused by some sort of individual deficit, the solution is frequently deferred to the individual as well, a convenient way for society to avoid acknowledging and addressing poverty in a meaningful manner (Todman 6). Todman further explains that the concepts of insular poverty and social exclusion disrupt this dominant discourse by positing that “structural features of society and the complex systems they comprise are understood to actively constrain individuals’ capacity to assume personal responsibility for and thereby to maximize their welfare” (6).
Most of the insular poor, at least in urban areas, are racial and ethnic minorities. The structural features that place people in impoverished communities in the first place and which restrict individuals’ and communities’ abilities to seek viable economic alternatives include institutionalized racism and other forms of prejudice, both historic and contemporary. This was seen particularly in the case of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina when the response and early action was clearly racially biased. Whether perpetrated overtly or unconsciously, such discrimination contributes to a range of other social problems that in turn exacerbate and perpetuate cycles of poverty. For example, incarceration rates among poor African Americans contributes to the phenomena of family fragmentation, increased school attrition rates among the children of an incarcerated parents, and limited access to higher education, to name just three problems (Darity & Myers 63).
All of these problems are caused by poverty, directly or indirectly, and they simultaneously carry poverty over to the next generation, ensuring that the community of the insular poor will continue to exist. African American historian and scholar Richard America contends that the legacy of slavery in the United States has had a dramatic negative impact on African Americans, resulting in the “coerced and manipulated diversion of income” that persists to this day, and which results in the social, economic, and even geographic isolation of this community (40). America criticizes the United States for failing to engage in a serious and searching dialogue about the historical factors that have contributed to insular poverty, resulting in the marginalization of thousands of disadvantaged Americans (40).
In urban areas, insular poverty is also caused and perpetuated by housing shortages and inconsistencies in the quality of housing (Kay, Powell & Kearney 53). Options for housing among the insular poor are typically limited and are substandard compared to economically stable communities (Kay, Powell, & Kearney 53). The depressed conditions of such housing can cause undue economic burdens on the people who live in insular communities. When utilities or other services are limited or inadequate, the residents of insularly poor communities may be compelled to spend their own money to rectify problems that are the responsibility of a government or community agency. Such expenses are significant burdens for people whose incomes are already inadequate, and require that a household budget be stretched beyond its actual capacity.