What should we do about the cycle of poverty?

Working at a church, I regularly visit with people who are stuck in the cycle of poverty. The pattern is always very similar.

They all have a story of tough luck, followed by more tough luck, followed by even more tough luck.

There is often a medical emergency for them or a family member, a job lost unfairly and sometimes hope for a job on the horizon. Sometimes.

At times, the stories are heartbreaking. At times, I’m jaded and simply believe they’re lying to me. It’s not that I don’t want to help, but our church can’t help everyone.

We often give a gift card or help pay for a medical expense or a utility bill. But the problem is that though we have helped, our little help is not going to get them out of the cycle of poverty.

It’s wrong.

It’s wrong that many children grow up in poverty with a lack of education, nutrition, security and nurturing care. It’s wrong that the bottom 20 percent of the workforce have seen real income continually decline.

It’s wrong that there is both generational and situational poverty. It’s wrong that, despite Obamacare, many still do not have access to affordable healthcare.

And it’s wrong that poverty is a cycle that is so difficult to escape.

Before you read much more, you need to know two things:

Though I come into contact with poverty somewhat regularly, I am not an expert.

I believe a column about poverty belongs on a blog for consumer advocacy because we all deal with consumerism and need to be aware of its affects on our society. And the beginning of the year may be a good time for some to consider how to help with the cycle of poverty.

Studies show that Americans often consume because their friends or peers have influenced them, not because they are in need. This affects middle-income earners more than any other group. This means that much of what is purchased in our country is not needed, and this unnecessary consumerism can be one cause of poverty. Other causes include:

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  • Lack of education, experience, and skill.
  • Health of the individual.
  • Shortage of access to jobs.
  • High divorce rate.
  • Salary inequality, especially among the bottom 20 percent of the workforce.
  • The criminal justice system’s inability to re-educate convicts.

The U.S. Census Bureau found that 14.5 percent of Americans were living in poverty in 2013, down from 15 percent in 2012. This means that 45.3 million people live at or below the poverty line.

To be sure, poverty in the U.S. is different than poverty in other parts of the world.

I’ve been to places in India, Africa and other countries where people live in absolute poverty – not a single dollar to their names with no food to eat. In the U.S., it’s often more about uncertainty on where one will get food, how they’ll pay the smallest of bills, as well as a basic lack of necessities and security.

So how do we help those in poverty?

“Go get a job!” “Get an education!” or “Work harder!” are not always the answer. That advice may help, but it’s called the cycle of poverty because that’s what it is.

A cycle that is hard to break. How do we help?

Don’t judge those living in poverty. There are so many ways to end up in poverty, and they are people just like you and me.

Understand that those in poverty live moment to moment. Often getting one bill paid or the next meal is all they consider. Planning is not usually anywhere on their radar.

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Build a personal relationship with someone living in poverty. Don’t avoid those living in poverty. Go find someone who is and be a friend. Validate that they are worthwhile. Listen to people’s stories and interact with them.

Give what they really need. Giving money directly to a homeless person can be dangerous because it will often be used to purchase drugs, alcohol or other things that don’t help. Instead, pack a gallon-sized bag full of snacks, water and directions to organizations that help those in need.

Donate to quality organizations known for helping the impoverished. Do some research, and find out who in your city serves the needy well.

I’m not a pie-in-the-sky thinker who believes poverty can be cured. Unfortunately, we live in a world where inequality will always exist.

But there are things each of us can do to help those in need. And being decent to one another is a good place to begin.

This story first appeared May 27, 2015.

Kent Lawrence

Kent Lawrence is a proud graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism. He is a husband, father to two, executive pastor, travel enthusiast and sometime writer. You can contact him at kent@kentlawrence.com.

  • LostInMidwest

    I am not poor, but by what we consider “poor” in U.S. society, then I grew up poor for sure. The only better thing I had than U.S. poor was that 90 % of that society was “poor” as well. We lived in a communist country. Of course we weren’t poor, we just didn’t have any money. There’s difference. Big one.

    The only advice I have for poor people is to know where your money is and where it is going. Every. Single. Cent. Of. It.

    The only way to do that in THIS society are following steps:

    – cut ALL but one credit card. Once you know where every cent of your money is, you will not need even a single credit card, let alone 3 or more.

