Poverty in America: Breaking the Cycle of Poverty

Poverty in America: Breaking the Cycle of Poverty

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

~ From Emma Lazarus’ sonnet, New Colossus, and best known as the quote mounted on the pedestal at the base of The Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, New York

America’s Poor Trapped in a Cycle of Poverty

From the most recognized phrase on America’s Statute of Liberty, the United States has long been thought of as a beacon of hope for the poor in search of a better life. Many have flocked here, hoping to receive America’s promise of opportunity. The belief is that what distinguishes this nation is that a person can pull himself up by his bootstraps and become anything his mind can conceive and his heart dares to believe. With hard work and determination, nothing is impossible to him. While it is true for many, it is not true for all. This is not the reality of America’s poor and those trapped in the cycle of poverty.

In 2016, the total population of the U.S. was 319.9 million. Of that, 40.6 million Americans, or 12.7 percent of the population lived in poverty. This rate, while it has fluctuated mildly over the years, has been fairly static for the past 30 years. Said plainly, America has not found a way to break the cycle of poverty despite our wealth.


Defining Poverty

In the United States, the Census Bureau determines who is poor, using a household’s pre-tax income. The dollar amount is set based on what is needed to meet basic needs. In 2016, a family of four earning less than $24,339 would be considered poor.

While the U.S. uses cash income to measure poverty, there are alternative measures that help to identify who is poor in America. The Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison published a report in 2015 that outlined “Alternative Ways to Think About ‘Who is poor?’” In that same report, the writers make an important point. Even if a family is making 100 percent to 124 percent above the income threshold, they are likely still struggling. They are considered to be “near poverty” and one mishap can send them into poverty.

Counting those who are near poverty would increase America’s poverty rate another four to five percentage points. According to an article published by Eastern Oregon University, when we overestimate the costs for food and underestimate the costs for transportation, housing, and healthcare, we grossly miscount how many Americans actually live in or near poverty. My point in stating this is to let you know, this is both our problem and our opportunity. And, it is big.


Who is Poor?

Who are these nearly 41 million people who are poor in our country? The Federal Safety Net published a report that tells us categories of the populations who are living in poverty. I’ve highlighted a few below. For a complete report on poverty statistics, see the report, U.S. Poverty Statistics by The Federal Safety Net.


Poverty by Race

Of the 195.2 million Whites (non-Hispanic), 17.3 million or 8.8% live in poverty. Though there are many more White people living in poverty, as a percentage of the overall population, it is the lowest rate of poverty in the country. There are 18.9 million Asians in the U.S.; 1.9 million or 10.1% live in poverty. Conversely, the poverty rates for Blacks and Hispanics are more than double that of non-Hispanic Whites. There are 42.0 million Blacks in the U.S., and 9.2 million or 22% live in poverty. Hispanics make up the largest minority/ethnic group in the country. There are 57.6 million Hispanics of all races in the U.S.; 11.1 million live in poverty for a poverty rate of 19.4%.

U.S. Poverty Statistics – Federal Safety Net


Children in Poverty

When we consider children living in poverty, the picture is even more disheartening. A total of 13.3 million children under the age of 18 live in poverty. That’s 18%  of our nation’s children. And as the overall percentages above show, the numbers and percentages are worse for children of color. There are nearly 3.5 million Black children (34%) and 5.1 million Hispanic children (28%) living in poverty. It is disheartening to know that one in five children in this country is poor. They are not in a position to change their circumstances. They need our help. Many of these children come from single-parent households. To help those families is to help the children in those families. For more on child poverty in the U.S., go to The Kids Count project of the Annie E. Casey Foundation.


Marital Status and Poverty

Overall, 9.8% of America’s families live in poverty. Households headed by a married couple (60.8 million families) have 3.1 million families living in poverty with a poverty rate of 5.1%. That accounts for 38% of all families living in poverty.

Single-parent households are more likely to be poor than married couple households. There are 15.6 million families headed by a single mother, which represent 19% of all families. But, 4.1 million of these families are poor (26.6%). This accounts for 51% of all families living in poverty – over five times that of households headed by a married couple. Households led by a single father account for 10% of all families living in poverty. These statistics lead us to conclude that while marriage is not a sure bet against poverty, the likelihood of being poor is less for those households headed by a married couple.


Educational Attainment and Poverty

The level of education attained has a huge impact on poverty. As the chart indicates, those without a high school diploma have the highest poverty rate (24.8%), while those with a college degree or higher are least likely to be poor (4.5% poverty rate). For as long as I’ve been old enough to comprehend, I heard my parents and grandparents say that education is the ticket to a better life. These statistics confirm that education is indeed a defense against poverty.

Other Poverty Measures:

Women are more likely to be poor than men. In 2015, 14.8% of women and 12.2% of men were in poverty. These rates are more pronounced in the elderly. Although the elderly have one of the lowest poverty rates by age demographic due to the Social Security and Medicare programs, elderly women are still more likely to be poor than elderly men.

The South has the highest poverty rate, followed in order from most to least by the West, Northeast, and the Midwest.


Why is Poverty Persistent in America?

It’s one thing to know the numbers. It’s another to try to figure out why poverty is persistent in America in the 21st Century. Since a 2014 report, poverty rates have declined slightly. However, as I mentioned above, the overall change in poverty in America has been negligible for the past 30 years. Why then does America have a culture of poverty? This issue is complex, but they mostly stem from inherent inequalities.

Editors Ann Chih Lin and David R. Harris, wrote in a 2009 article for the National Poverty Center, that “poverty results not from a single source but from a cumulative process: any type of disadvantage makes one vulnerable to other disadvantages.” They point to differences along racial lines in education, health, and residential quality as some of the reasons poverty continues to be a problem in America.


