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

View Bio

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

Food security, hunger and poverty are closely linked. In 2018, 29.1 percent of low-income households in the U.S. experienced food insecurity. Those in poverty who are supporting their families often skip meals or reduce food intake so their family members don’t have to go without.

How it keeps people in poverty

Many people in poverty spend a significant portion of their finances on securing basic needs, like food. This leaves little room for getting out of the poverty cycle. Improper nutrition and hunger can reduce job and school performance and impact mental and physical health, which helps keep the cycle in motion. Hunger can reduce concentration, putting hungry workers at risk of making mistakes that could cost them their jobs. Similarly, students may see a drop in academic performance, which can reduce or eliminate future opportunities for school or well-paying jobs. Resultant health problems from poor nutrition can lead to medical expenses and time away from work and school.

How to help or learn more

Feeding America: Feeding America provides tons of information on food insecurity and hunger in the U.S. You can also find volunteer and advocacy opportunities through Feeding America or use their food bank search if you want to lend a hand at a local food bank.

Food Research and Action Center: The Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) is a national nonprofit committed to ending poverty-related hunger. Visit their website to learn about related policy, research, events and advocacy opportunities around the country.

State Anti-Hunger Organizations: Find an anti-hunger organization near you to get involved with local anti-hunger efforts.

Education

How it affects people in poverty

Education has a huge impact on breaking down generational poverty and lifting young people out of poverty. However, problems within the education system can ensure that young people stay in the poverty cycle. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) 2019 Condition of Education Report notes that poor educational outcomes like low achievement scores, repeated grades and dropping out are associated with living in poverty and living in a household without a parent who has completed high school.

Education can help lead to job opportunities down the road, but kids in poverty may not be able to attend school all the time. Low-income students may feel socially isolated or stigmatized because of their economic status. Students who get bullied for being low-income may skip school to avoid other students. Additionally, schools in low-income areas may have poor performance stats because of student attendance and focus, which may lead to decreased funding and teachers walking out.

How it keeps people in poverty

Staying home to take care of younger siblings while their parents are at work, moving to different schools as their parents follow jobs, or dropping out to get work themselves may all be realities for students in poverty. Low-income graduates often can’t afford college or take the time to attend college because they need to work, and student loans perpetuate poverty. Despite their economic status, many may not qualify for scholarships and grants, or the aid they receive may still not be enough to allow them to go to school.

Entry level minimum wage jobs often require at least a high school diploma. With lots of competition from people with more education, even low-skill, low-wage jobs can be difficult to secure with minimal education. With no ability to secure higher paying jobs, poverty is impossible to escape. Plus, many of the skills learned in school, like literacy, critical thinking and basic math, are needed to navigate day-to-day life, execute essential adulthood tasks and successfully self-advocate.

How to help or learn more

Intercultural Development Research Association (IDRA) – Resources: Learn about education issues that affect diverse and low-income students. IDRA provides a variety of resources that can help guide your action and make you a more effective advocate, volunteer or education professional.

SMART Volunteer: The SMART program offers an example of volunteer opportunities that may be available to those who want to fight poverty through education. Volunteers act as tutors and mentors to at-risk students.

Uncommon Good Connect to College – Mentoring Program: Uncommon Good’s mentoring program connects low-income students with volunteer mentors and tutors that help keep them on the path toward college. Mentorship is supported by college preparation, real world experiences and social services.

Portland Literacy Council – Volunteer Tutors: Literacy programs in your area, like the Portland Literacy Council, can provide training and connect you to education-based volunteer opportunities in your community.

Work Opportunities

How it affects people in poverty

People need jobs with good wages in order to make enough money to at least meet their basic needs. However, jobs can be limited for a number of reasons, including too few opportunities, too much competition from similarly-skilled people, insufficient education or job skills to secure work, limited transportation, prohibitive criminal backgrounds or substance abuse issues. Even when work is available, it may be inconsistent or too low-paying to keep individuals and families afloat.

How it keeps people in poverty

The working poor—people who spend at least 27 weeks in the labor force but still fall below the federal poverty line—are often overworked and underpaid. They typically have little time to rest and can’t afford sick days, which can lead to health issues and medical expenses. All that time spent at work can also contribute to family breakdown, leading to or continuing generational poverty.

Many may also not have time to advocate for themselves, become part of a larger community, stay informed on issues or resources that may help their positions or further their education. Furthermore, social services and resource offices are commonly open and accessible during standard workday hours, barring access to many people who can’t leave work during those times but need those resources the most.