    – cash is king. Use cash for everything. There is enormous difference between pulling $10+$5+3x$1+2x25c out of your pocket to pay $18.50 and swiping a debit/credit card. HUGE DIFFERENCE.

    – throw away all loyalty cards that gather points or get you discounts in markets. Once you buy only and only what you need at the moment, the fact that there is $1 discount if you buy 12 rolls of toilet paper doesn’t matter at all.

    – do NOT use coupons – for the exact same reason as above. Buy only what you need AT THE MOMENT. Buying for “future needs” is not saving money, it is one of the reasons you do not have any right now.

    – finally, and this is by FAR the hardest one to do … learn to distinguish between “need” and Need. Most of what you “need” is a want, not Need.

    I hope this didn’t sound offensive, but this is how we grew up with almost no money and went to all schools*, had clothes and weren’t hungry at any time. Yes, I did work for a month or more in the summer if I wanted a pair of jeans and sneakers, but I wasn’t hungry, cold or uneducated.

    Contrary to popular belief, at least in MY country, school costed money. We needed prescribed clothes, books and other stationary that my parents had to pay for. Universities costed money for lodging and food – not insignificant when your major cities where Universities were had market prices like other Western European capitals for real estate.

  • Don Spilky

    While I believe it is our duty to help those less fortunate than us this column doesn’t belong on a consumer advocacy blog. It didn’t belong back in May and still doesn’t belong now. Conflating consumerism as a cause for poverty (to others) is just plain wrong.

  • Rebecca

    I worked at a grocery store for nearly 9 years. And the same people that paid with food stamps were still paying with food stamps 9 years later, but almost every single one had more kids. Usually they weren’t married and their kids had several father’s that weren’t around. This was the rule, not the exception. Certainly there really were people that genuinely needed a hand up. One gentleman I remember very well lost his wife, then shortly thereafter was diagnosed with cancer that left him blind and unable to work at the job he’d had for 25 years. He was struggling to take care of his children, and those are the type of people I absolutely believe deserve help. Several of us at the store helped him out, and I’m sure most people would.

    I know it isn’t PC, but you need to add lack of birth control and multiple children born without fathers to that list. If you can’t afford the kids you have, don’t have them in the first place, let alone have more. Birth control is a lot cheaper than kids. I waited until I was 33 to have my first child. Until my husband and I were established enough that I could stay home with my kids until they start school. I can’t imagine having them with no partner and making $10/hour. That’s setting yourself up to fail.

  • Rebecca

    I would add to pay cash for a decent, reliable car to this list. And drive it until it dies. My grandpa taught me this. I had a brand new car exactly once. It wore off by the first payment. Luckily, I leased it and couldn’t wait to turn it back in. My only regret is that I could have purchased 2 perfectly good cars that lasted at least 10 years, for the price of 3 years of car payments. Let alone the insurance cost. And even a dead car is worth a few hundred bucks as junk!

  • Tanya

    I think one way to help (and no hating here) would be to raise school taxes just enough to provide a breakfast and lunch for EVERY child in attendance. No more forms, no more proving up financial distress, no more missing the children whose parents are on the edge. The school is in the best position to negotiate better prices for the whole and can serve many more kids for cents or at most $1 a day. This is something I would personally pay more school tax on, at least it would be going to a good cause. Plus, this way, every child would have at least 2 meals 5 days a week. I know it would not help out on the nights/weekends, but it would be a start.
    Second, let’s all stop touting college as the end all/be all of what every person should strive for. No. Every person should strive to be a valued member of society. Not a college graduate. Skilled trades, yes. All education and all people matter, not just those with fancy degrees. Sure, you may make more in the long run going to college, IF you get the right degree and don’t go into thousands of dollars of debt. Not everyone is meant to be a scholar, every person has their own special set of skills and we need to start recognizing every person, not just college graduates.

  • Grant Ritchie

    Responsibility, Rebecca? That’ll never catch on. :-)

  • Rebecca

    Agree 100%. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of the cure.


    I especially like your thoughts on college/university. For too long we have said you will be nothing without a college degree. Many trades provide an excellent living and often bring more personal satisfaction than sitting in a cubicle or office all day.
    I would not mind paying more in taxes but do not want to pay for food for those than can afford it. I would rather the money be spent directly at under-performing schools to bring in enthusiastic, qualified teachers and to develop solid programs to engage parents of children in these schools in their child’s education. One school I taught at was a pilot in a program that worked to engage parents and it worked quite well. Over the 5 years I was there we saw steady improvement in students across the board. The program was not only an investment of money but also time. We not only were educating the students but also helped parents with basic reading and math skills. Food is an important part but will never solve the problems in inner city schools where the better teachers, books and equipment are missing.