Poverty Persists Because Education is Unequal.

Educational attainment is a factor in poverty. We also know there are disparities in educational experiences that can impact attainment. These disparities begin before formal schooling and continue throughout the educational career. By the time a child is three years of age, there is a 30-million-word gap between the wealthiest children and the poorest. And, this gap persists through age 13. A child’s zip code is also a determinant of the educational quality a child receives. Children in the poorest neighborhoods, largely children of color, have to endure schools that are inadequately resourced and where teacher turnover rates are highest. Teacher expectations are lower for Black and Hispanic children and these children also have the highest incidences of disciplinary referrals.

Altogether, though educational attainment is one of the surest defenses against poverty, the experiences of children of color and poor children create a disadvantage as Lin and Harris reported. Until we equalize the educational resources and experiences for all children, we will continue to perpetuate a culture of poverty.


Poverty Persists Because Access to Housing is Unequal.

We’ve all seen reports and documentaries that point to housing discrimination. Realtors steer minority families away from middle class and affluent White communities even when they meet the income requirements. There have been numerous documented reports of landlords who raise the cost of rent or lie about vacancies to dissuade minorities and the poor from applying for housing. In an article for the Urban Wire, Mary K. Cunningham points out that “Housing plays a critical role in providing stability to poor families. When families lack it, there are terrible consequences.” She says evictions can impede a family’s ability to attain basic necessities (e.g., food, clothing, and medicine).

Inadequate housing and homelessness are also linked to depression and child abuse and neglect. For children, lack of stability at home correlates with higher school absenteeism, frequent school moves, and lower test scores. If we are to eradicate poverty in America, we have to find a way to ensure access to quality, affordable housing. For more, read 9 ways the lack of housing is hurting America and Habitat for Humanity’s 7 things you should know about poverty and housing.

Poverty Persists Because Breaking the Cycle is Hard

Bill Grigsby, an associate professor of sociology at Eastern Oregon University published an article that asked Why is Poverty in the US so Persistent? In it, he laid out three theories. The one I’m highlighting here because I’ve seen it in a few other readings is this theory of a culture of poverty. Anthropologist Oscar Lewis did studies in poor Mexican and Puerto Rican communities. He identified in his research what he called a culture of poverty. In that article, Grigsby wrote:

Oscar Lewis observed what he saw as a culture of poverty among these communities leading to self-defeatist, self-indulgent attitudes. Concepts such as planning for the future–delaying gratification–were rare and unimportant. Attitudes and beliefs seen as self-defeating were learned by younger generations from older generations, that is, youth are socialized into this culture.

I know this seems harsh. But, the main point here is that when poverty is deep within a way of life and thus, a belief system, it can be hard to imagine breaking out of that life. Therefore, behaviors that serve to keep generations in poverty persist. One way in which this plays out is in motivation for educational attainment. If a child does not see higher education as a viable opportunity, their incentive to study and do their best in school may not be as great as a child who thinks that college is a sure opportunity. This is one reason why we celebrate and reward first-generation college students. We know that feat can break the cycle of poverty for that family.

Other Reasons Poverty Persists in America

There are other reasons poverty persists in America. Lack of affordable healthcare can have a devastating impact on the well-being of a person and families. Employment discrimination can lead to unequal income. And, discrimination in the criminal justice system can lead to more felonies for minorities and poor because they do not have the money for adequate legal representation. These felony convictions harm individuals, families and whole communities.


How to Break the Cycle of Poverty?

When I raise issues, I always want to provide some information about what is being done to address the issues. On this topic of poverty, I turned to the Brookings Institution. The Brookings Institution is a nonprofit public policy organization founded in 1916 and based in Washington, DC. Their mission is to conduct in-depth research that leads to new ideas for solving problems facing society at the local, national and global level.

On the Brookings website, they published The Hamilton Project: Advancing Opportunity, Prosperity, and Growth (2014). “In recognition of these challenges, The Hamilton Project commissioned fourteen innovative, evidence-based antipoverty proposals. These proposals are authored by a diverse set of leading scholars, each tackling a specific aspect of the poverty crisis.” I hope you’ll take time to read through some of the proposals. The proposals focus on four areas.


  1. Promoting Early Childhood Development includes:

Expanding preschool access for disadvantaged children; addressing the parenting divide; and reducing unintended pregnancies for low-income women

  1. Supporting Disadvantaged Youth includes:

Designing effective mentoring programs; expanding summer employment opportunities for low-income youth; and addressing the academic barriers to higher education


  1. Building Skills includes:

Expanding apprenticeship programs; improving employment outcomes for disadvantaged students; and providing disadvantaged workers the skills they need to succeed in the labor market

  1. Improving the Safety Net and Work Support includes:

Supporting low-income workers through refundable childcare credits; building the success of the earned income tax credit; encouraging work sharing to reduce unemployment; and designing thoughtful minimum wage policy at the state and local levels

What Social Scholar Readers Can Do

The Hamilton Project issued the policy proposals. They are well-studied. However, it will take more than the scholars and the Brookings Institution to advocate for those policies.  I encourage you (and I will too) to read through each of these and think about how you can get involved on the local, state or national level. Use these as a starting point to assess political candidates and their platforms. Get involved with a local organization working to end poverty in your community or state.

When I decided to write this week’s article on poverty in America, I didn’t know what I would find. And, now I cannot unlearn what I’ve learned. When we know better, we do better. Let’s help make America’s promise to help the poor a solemn vow.


© 2018, Tonya Harris Cornileus, Ph.D.

All Rights Reserved.

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