Over 37 million Americans live in poverty. While those in our cozy middle-class bubbles would like to think most of them did something to fall into poverty, the truth is far less comforting.
Most people living in poverty were born into poverty. Their kids grow up in poverty and have kids who also experience poverty.
Generational poverty thrives in America, and it’s far harder to escape than anyone who has never experienced extreme financial hardship can imagine.
Poverty In America
To understand generational poverty, we first need to understand poverty in America. Here are some quick facts about poverty provided by the US Census Bureau:
- The poverty threshold for an individual is a household income of approximately $14880 per year, and it’s roughly $29950 per year for a family of four
- 37.9 million Americans live in poverty, an 11.5% poverty rate
- Nearly 11 million children live in poverty
- There is a racial disparity in poverty – 17.1% of black families are in poverty, 17% of Hispanic families, and 8.6% of white and Asian families. Native Americans have the highest rate of poverty, at 25%
- 3 million Americans live in deep poverty
- 93 million Americans live close to poverty
What is Generational Poverty?
Think of generational poverty as a contrast to generational wealth. Instead of inheriting a solid financial foundation and getting a leg up, kids are taught little about finance and learn to live hand to mouth.
People trapped in generational poverty often lack the education, resources, and hope to escape it. Poverty is the only thing they know. There is no planning for the future; there’s only trying to survive day-to-day.
Technically, poverty becomes generational when a family lives in poverty for at least two entire generations, but many impoverished families have lived in destitution far longer.
Is Generational Poverty Real?
Many scoff at the notion that poverty spans generations, but it’s a real phenomenon affecting millions of Americans.
The idea that you can just pull yourself up by your bootstraps and escape poverty permeates American culture, leaving those without real-life experience to believe that situational poverty is a personal failure.
People struggling financially always seem to find money for junk food, cigarettes, alcohol, and lottery tickets. The middle class looks down on the working poor, tsking those choices, believing if they saved their paltry paychecks rather than splurged on junk, they’d be able to dig out of poverty and provide better outcomes for their children.
We shake our heads, blaming them for their situations, as if saving twenty dollars would make a dent in a college education fund.
These biases lead us to the incorrect conclusion that generational poverty isn’t real and that people get trapped in poverty solely based on poor life decisions.
Generational poverty shows us that’s not true. Institutional poverty is far more complicated.
What Causes Generational Poverty?
Generational poverty is a multi-faced issue with causes ranging from racism to financial policy, access to healthcare, and access to education.
It’s systematic, meaning institutions and policies work to keep people trapped in poverty. These examples highlight the big-picture policy issues that contribute to generational poverty.
Systematic racism and misogyny play massive roles in generational poverty. Our entire system perpetuates injustices based on race and gender, making it harder for women and people of color to get ahead.
The US Department of Justice predicts that over 28% of all black men will be issued prison sentences in their lifetime, compared to just 4.4% of white men.
Black men are more likely to be mistreated at every stage of the justice system. They’re targeted, searched, and convicted more while receiving harsher prison sentences.
It’s impossible to help your family escape generational poverty while imprisoned, but the challenges don’t end after you’ve served your time. Finding a decent job after a prison sentence creates a significant barrier to self-improvement.
Racial inequality is prevalent everywhere, not just in our justice system. Black-sounding names on job applications are less likely to get called for an interview than white names.
Redlining was legal until the 1970s, making it impossible for black families to own homes and grow wealth. Though technically illegal now, the real estate industry still makes it more difficult for black families to buy homes. They do it sneakily, requiring more documentation, higher credit scores, and higher incomes.
People of color, especially women of color, earn less on average than any other population segment.
The poverty rate for women remains 2 points higher than the rate for men (12.5% vs 10.5%, respectively), and institutional sexism plays a role.
42% of women say they’ve faced gender discrimination on the job. They earn less, get passed over for promotion, and get assigned menial tasks that don’t stand out on resumes.
Mothers face more extreme challenges. There’s no mandatory maternity leave, no universal childcare, and the cultural expectation that mothers sacrifice their career aspirations to serve their children. Companies are less likely to hire mothers, but when they do, they offer lower salaries and limited opportunities for career advancement.
Society still expects mothers to provide primary care for their children and complete most domestic labor. Married women spend far more time on chores than their husbands, even when they earn more money. The burden of household and caregiving responsibilities forces mothers to pursue flexible jobs with lower pay.
The backlash against women’s healthcare and autonomy will only exacerbate these issues.
It’s impossible to discuss systematic misogyny leading to poverty without discussing one of the biggest reasons women fall into poverty: motherhood.
Having kids is expensive. According to American Progress, it costs Americans, on average, $1230 per month ($15000 per year) to pay for childcare.
The poverty threshold for a single parent with one child is $18900 per year. Even if that parent made enough to be just at the threshold, paying for childcare would only leave $3900 to pay for every other expense.
If they have more than one child, the cost of working would be far more. That’s not feasible. No wonder single parents chose to stay on government assistance rather than work.
A college education remains the best ticket to a good job and out of poverty.
However, the outrageous cost of tuition makes pursuing education a pipe dream for those in poverty. In 2023, the average price for one year of college was over $36,000. That’s double the poverty threshold.