  • Harvey-6-3.5

    While I can agree with the credit card advice, the comment about loyalty cards demonstrates a difference between the truly poor and those who have wealth. Buying 12 rolls packs for $5 instead of buying 12 rolls individually for $6 is a rational way to save money. The toilet paper isn’t going to go bad. Where buying in bulk or on sale saves money on needs, that is real savings.

    The “want” money is on cell phones (or at least any plan with data, an unnecessary expense if you can’t afford it), cable, bigger TVs, and all the other things that represent costs not useful to those living month to month.

    I also agree with Rebecca that used cars, if you need a car, are a value. When I was in graduate school with very little income, my first car was used and junky, but drove fine. I rented an apartment within walking distance and after I married, my wife used the car for her job and I walked. Our big and rare nights out were the dollar movies and little caesar’s pizza, which we could save for a couple more meals.

    But it is very hard, and I think even harder when you are poor, to focus on long term goals. I think the mental strain is part of the challenge.

  • Bill___A

    Many valid comments. I would like to add that we need to take care of those affected by mental health a lot more. There are many people who are on the streets and they just don’t know how to cope. If they had the help they needed, they would do a lot better.

    I am lucky but I do not sit in an ivory tower out of reach with people who are less fortunate. I think there are a lot of things that go on and a lot of areas where we could improve society for these people. They are not all the same.

    The next time you walk by someone on the street, consider buying them a sandwich or something. It gives them something to eat, and gives you a chance to talk to them for a few minutes. Amazing what you can learn.

  • 42NYC

    I’m not a big supporter of Marco Rubio but my favorite line of the recent political debates has been his comment of “we need fewer philosophers and more welders.” You can do very well for yourself with a skilled trade and while everyone might want to be in some collar field making $200k plus the reality is most people wont get there. A person can do very well for themselves as an electrician without spending 4 years and $100,000 (or much more) on college.

  • Mike

    Vote for representatives who will fund programs needed to address the situation. The poor cannot dig themselves out without help. Medical care. Food, housing and education need to be addressed.

  • BMG4ME

    We send our children to a religious school so that they can be imparted with our values. We pay school taxes and get no assistance from the government, not even school buses (except for last year when they did provide buses and charged us for them). There is no way that I would support raising school taxes unless the proceeds could be used by any family regardless of their religion.

  • Peter

    I am not poor, but I came from a family that only had one stable income and struggled for much of my childhood. I didn’t have all the fancy stuff that other kids had (and I survived, thanks). My parents did their best I am (and was) grateful. They valued education and encouraged and helped me every step of the way. I had good public schools and an extended family that cared about me and mentored me. I was the first in my family to complete college and the first to complete grad school as a result.

    I know that in the US, “being poor can be quite expensive”. This sounds a bit silly, but what I mean by that is a lot of the things we in the middle class take for granted, like transportation, housing, food can have a high daily cost for the poor. The wealthier among us can afford to make investments, like owning a car ends up often having lower daily expenses, and is certainly often far faster and more efficient, than public transportation. Owning a home and having a reasonable mortgage, can be cheaper, on-going, than renting. And we know that there are fewer chain food stores in poor neighborhoods, and they often pay higher prices (try feeding and clothing 4 kids using your small local shops versus using something like Costco discounts).

    I don’t know the solution. Certainly helping people build skills. Encouraging kids to complete their education and not have babies while still young is important. Being a good parent and keeping your family together is also important. Avoiding the temptations of drugs and alcohol which are common. The stability of the family and providing values and mentoring are so important.

    Encouraging developing skills in “making things”, like construction, and the other trades can help escape poverty. Invest your limited time and money in building your personal worth, your own skills and knowledge. There are also scholarships and other forms of assistance for worthy students.

    And being smart about money, and saving it. Finding good deals. I get upset when I see an obviously not wealthy person doing what looks like their weekly shopping in a place like a drug store, where they pay highly marked-up prices for many things – I know they are wasting their limited money.