How to help or learn more

The HOPE Program: Organizations like The HOPE Program help low-income job seekers increase their skills and get connected to jobs. Volunteer to help HOPE participants with mock interviews, or become a participating employer.

The Working Poor Families Project: Learn more about the working poor, including initiatives and policies to help working poor families, so you can become a more effective advocate.

Chrysalis: Chrysalis is an example of a type of organization you can look for in your community that helps low-income workers gain skills, find jobs and retain employment. Volunteers facilitate job readiness classes, help with resume writing and conduct mock interviews.

Offer paid internships or apprenticeships: If you’re in a hiring position, offer paid training opportunities for low-income workers and students. Talk to anti-poverty and job connection organizations in your community for help developing and promoting these opportunities.

Substance Abuse

How it affects people in poverty

There is no proven direct cause and effect between poverty and substance abuse, but studies indicate that low income people tend to struggle with substance abuse at higher rates. Substance abuse can be either a cause or an effect of poverty. Stress, hopelessness, insufficient funds for treatment and other healthcare services, social isolation and incapacitation limiting one’s ability to work can all affect people in poverty who struggle with substance abuse disorders. These can lead to even more stress and hopelessness and keep both poverty and substance use in motion.

How it keeps people in poverty

The factors affecting people in poverty who have substance abuse issues feed into each other continuously. Many low-wage jobs require drug tests, which not only cost money but can bar people in recovery from getting work, even though having work could provide them with some stability that would help in their recovery. Also, addiction and substance abuse is expensive. Not only does addiction compel people to keep buying a given substance, but rehab is extremely cost prohibitive. Additionally, lack of support makes it difficult to recover from addiction and substance abuse, so people may have a hard time securing work, finding stable housing, saving money and addressing mental and physical health issues.

How to help or learn more

Volunteers of America – Substance Use Disorders: Because of the specific skills and training required, volunteer opportunities that help people with substance use disorders can be hard to find. Volunteers of America is a national organization that can connect you with local chapters in need of substance abuse volunteers.

Volunteer Opportunities – Graduate School of Education and Counseling: Lewis and Clark college offers an example of degree-relevant volunteer opportunities that may be available. Students can see if their school has any partnerships or approved volunteer opportunities with counseling and rehab services in their community.

Economic Status and Abuse: Enhance your empathy and understanding by reading up on the unique correlation between substance abuse and economic status.

Advocate for change: Learn about poverty and substance use issues in your area, and advocate or vote for the ones that speak to your ethics. Initiatives like IP44 in Oregon, for example, can impact at-risk communities by putting excess tax funds toward rehabilitation and other social supports rather than criminalization of minor drug offenders. Organizations like the ACLU can help you find similar issues in your area.

Crime

How it affects people in poverty

It’s commonly thought that poor people commit more crimes, and while this isn’t necessarily true, there are many reasons that crime and poverty can be linked. The visible poor are often specifically targeted by police, as are people of color and other minority groups—populations disproportionately affected by poverty. However, people in poverty may have to turn to illegal methods of earning money because other elements of the poverty cycle prevent them from getting sufficient employment with a livable wage.

Low-income communities also experience crime at higher rates, which can increase stress; negatively impact mental and physical health; and affect kids’ ability to focus on school and their social lives. When safety is at the forefront, it distracts from other aspects of a healthy and fulfilling life.

How it keeps people in poverty

Poverty is criminalized in a lot of ways that actively work to keep people in poverty. For instance, low-income people often have to plead guilty of crimes, even if they are innocent, because they don’t have money for appropriate legal support. Sleeping in public is a crime in many parts of the U.S., so those who can’t afford a place to stay are fined or arrested. These arrests often lead to additional fines, effectively charging people money for not having enough money. To further complicate things, private probation—probation sourced to private, for-profit companies—often follows a pay-only format. This means that people accused of crimes stay in prison if they can’t pay their debts, and end up owing more money for delinquent payments. These fees may also fall on the shoulders of family members, strapping them firmly into the poverty cycle, too. Criminal records also keep people from many jobs and housing opportunities, which perpetuates the poverty cycle.

How to help or learn more

American Civil Liberties Union – Ending Modern-Day Debtors’ Prisons: Learn about private probation and the incarceration of people who can’t pay debts. The ACLU is also a great resource for action and advocacy opportunities. Learn about ways to volunteer, meetings in your area, ways to organize and influence lawmakers and push measures onto local ballots.

National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty – Housing Not Handcuffs: Here you can learn about issues related to crime and poverty and take action as well.

Equal Justice Under Law: Equal Justice Under Law is an excellent resource for information on the criminalization of poverty. You can also donate or volunteer to help.

