Be the Change: Degrees and Careers to Fight Poverty

From hunger and substance abuse to homelessness and resource scarcity, poverty hurts people in many ways. Learn how you can help break the poverty cycle with degrees, careers, and advocacy.

Last Updated: 08/14/2020

Meet the Expert
Tammy Thompson
Owner/Operator,
T3 Consulting

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Tammy T. Thompson uses her past experiences living in and surviving poverty to relate to families who are working to escape poverty and reach self-sufficiency. She is a certified Housing Counselor and has been teaching financial education, developing workshops, speaking and educating families for 20 years.

Poverty is a serious and complicated issue that impacts people around the world and in the U.S. In 2018, 38.1 million people lived in poverty in the U.S. alone. That’s nearly 1 in 8 people.

The cycle of poverty is insidious and can trap families for generations. With many challenges and disparities feeding into each other, the cycle is extremely difficult to stop once it’s been set in motion. It can be broken, but not without help, support, and resources from the outside. The first step toward breaking down the poverty cycle is learning about how it works and the people it hurts. In this guide, discover key elements of the poverty cycle and how they keep people impoverished, and learn actionable ways you can help people in need break free.

Types of Poverty

At the most basic level, poverty is a condition in which people don’t have enough resources to meet their basic needs. However, poverty is a multifaceted and nuanced issue, and it takes many forms. These different types of poverty affect people in different ways and help inform which approaches and solutions may be best for addressing certain low-income individuals and families.

The main types of poverty in the U.S. include:

  • Absolute Poverty
  • Relative Poverty
  • Situational Poverty
  • Generational Poverty
  • Rural Poverty
  • Urban Poverty

Absolute Poverty

Absolute poverty is when a person’s income isn’t enough to meet their basic needs, like food and housing. The United Nations notes that absolute poverty isn’t just about income but accounts for access to services, too. Severely limited access to education, information and health services can be markers of absolute poverty.

Many elements play into the poverty cycle and can lead to absolute poverty. Common causes of absolute poverty are joblessness and poor support for workers; limited access to welfare and healthcare services; and inadequate education. Further, without access to education, work and social services, people are likely to remain in deep poverty.

Relative Poverty

Relative poverty is based on average living standards and income levels in a given area. If your income can’t support the standard of living in your area, you are in relative poverty. Your income may be considered middle or high in a different city or town, but it may be considered low relative to the area in which you are currently living.

For example, the low income threshold (80 percent AMI) for a family of four in San Francisco is $139,400 (2020), while the threshold for a family of four in Albuquerque is $55,300 (2020). In Albuquerque, $139,400 is well over the AMI, but because of the high cost of living in San Francisco, it’s barely enough to get by in that area.

Situational Poverty

Situational poverty is a temporary condition, typically caused by a catastrophic event or loss. Natural disasters, loss of a breadwinner, unexpected medical costs and economic downturn can all cause situational poverty.

Situational poverty is difficult, but those experiencing it tend to know that it’s a temporary setback and that they can eventually get back to their usual life. If left unaddressed, however, situational poverty can turn into other types of long-term poverty, which can be harder to break.

For example, a fire may cause someone to lose their home and belongings, causing a significant financial burden. This person has a stable job with a good income as well as friends and family who can support them while they get back on their feet. However, if this person starts abusing drugs or alcohol as a way to cope with their stress, addiction could eat away at their savings, jeopardize their job and lead them into a more permanent state of poverty.

Generational Poverty

Generational poverty occurs when at least two generations have been born into poverty. Because poverty is all they have known, those facing generational poverty typically don’t have the tools to break free from the cycle, like those experiencing situational poverty might. Generational poverty is often marked not just by financial insecurity but also a lack of education and emotional support.

Survival and short-term outcomes are the primary focus for those affected by generational poverty. The long-term is generally not considered, as those in generational poverty usually don’t have the means or stability to plan for the long term.

Rural Poverty

True to its name, rural poverty afflicts those living in rural parts of the country. An area is considered rural if it’s nonmetro and has a population of less than 50,000. Rural areas offer a unique environment that can make people particularly vulnerable to poverty. For instance, rural areas may have limited access to job and education options and well as limited access to social services and resources for those in poverty. If a major employer in the area, like a manufacturing warehouse, closes, employees often have little else in the way of job options, and the nearest social services office may be towns away. Since the cost of moving is high, low-income people in rural areas can’t simply move somewhere else if they get laid off or have to take care of unforeseen expenses and emergencies.

Urban Poverty

Like those in rural areas, people in urban areas—metro areas with populations over 50,000—face unique circumstances that can cause or ensure the continuation of poverty. Along with low income, stressors like overcrowding, inadequate housing, violence and limited services relative to the number of people needing them all work to keep the poverty cycle in motion in urban areas. Low-income people in urban areas must compete with each other for housing, jobs and services, often while being priced out of their neighborhoods by people in higher income brackets.