    Finally I would say that we have many blessings. I have traveled to a number of developing countries and being poor in America is far better than poverty in most of Asia, South America and Africa. Access to clean food and water, transportation, safe and decent housing, air conditioning in tropic climates, are all a given here. Most of the world’s true poor live on as little as $1 or $2 a day. Imagine doing that.

  • judyserienagy

    Education, of course, but that’s simplistic. The reality, albeit politically incorrect, is that people should not have children unless they can feed and educate them. I was fortunate to grow up without money, plenty of “stuff” but no cash. Teaches you the importance of paying attention, prioritizing, and planning.

  • Ianto Jones

    I originally posted this on Reddit, but it seems applicable sometimes for other comment sections.

    Homelessness post.
    My wife and I are both on SSDI (the kind of disability that you earn for having *worked* for many years before becoming too ill to work).
    Neither of us is yet 40.
    I started working at 14, and have a small pension in addition to my disability.

    We make enough that we can ordinarily afford a decent rent and our expenses, with enough left over to save a bit each month, though not enough to cover the contingencies or exigencies of our medical conditions (paraplegic, epileptic, and intractable primary progressive MS).

    However, during the process of going out on disability (and therefore having to make COBRA payments, which were more than half of my take home, and after six months of almost NO income as SSDI has a waiting period after you are approved, and state disability only pays 55% of your pre-disability income, and only for one year), while still incurring serious medical bills in the interim, we experienced some financial challenges and ended up filing Ch. 7.
    This was before the Affordable Care Act passed, so foregoing COBRA wasn’t an option – my ability to draw any income at all is contingent upon being seen by a doctor every three months (must show *and document* “continuing care” even where there is no possibility for improvement).

    Thanks to that, our credit is currently lousy (but slowly and steadily improving).
    Our apartment is raising our rent by more than $200 in a couple of months.
    There will be no Cost of Living Adjustment this next year, despite soaring food and housing costs, because the formula used to calculate it was broadly skewed by low gas prices (a gross oversimplification, but accurate in function).
    If we incur even one more large medical bill (like the ambulance plus MRI costs I had last month), we won’t be able to afford that increase.
    Despite medical coverage, the copays for such things are several hundred dollars.
    I don’t have a reliable powerchair, because my copay for a replacement is 20% – of 30-40K, with my needs.
    I bought my part-time ventilator on the grey market (obsolete hospital equipment resales, meant for vendors not private individuals), because I couldn’t afford $150/mo copay through insurance-nor do I have the 24/7 helper they require in order to authorise even that.

    And even though we have never been late with our rent, our low FICO means that we would not be able to be approved for a different apartment in a less expensive city, especially without three months rent in advance (first/last/security).

    We used up my Ch7 when I became permanently disabled in early 2010 — leaving us stuck with my COBRA, which cost more than half my income, when my wife subsequently became permanently disabled in mid-2011, while waiting out the last months of the two year hold until my Medicare coverage kicked in.

    Until January 2010, I had never missed a payment on anything, nor been so much as a single day late.
    From when my Ch7 closed in 2010, until Feb 2012, I missed no payments on anything.
    From Aug 2012 til present, I’ve not missed any payment.

    But because of the Ch7 in 2010 for me (which will clear in 2020), and the late payments greater than 3mos (Feb-Aug 2012), our FICOs are tanked (and the Ch7 burned my bridges with many of the fastest paths to rebuilding).
    (Side note that I wouldn’t have had to take the BK route, even with the job loss *and* COBRA, if my creditors hadn’t racked my interest rates from the 7-10% range to solid 29.99%, which took my payments beyond my available funds.
    They raised them not because I’d personally made any errors or missed any payments, but because my “perceived risk” had increased, based upon rebucketing me to a different group of peer comparators).

    The pre-disability debt wasn’t flatscreen TVs and unlimited data (though progressively, cells are cheaper than landlines, and can be the cheapest private internet access – a necessary thing when either job hunting *or* trying to navigate what services exist, such as filing for SSDI or food assistance. Data is now comparatively cheap – it’s *fast* data that’s expensive).
    The initial debt was incurred when my indigent, retired mom had a devastating stroke in another state, and while public health would keep her alive, they were under no obligation to provide expensive meds to improve her odds of regaining function – nor the physical therapy to do so.