Those who forge ahead despite the high price tag enter adulthood burdened with massive student loan debt, which stays with them for most of their lives.
The Welfare Cliff
The US offers social programs to help lift people out of poverty, but the system’s design keeps people trapped.
The Welfare Cliff creates an insurmountable wall, making it nearly impossible for those needing help to improve their lives.
Most welfare programs in the US rely on defined income levels. If a family makes under a certain amount, they’re eligible but lose all benefits if they make even a tiny bit more.
Consider the food stamp program. The income limit is 130% of the federal poverty limit (for gross income). The program cuts a family off entirely if they make even a single penny more. The cliff incentivizes families to keep their income just below that level.
How Can Someone Overcome Generational Poverty?
Throughout history, we can find examples of extraordinary people achieving impressive feats of courage and perseverance. We can find shining examples of hard-working individuals who crawled their way out, defeating all odds to break the cycle of poverty that trapped their families for generations.
We often look to those exceptional examples as proof that anyone can do it and wash our hands of any responsibility to fix a broken system.
While it’s true that individuals can escape generational poverty through hard work, perseverance, and a little luck, most people can’t.
We can’t expect everyone to be extraordinary. Some people lack the aptitude and ability to work their way out of poverty, while others lack the time and resources to pursue an education or work multiple jobs.
We shouldn’t expect individuals to overcome generational poverty when it’s not their fault that they are stuck in it.
How Can Society Fix Generational Poverty?
Society needs to fix generational poverty. Though there’s not one easy solution to solve all the problems, there are a few accessible places to start.
Admit It Exists
The first step to solving any problem is admitting we have one, and many people refuse to acknowledge generational poverty as a real problem.
It’s a harsh reality to face. Admitting it’s a systematic issue means acknowledging that you likely benefited from a system that oppresses others.
We must identify the systems that gave us a leg up at the expense of others, a challenging task in a society that celebrates rugged individualism above all else. Some people can’t even see that their parents contributed to their success and refuse even to consider how something as inconsequential (to them) as skin color or gender may play a role.
Fix Social Safety Nets
Politicians constantly put social safety nets on the chopping block, labeling them “entitlement programs” to convince middle-class voters they’re the root of the nation’s financial problems.
We must collectively decide that programs designed to help people are worthwhile.
Then, we must fix the programs by ensuring they work for those who need them. We can achieve this by transforming the welfare cliff into a welfare slope, allowing benefits to taper off with each raise.
Make Education and Childcare Affordable
Affordable childcare and education are two of the biggest obstacles to escaping poverty.
We can start by expanding programs like Head Start, which helps low-income families send their children to daycare. We could also introduce universal childcare credits and help parents pay for daycare.
To reduce education costs, we could cap interest rates on student loans, reduce in-state tuition charges for state schools, or offer free job training in trades.
America loves to boast about families but does absolutely nothing to support parenthood. It derides single mothers, forces all the cost and labor of raising the next generation onto women, and mocks people who can’t keep up.
Please don’t comment saying, “They shouldn’t have gotten pregnant” or “Stop having kids you can’t afford.” Comments like that show a complete lack of empathy for the person and a misunderstanding of the system. Not only should parenthood be accessible for all people, not just the rich, but you don’t know any person’s circumstances.
Some women don’t have a choice. Some families did everything right until circumstances beyond their control thrust them into poverty. Others didn’t receive sex education. Many simply want to be parents despite being poor.
We need to stop judging these families and start helping them.
End Trickle-Down Economics
Trickle-down economics led to massive income inequality and made it more difficult for people to advance in socioeconomic status.
It’s time to end this system that benefits only the richest among us and start looking into programs to help everyone.
Let’s start with a fair tax code, closing loopholes for the wealthy and taxing investment earnings like income.
However, with advances in technology and artificial intelligence, the entire work culture is shifting, and we need to act now to avoid the same social upheaval the Industrial Revolution brought.
A UBI could help. It would guarantee income for people facing economic uncertainty as technology takes jobs while allowing them to spend on what they need. It would lift people out of poverty and stimulate economic growth.
It’s a drastic solution without much favor or political will, but we must do something drastic to change the system.
We have the power to change this system. We can lift millions of families out of generational poverty and help our fellow Americans have better lives.
Our power lies in our vote.
Stop voting among party lines and support politicians who, regardless of party, have a proven track record of fighting the systematic issues that cause generational poverty. Vote for policies that would reduce generational poverty, even if they cost you a little more in taxes.
The health and welfare of millions of Americans depends on it.
Generational Poverty vs. Situational Poverty
Although this post focuses on generational poverty, it’s not the only type. Situational poverty results from a crisis. For example, someone who hasn’t lived in poverty may experience a sudden job loss, medical problem, or relationship change that thrusts them into it.
Situational poverty can lead to generational poverty, and the same programs that would fix generational poverty can also assist those experiencing situational poverty.
Ending Generational Poverty is Possible
We can end generational poverty but lack the political will to do it.
Some folks may have to give up some of the privileges they’ve been accustomed to for generations, and as they say, equality feels like oppression when you are used to privilege. Ending generational poverty won’t be easy and won’t happen overnight.
However, despite the difficulty, it’s a worthy cause we should strive to accomplish with everything we do.