Family Stability

How it affects people in poverty

Family stability is often a housing stability issue, too. Having a safe, reliable place to live can alleviate a lot of stress on families. If that place is also near school and work, it can have an even greater impact. However, housing security is not a reality for many people living in poverty.

Working parents may have a difficult time being involved in what’s going on at their kids’ schools, and kids from low-income families may have a difficult time connecting with friends if they live far away from school or bounce between different family members. They may even feel some resentment toward their parents because of their economic status and the effect that has on them at school and in their social relationships.

Trouble making ends meet combined with little downtime outside of work can put a significant amount of stress on relationships. One or more family members may leave, further increasing instability and financial troubles, and one adult may bear the financial brunt for their family. Stress and anxiety and resentment over finances may lead to domestic disputes or even full-blown abuse and violence.

How it keeps people in poverty

Children who don’t have family support may have a much harder time pulling themselves out of poverty as adults. Similarly, single parents who don’t have support from family members or spouses have trouble getting out of poverty, as most—if not all—of their time and resources may go into making ends meet. This can severely impact the amount of time they spend with their kids and their involvement in their kids’ life.

How to help or learn more

“Reduce poverty by improving housing stability” – Urban Institute: Read about the critical role housing plays in family stability and poverty.

United Way: Local United Way branches, like United Way of Greater Philadelphia and New Jersey and United Way of Central Iowa, often have volunteer and advocacy opportunities for those who want to mentor and support low-income families.

Children’s Institute Inc. : Volunteer with organizations like the Children’s Institute in Los Angeles to support at-risk children and families.

Power of Fathers – The Power of Fathers Chicago: Fatherhood mentorship groups, like Power of Fathers, can help low-income dads connect with their kids and play important, active roles in their lives. Partner with organizations like these and advocate for helpful policy and initiatives.

Community Building

How it affects people in poverty

Poverty can be socially isolating. Even though some communities may have access to social services and other resources to help low-income individuals, families and communities, those affected by poverty may not feel safe or comfortable accessing those resources. Accepting help from outsiders who have no personal experience with the struggles associated with poverty can feel uncomfortable or unsafe. Low income communities may also have limited infrastructure for people to come together, talk about issues, advocate for and with each other, offer support to one another and build a community for themselves. Limited opportunities for community building inhibit low-income people’s ability to communicate with each other and share resources that can help collectively pull them out of poverty.

How it keeps people in poverty

Many resources and organizations sometimes focus more on providing services and less on building communities that allow low-income individuals and families to sustain themselves and connect with one another. Isolation and stigma can keep people from connecting and empathizing with each other. Preventing these sorts of connections within communities can negatively impact people’s mental health, support systems and access to resources.

How to help or learn more

“Trauma Informed Community Building: The Evolution of a Community Engagement Model in a Trauma Impacted Neighborhood”: Learn about trauma-informed community building and the impact it can have on low-income and at-risk neighborhoods.

“Acknowledging trauma, improving communities” – Urban Institute: Gain a better understanding of why it’s difficult for outsiders to create authentic, trauma-informed communities, and then check out this guide (PDF) to aid in your community building efforts.

Hacienda Community Development Corp.: The Hacienda Community Development Program in Portland, Oregon, serves as an example of addressing economic disparity within specific communities. The Mercado, one of HCDC’s initiatives, helps Latinx entrepreneurs establish and sustain food and retail businesses at the Mercado, which also serves as a community and cultural space. Research community development organizations in your area, and contact them to learn more about their programs and ways to get involved.

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

Work with advocacy groups and work to develop measures and policies that the public can vote into effect. Advocates may also work in their communities to help voters learn about legislation they may want to support, like through direct communication, or street teams, and social media or yard sign campaigns to increase public awareness of issues and measures.

Raising awareness can also involve promoting volunteer organizations in your community, so other people who want to help are not only aware of specific issues in their area but where they can go and what they can do to help take those issues on.

Resources to get started

Shriver Center on Poverty Law – Advocate Training: The Shriver Center on Poverty Law provides online, in-person and hybrid advocate training courses to help advocates understand poverty issues and become more effective in their advocacy efforts.

CLASP | Policy Solutions That Work For Low-Income People: CLASP is a national anti-poverty advocacy nonprofit working to push into effect policies that help low-income people and communities of color. Stay informed, donate or apply to be a CLASP staff member.

ACLU – Take Action: The American Civil Liberties Union is a well-established advocacy nonprofit that addresses a range of issues, including poverty. Find local and national advocacy opportunities here.