Breaking the Cycle of Poverty

It’s a common belief in the United States that if you work hard, you will be rewarded. Therefore, if you work hard, you shouldn’t be affected by poverty. However, this is a gross fallacy that doesn’t take into account the many firmly rooted systemic problems that actively work to push at-risk individuals and communities into poverty and keep them there. These systemic issues function as both the cause and effect of one another, creating a cycle.

The cycle of poverty is:

  • A series of factors that ensure the continuation of poverty. Factors are both causes and effects of one another.
  • Difficult to break. Serious intervention is required on individual and systemic levels.
  • Not the fault of those in poverty.
  • A systemic problem. You can’t fix one element of the cycle without fixing them all.
  • Beneficial to the wealthy. Since the poverty cycle benefits those with the most power and influence, it is difficult to fix from a top down approach.

Hunger

How it affects people in poverty

How it keeps people in poverty

How to help or learn more

Education

How it affects people in poverty

How it keeps people in poverty

How to help or learn more

Work Opportunities

How it affects people in poverty

How it keeps people in poverty

How to help or learn more

Substance Abuse

How it affects people in poverty

How it keeps people in poverty

How to help or learn more

Crime

How it affects people in poverty

How it keeps people in poverty

How to help or learn more

Family Stability

How it affects people in poverty

How it keeps people in poverty

How to help or learn more

Community Building

How it affects people in poverty

How it keeps people in poverty

How to help or learn more

Action Steps to Fight Poverty

The poverty cycle will not end on its own. Action and intervention are necessary to interrupt the factors that feed into one another and ensure people remain impoverished. People can help in a variety of capacities, all of which can have an impact on those trapped in the cycle of poverty.

Advocate and Raise Awareness

Many people don’t know or understand the specific struggles those in poverty face or that the poverty cycle is impossible to escape without intervention. Educating those who have never experienced poverty about the struggles low income people and families face can increase empathy and get support from people who have the economic and social mobility needed to have a positive impact on this issue.

Further, advocating for policy change and government support or reform on behalf of people in poverty is essential. People in poverty typically don’t have the time or, often, the know-how to advocate for themselves at the local, state and national levels.

Advocacy requires you to look beneath the surface of an issue. It requires you to check your own implicit and explicit biases. Sometimes it will require you to dismiss everything you thought you knew about poverty. You have to dig deeper and realize that most of the poverty issues that people are facing can be corrected, but as a country we have CHOSEN not to.

tammy-thompson

Tammy Thompson

How it’s done

Resources to get started

Donate

If you’re short on time but still want to help, donating to causes that help fight poverty may work well for you. Organizations can’t operate without money, whether it’s paying overhead costs for volunteer-run groups, providing services and infrastructure for low-income communities or campaigning for policy change. The key to donating is to do so responsibly by carefully researching organizations and getting familiar with the organization’s ethics, efficacy and how your donation will be used. If you want your donation to have a positive impact on breaking the poverty cycle, considerable research is a must.

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I think it’s important to do the research on any organization that you want to donate to. You want to make sure that they are walking the walk and not just talking about what they do. Look for the smaller organizations within your own communities that are helping to support families in poverty as well as working to advocate for policy change.

tammy-thompson

Tammy Thompson

How it’s done

Resources to get started

Volunteer

Volunteers can have a huge direct impact on people and communities affected by the poverty cycle, and there are many different ways to get involved. Depending on the organization, volunteers may work directly with low-income individuals and families, organize other volunteers, collaborate on campaigns, write grants, collect data or take on other roles. To get started, research organizations in your community, talk to volunteer coordinators and see what feels like a good fit. Ask about their philosophies, long- and short-term goals and their expectations of volunteers.

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The biggest impact a volunteer can have is to listen and be empathetic. Resist your urge to ‘save” people. Create opportunities for the people you serve to feel empowered.

tammy-thompson

Tammy Thompson

How it’s done

Resources to get started

Earn a Degree to Join the Fight

Public Health

Social Work

Education

Insight from an Expert on Poverty

tammy-thompson

Tammy Thompson
Owner/Operator, T3 Consulting
Poverty Expert, Speaker and Trainer
Certified Housing Counselor

Tammy T. Thompson uses her past experiences living in and surviving poverty to relate to families who are working to escape poverty and reach self-sufficiency. She is a certified Housing Counselor and has been teaching financial education, developing workshops, speaking and educating families for 20 years.

What are some of the most common misconceptions about poverty in the United States?

Why is poverty such a tough issue to tackle? What positive steps have been made toward its eradication, and what still needs to be done?

What advice do you have for people who want to help eradicate poverty but don’t think their skills or knowledge are relevant?

What are one or two of the most impactful steps someone could take right now to help those caught in the poverty cycle?


If you could tell students looking to make a difference through public service only one or two things about America’s poverty issue, what would that be? What would you want them to know the most?