    When you get *that* phone call, you give them your CC#’s first, and only later find out that actual medical debt impacts credit scores differently than the nondescript VISA/MC debt that will be out of your reach if the interest increases at the same time your income decreases and you incur an additional large bill at the same time.
    I’d already paid off over $100K on a less than 50K salary, and had somewhere between 60-80K left when it all went south.

    We have no children and are not underage, nor are we seniors; neither of us is a vet.
    We officially make something like nine dollars a month too much to be eligible for food assistance.
    We technically are eligible for some rental assistance — except that the waiting list is several years long, and therefore even the waiting list is currently closed to additional applicants.
    All of this to say — if we are unable to afford the upcoming increase in our rent, we might very well end up living in our (twelve-year-old, paid off, accessible-to-my-powerchair, Kelly-Blue-Book $985) minivan.

    We aren’t eligible for a shelter, even if there were available capacity at any nearby, because we have no children and are a couple, and do have income.
    Doesn’t mean that there are housing opportunities available to us. And we are both college-educated; I “retired” as the manager of a mid-sized non-profit tech-support call center.

    (And not that it should matter, but we are both of the generally-considered-to-have-privilege race, here in the States, and in a liberal-leaning Blue Western state, near one of the major coastal cities.)

    We could not move to anywhere with snow, as it would render my wife bedridden and my ability to self-provide (shop, etc) nearly nonexistent – source: we stayed with family in Kansas for two winters.

    We don’t eat out, we don’t go to movies, we don’t have cable television, we don’t buy clothing until we run out of functional underwear.
    My wife’s only remaining pair of shoes are a torn set of $7 Payless ‘Croc’ knockoffs; I fare better because my long-leg-braces cause less wear on my shoes (and less wear from not walking, of course).

    We do prioritise the things we need to maintain sanity – I found her an only-slightly-cracked Kindle for less than $10 with free shipping on eBay (no one else bid).
    I still have a 2006-7 MacBook that I bought from an upgrading friend in 2009 for $250, as the benefits it provides me are greater than the $40-$60 I’d get from selling it.
    Our internet is $14.95/mo, and my medical equipment means we pay less for electricity (PG&E offers flat tier pricing for those who require medical equipment 24/7).
    We are severely disabled. Reading is the best joy we have left, and there is infinite free material online.
    We don’t live like monks, but we don’t squander either.
    We have never used a food bank, or “food stamps”.
    We don’t get Section 8.
    My wife is a great cook, and can make a pot of beans last several days (tasting!).

    All this to say – while majorities and trends exist, it is entirely possible to find oneself homeless while having enough income to pay rent.

    Happy to discuss any of this with anyone – civilly.

  • JewelEyed

    I disagree with using cash for everything. If you know where every penny of your money is, you can use a credit card for the consumer protection and to help keep your credit score up and pay it off right after you make a purchase. Using cash for everything is a great plan until you actually *can’t* pay for something with cash and your credit score is non-existent.

  • JewelEyed

    You’re the reason I wasn’t too broken up over it when social services let me go as a food stamp worker. I went home crying every day over situations like yours, where someone who really needed help made a few dollars too much to get help.

  • LostInMidwest

    It might sound callous, but the truth is that, if you cannot pay cash for it, you probably cannot afford it. So do not buy it.

    That one credit card I mentioned to be used almost never? That is for events when stuff really hits the fan. For example, your bedroom roof collapsed under a fallen tree in last night’s storm and you need repair today while waiting for insurance money to pay for it. Most of the time, you will renew the card without ever paying the bill and carrying a balance of $0

  • LFH0

    Let me add another cause for poverty: black-listing. When one is driven by righteousness rather than corporate greed or government politics, one might get black listed by an industry in retaliation for not following the company line. This can lead to unemployment and poverty late in a career, despite great education, much experience and skill, good health, many jobs, spouse and family, and no criminal background. Some adversely-affected people already have too many academic degrees, and are too experienced in their industry, that additional education would be impracticable, and employers in other industries will not hire well-experienced, middle-aged people for entry-level positions. Talent ends up being wasted, leading to poverty and suicide because there is a purposeful intent of those in power to hurt certain people. There’s little concern or compassion for these once-successful individuals.

  • JewelEyed

    It doesn’t sound callous, it just sounds incorrect. Most people aren’t able to pay for a house in cash on the spot. That doesn’t mean they can’t afford it.

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