RESULTS: This advocacy group seeks out volunteers and provides training to help them become effective advocates for poverty-focused policy change.

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

Donate to a direct-action group in your community that targets one or more facets of poverty. You may also check to see if they need resource donations as well as money donations.

Donate to a state or national group with a track record of successfully pushing good policy into effect.

Resources to get started

STEPS Guide to Responsible Charitable Giving: Take a look at our guide to charitable giving to get tips, advice and resources that can help connect you with meaningful anti-poverty organizations.

Economic Justice Archives – Non Profit News: Nonprofit Quarterly is an online publication dedicated to nonprofit news. Brush up on current topics in economic justice to find issues that stand out to you before you donate.

Friends and Community: If you’re not sure where to donate, look to your friends or trusted members of your community for advice. They may be able to point you to organizations in your community that align with your ethics.

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

Work directly with affected communities by volunteering at your food bank, free clinic or library-sponsored adult literacy program. These are often well-established groups with a lot of experience working with volunteers, so they can be a great option for new and seasoned volunteers alike. They can also point you to other volunteer organizations in the community if you find it’s not the right fit.

If you have specific skills, like grant writing, accounting or marketing, you may be able to lend them to an organization in your area. Research orgs that align with your ethics and interests, and reach out to them explaining how you’d like to help.

Resources to get started

VolunteerMatch: VolunteerMatch is an online search tool that makes it easy to find nearby volunteer opportunities. Set different criteria to find a good fit.

Your local library Libraries are excellent places to learn about volunteer opportunities, both in and out of the library. Visit your library or email a librarian and ask about different opportunities to work with low-income neighbors.

Campus groups, career counselors or for-credit opportunities Your school can often point you toward volunteer opportunities nearby. Many campus groups, clubs and initiatives are service-oriented, like Columbia University’s Community Impact program. Your school career counselors may be able to help you find opportunities related to your academic and career goals as well. Some degree programs may even have community service opportunities baked in. For example, the Williams College Center for Learning in Action offers the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program, which is a for-credit economics course as well as a community service program that provides income tax assistance for low-income community members.

Your local food bank. You can volunteer at the food bank directly, if you’d like, but food banks are also often well-versed in other resources and organizations serving at-risk members of the community. Food bank staff may be able to help you find an organization that meets your skills and interests.

Earn a Degree to Join the Fight

Public Health

Poverty has a significant negative impact on individual and community health. A degree in public health can give you foundational or in-depth knowledge on the effects poverty has on physical, mental and social well-being of communities, including the indirect impacts poverty has on people who are not low-income, like the spread of communicable disease when people can’t afford healthcare. Public health study often takes a holistic approach to community health, so students may examine negative and positive impacts on public health, resources and methods to improve public health and disparities and inequity in public health.

Community Health Workers and Health Outreach Specialists: These professionals interact with communities directly and provide them with education and resources on health issues. They may help connect individuals and families to free and low-cost health and wellness resources in their neighborhoods and provide information and tips on health and nutrition.

Public Health Researcher and Health Policy Advocate: Researchers and advocates dig into public health issues, like the causes and effects of poverty on overall public health, and help increase public understanding of the connections between poverty and public health. Researchers may use their knowledge to help develop and advocate for policies that address poverty as a means of improving public health, and vice versa.

Social Work

Social work degrees help students learn about the huge range of social, structural and health issues that affect different people and communities as well as the specific ways they can help. Social work degrees often allow for specialized study, so those interested in using their degree to target poverty may want to look for programs with social work tracks in community organizing and advocacy, policy and planning or public welfare. However, since many factors fuel the poverty cycle, students who focus on child welfare, mental health and substance abuse, research or school social work can have significant impacts on poverty, too.

Social Worker: Perhaps the obvious choice, these professionals often work directly with individuals and families caught in the poverty cycle. Social workers connect people with resources in their communities that can address a range of factors contributing to their poverty. They may help people get set up with SNAP and other welfare benefits, free and reduced lunch at school, job and training resources, literacy programs, health care and affordable housing resources.

Social and Community Service Manager: Social and community service managers help develop and coordinate social services and related programs that can help at-risk people in their communities, including those trapped in the poverty cycle. For instance, a social and community service manager may coordinate with their organization’s staff, including social workers, and outside organizations to create and implement a mentorship program for low-income youth from schools in the neighborhood. They may devise ways to recruit volunteers, use staff expertise to support the program and create metrics to evaluate the program’s success.

