Multigenerational Poverty Overview
Poverty continues to be an elusive dilemma, as the mechanisms through which poverty transpires and
Situational Poverty vs. Generational Poverty
The US Census Bureau categorizes a family as “experiencing poverty” when the total family income is below the income threshold that is expected to be met. This threshold is a measure of meeting one’s essential material needs, such as food, rent, so on and so forth. (How the Census Bureau Measures Poverty , 2022). The Bureau, however, is not investigating whether this persists; families can be experiencing poverty for a variety of reasons, namely job loss, divorce, etc. This form of poverty is defined to be situational. With situational poverty, typically people remain optimistic with their outlook; they once were financially comfortable, so it is reasonable to assume that status can be achieved once more. The same cannot be said about generational poverty, however.
Potential Causes of Generational Poverty
People experiencing generational/cyclical poverty do not share this hope. They are trapped in a survival mindset, as each day presents a new obstacle to overcome. It could be finding money for food, or finding a place to live, all of these challenges force an individual to be entirely focused on short-term outcomes. The prospect of escaping the clutches of poverty is not one that is readily considered. This is known as learned helplessness. This learned helplessness coincides with the established consensus that economic upward mobility—that is, moving from a lower socioeconomic background to a higher one—in the United States is the lowest out of any developed nation (Page et al. 2016). So, there is credence to this mentality. This then begs the question, why does poverty persist in families?
One of the most integral causes of generational poverty is the adverse experiences children raised in poverty face. If the parents’ utmost concern is meeting their essential needs, it only follows that the children will adopt this primary concern as well—that is, they will begin to believe the only way to continue living is through exclusively focusing on their essential needs. They learn to create short–term goals and subsequently only focus on short-term outcomes. Long-term goals, such as pursuing upper education or white collar jobs, are either not considered to begin with or deemed to be unachievable. If the parents can barely afford to pay rent, it would be difficult to expect the parents to have sufficient resources necessary to invest in their children’s education, making it incredibly difficult to achieve academic excellence– let alone deal with the consequences of failure. Academic excellence is incredibly relevant to the conversation, as people often say doing well in school is a surefire way to be employed and make a decent income. Now, this may be true in a general sense, it becomes clear that this is not a reasonable option for those in poverty to pursue. Being constantly hungry, chronically stressed, lacking the financial support necessary for pursuing education and performing well, along with this headspace of learned helplessness, are all obstacles that act in the way of someone getting out of poverty.
It also follows that the parents are not in a financial position to invest in their children’s physical wellbeing. To quote the Food Research and Action Center, “Food-insecure and low-income people can be especially vulnerable to poor nutrition and obesity, due to additional risk factors associated with inadequate household resources as well as under-resourced communities. This might include lack of access to healthy and affordable foods; cycles of food deprivation and overeating; high levels of stress, anxiety, and depression; fewer opportunities for physical activity; greater exposure to marketing of obesity-promoting products; and limited access to health care” (Hartline-Grafton, 2017). If someone is chronically ill or not in the best physical condition, they are in no shape to work, be productive, or maintain a job. Their physical condition is likely contributing to their financial state as well, because they would be accruing quite the lofty medical debt (Kluender, 2021). Researchers from Harvard University found that US medical debt disproportionally affects low-income individuals, having the highest amount of debt compared to any other demographic. This perfectly corresponds with the findings of the previous study, which established that low-income individuals are more prone to suffering from medical issues. This only adds to the reason why generational poverty is difficult to break out of.
Outside of internal factors that contribute to generational poverty, there are external systemic ones as well. People experiencing poverty could be living in an impoverished area. This means that the schools in the area are underfunded, since property taxes are the largest source of funding for public schools in the US (National Center for Education Statistics, 2022). Even if the family values education highly, the child is not getting the same quality of education as someone who is in your typical neighborhood. Even if the family at hand wants to change their diet, the same neighborhood is not likely to have affordable healthy food nearby. 23.5 million people living in low-income areas are 1 mile further away from grocery stores than the average neighborhood (Rose, 2010). The grocery stores that might be closer are much smaller in comparison, and the prices for healthier foods are higher. So, for them to develop a healthier diet, they would have to add the transportation cost on top of their grocery bill, which only adds to the external barriers to developing a healthier diet. Even if the family wants to leave this neighborhood to avoid all these issues, supply of housing has largely remained the same while rent prices have drastically increased across the United States, especially for the lowest-income renter households (Joint Center for Housing Studies, 2020). According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, “Due to a limited rental market with few affordable vaccines, people with the lowest incomes may be forced to rent substandard housing that exposes them to health and safety risks, such as vermin, mold, water leaks, and inadequate heating or cooling systems. They may also be forced to move in with others, potentially resulting in overcrowding. Overcrowding is defined as more than 2 people living in the same bedroom or multiple families living in 1 residence. Overcrowding may affect mental health, stress levels, relationships, and sleep, and it may increase the risk of infectious disease.”
With internal factors, such as learned helplessness, and external factors, such as housing instability and food deserts, it becomes apparent why poverty is cyclical in nature. This then begs the following question, how can people experiencing multigenerational poverty break out of the cycle?
One of the best ways to address this cycle is through direct service, helping them break out of this mentality of all hope being lost. This is precisely why La Puente was created in the first place—to provide the resources they so desperately need and remind them that all hope is not lost. Understanding that generational poverty is a multifaceted issue, La Puente’s various programs, such as our shelter or our foodbank, strive to lessen the barriers as much as we can. It may seem as though they are deep in the trenches, but they simply need a hand to help get them out.
Hartline-Grafton, H. (2017). The Impact of Poverty, Food Insecurity, and Poor Nutrition on Health and Well-Being. Food Research and Action Center, 6.
Haushoffer, J. (2014). On the Psychology of poverty. Science.
How the Census Bureau Measures Poverty . (2022, September 22). Retrieved January 9, 2023, from US Census Bureau: https://www.census.gov/topics/income-poverty/poverty/guidance/poverty-measures.html
Joint Center for Housing Studies. (2020). The state of the nation’s housing 2020. Harvard University.
Kluender, R. (2021). Medical Debt in the US, 2009-2020. JAMA, 250-256.
National Center for Education Statistics. (2022, May). Public School Revenue Sources. Retrieved January 10, 2023, from Institute of Education Sciences: https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator/cma/public-school-revenue
Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. (n.d.). Housing Instability. Retrieved January 10, 2023, from Healthy People 2030: https://health.gov/healthypeople/priority-areas/social-determinants-health/literature-summaries/housing-instability
Page, M., Conger, K., Guyer, A., Hastings, P., & Thompson, R. (2016, April 22). Center for Poverty & Inequality Research, UC Davis. Retrieved January 10, 2023, from poverty.ucdavis.edu: https://poverty.ucdavis.edu/research-paper/children-and-intergenerational-transmission-poverty-research-frontiers-and-policy
Rose, D. (2010). Access to Healthy Food: A Key Focus for Research on Domestic Food Insecurity. The Journal of Nutrition, Volume 140, Issue 6, 1167-1169.