Education

Access to education is a significant and empowering step toward self-advocacy, confidence and the skills needed to rise out of the poverty cycle. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), “living in poverty during early childhood is associated with lower-than-average academic performance that begins in kindergarten and extends through high school.” An education degree can help prepare you to support young students during fundamental developmental stages or work with adults pursuing GEDs or other forms of education and training.

Adult Literacy Instructor: Adult literacy, GED or high school equivalency instructors help adult learners improve their reading, writing and comprehension skills. They may offer adult basic education, English as a second language or high school equivalency classes. Helping adults improve their English and earn a high school diploma can have a significant impact on increasing confidence, job opportunities and self-advocacy skills.

School Counselor: School counselors work in elementary, middle and high schools to help students with social, emotional and academic issues. School counselors may help low-income students and their families by connecting them to school and community resources, like free lunch programs, tutoring and mentorship opportunities, family counseling and support and other social services.

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?

There are many misconceptions about poverty. Some of the most common are:

  • “People are poor because they are lazy, uneducated and make poor choices.”
  • “People who are in poverty are content being poor.”
  • “Most people who are poor are Black.”

Again, there are many misconceptions, but most of them are rooted in either racism, sexism, ageism or preconceived notions about people and their abilities, when actually policies and systems have much more to do with the creation and perpetuation of poverty.

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?

I believe that poverty is such a tough issue to tackle because we’re not being honest about the system that was created to keep it intact. There has always been a “caste system” in this country. That system has always served the rich, as they need the poor to keep them rich. The economy is fed by people who need jobs, so they become employees at the businesses that are owned by the rich. An economy that depends on consumers learned how to make consumers out of even those with the very least. One of the other major reasons poverty is tough to tackle is that many of the programs created to combat poverty are ineffective and counterproductive. They are not created to actually move people from poverty to self-sufficiency, but to actually trap them in poverty longer.

I honestly haven’t seen much being done at scale that could help eradicate poverty. I’m actually seeing the opposite. I’m seeing people getting trapped in low-wage jobs that keep them dependent on public subsidies. I’m seeing a lack of proactive strategies that can help end the cycle of generational poverty, as the education systems in rural and urban low-income communities are not doing enough to prepare children to enter into high-tech jobs, high-paying trade sectors and other livable wage jobs. We must find ways to increase wages in this country to match the actual cost of living. That hasn’t happened in over a decade. The minimum wage has not increased in most of the country to keep up with the cost of living, and this is impacting housing stability, medical costs and every other basic need.

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

One of the very most important things we all must do to help eradicate poverty is to check our own implicit biases about poverty and the people who suffer because of it. There are so many messages about poverty that have existed in our society for so long that they can’t help but to seep into our consciousness. We believe that people need to work harder in order to escape poverty, and we all know that hard work is important for our survival, but a lot of people are working from sunup to sun down in multiple jobs, and those jobs will never get them out of poverty because they don’t pay livable wages. Many of us were told that if we went to college, we were guaranteed a pathway out of poverty, and that’s not always true. Student loan debt can keep people in debt and therefore poor even longer, even with a college degree.

The one thing that can really help people get out of poverty is “social capital”. We all have the ability to share our networks and resources with those who are working to get out of poverty. How does “social capital” work? An example of social capital can be connecting someone who is looking for work to a connection that you have to a job opportunity based on your direct relationship with someone in a decision-making position.

Lastly, JUST LISTEN. Sometimes the most important thing you can do is listen, learn and change your perspective.

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

One of the most impactful ways to assist people caught in the poverty cycle is to pay attention and study policies and systems that perpetuate poverty. They include: the political system, educational system, housing policies, corporate responsibility, health systems and criminal justice. All of these issues directly impact poverty in this country. Pay attention to how our local, state and federal politicians address these systems. Vote accordingly, and advocate for change at every opportunity.  

READ: Read, research and study the historical significance of poverty and how our society has been impacted by it.  

FOLLOW THE MONEY: Poverty is profitable. From housing to banking to prisons, people are capitalizing and profiting from the impacts of poverty.

TALK TO PEOPLE: Find ways to have REAL conversations with people who are actually living in poverty. You will most likely find that they are the hardest working, resilient and resourceful people you will ever meet. They will also tell you that most of the things you thought you knew about poverty are wrong.

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?

The thing I would most like students who are thinking of serving the public to know is that beyond the issues and economic identifiers we use to determine a person’s worth in society, they are human beings. They are people who have the same hopes and dreams for their children and loved ones as everybody else. They have ideas, opinions and solutions. They deserve dignity, respect and to not be judged and humiliated because of their economic condition.