What are some of the causes of poverty?
To answer this question, we should start by asking another: Just who are the "poor?" What do we mean when we use that term?
In fact, if we assume "poor" to mean living below the level of income needed to ensure basic needs - an adequate amount of nutritious food to gain and maintain good health at any age, intact clothing appropriate to the season, and shelter that is weather-tight, secure, and safe - then the poor are easily identified. They're the folks who simply don't have enough to keep themselves above water financially. In developed countries, they may be on welfare, live in subsidized or substandard housing, and be dependent on government assistance. In the developing world, they're often on the edge of starvation, have high rates of infant mortality and preventable disease (malaria, for example), may be homeless, and are usually the first to suffer when disaster strikes or times are bad. (A percentage of the poor in the developed world can be described in similar terms.)
In the U.S., the poor can fall into any of several categories, two of which really aren't relevant to the purpose of this section. One of these is what we might call the intentionally poor, who have chosen, for philosophical or lifestyle reasons, to function with very little money in exchange for living in a particular way. The other group might be called the temporary poor. These are people, often recently-divorced women with children, who might have skills and credentials, but have lost a job, a supporting spouse, or some other form of support. In most cases, they have the ability and the personal network to find jobs, further education, or other ways to solve what are usually temporary financial problems.
These folks may need support, since they're adjusting to a whole new way of living, but that support is usually temporary and either minimal or leading to further education. The author was familiar, several years ago, with a program for "displaced housewives," women who were newly divorced or widowed and hadn't worked recently. The program provided subsidies for courses and career counseling, after which most either went on to four-year institutions or found their way into decent jobs.
The poor that we're concerned with here are those who have no obvious way out of their situation. There are a number of reasons for this. None of them obtains for all those in poverty, but often at least one applies. Furthermore, they're usually interrelated: someone who has low-level skills may have difficulty finding work, which, in turn, may lead to substance abuse or crime, making it even harder to find work. Several factors often work together to keep people in poverty.
Lack of basic skills. Many people who live below the poverty line have problems with reading, writing, and/or math, or lack English proficiency. (While many immigrants to the U.S. come with excellent educational backgrounds, others are not literate in their native language, let alone in English.) This problem also leads to a lack of computer literacy and difficulty in learning new technical skills (because of the necessity to read and understand instructions and manuals, many of which are written at a fairly high level.) It makes it virtually impossible to get and keep any but menial, low-wage jobs.
Lack of employment skills. This may mean both specific job skills beyond a strong back and the ability to sweep a floor, and also the kinds of generalized skills it takes to get and keep a job: getting up on time, making sure you have reliable transportation, treating others at work reasonably, following directions, etc.
One, or a combination of, these two can mire a family in the ranks of the "working poor." One or both parents may have jobs, or, typically, more than one job, but still be unable to earn enough to emerge from poverty. To make matters worse, because they're working at low-wage, menial jobs, they're unlikely to have health insurance, but are ineligible for Medicaid. As a result, they can be working more than 40 hours a week, and still be only a medical emergency away from hunger or eviction.
At the current federal minimum wage in the U.S., a year's pay for a full-time job is under $11,000.00 a year. The federal poverty level for a family of four - which is in itself probably a gross underestimate of what is really needed to provide adequately for basic needs - is just over $19,000.00. The median family income in the U.S. is currently (2005/6) about $44,400.00. About 7.5% of U.S. working families live below the official poverty line, and a total of 27.4% live below twice the poverty line, which is considered the definition of low-income.
Severe physical or intellectual disabilities. Many people with physical disabilities are more than able to thrive in the society, making their disabilities irrelevant because of the strength of their intellects and the force of their personalities. Others, however, are so severely disabled that they are unable to work, and are dependent on public assistance. Those with intellectual difficulties - adults who function at the level of young children, for instance - are also generally dependent on parents or on public assistance. For those who are placed in caring group homes, the quality of life can be high. For those who have no such support and no outside resources, life can be grim.
Alcohol or drug dependency. The relationship here is not necessarily that poverty leads to addiction, but rather that addiction leads to poverty. There is probably little question that poor neighborhoods provide more opportunity to use drugs and alcohol early and often; but there is also little question that the purchase of drugs and alcohol drains resources, and that being drug- or alcohol-dependent makes it unlikely that someone will regularly show up to a job that pays reasonably well, or will maintain relationships and stay out of trouble. (There are obviously exceptions to this generalization, but that doesn't mean it's not accurate in most cases.)
To further complicate matters, substance abusers tend to lose their moral compass. To feed their addiction, most will do whatever they can to get the drug they need, and their behavior when they're drunk or high may be offensive or violent. The result is that whatever networks they might have had usually break down fairly quickly. Family and friends will only put up with so much before they withdraw support. Substance abusers often become homeless for just this reason - they no longer have any clean and sober connections that will give them a place to sleep.
A subset of this group is that formed by runaway and "emancipated" homeless adolescents who live on the street. (If an adolescent is "emancipated," it generally means his parents have thrown him out and told him never to come back. This happens to kids as young as 14 or 15, many of whom have no place to go.) They form groups for protection, almost always become drug users, often sell their bodies in order to eat, and are among the hardest of the homeless to contact and serve, because they've learned that it's unsafe to trust anyone.
Mental health issues. When you think of the mentally ill poor, you may picture a homeless person who walks down the street talking to herself or fighting imaginary attackers. Those people certainly exist - in fairly large numbers in some cities - but they aren't the only ones affected by mental health problems. Many are invisible - they act normally, but are unable to function because of depression, mood swing disorders, or the results of traumatic experiences. They may have the skills and/or education to lead a very different life, but they're unable to do so.
The classic example here is the Vietnam veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), who sees a threat behind every lamppost. Less familiar, but just as powerful, is PTSD caused by domestic violence or the childhood experience of physical or sexual abuse. Some people who've undergone these experiences are emotionally and psychologically affected to the point where they're unable to work or develop relationships. Some of those who can function - and this is true for people with other types of conditions as well - may use addictive substances, particularly alcohol, as medication, because it turns off their conscious thoughts. As a result, it may seem that their problem is alcoholism, when it's actually far more complex.
True hard luck. This is a growing concern, especially for middle class people who may be only one disaster away from poverty. An unexpected medical catastrophe (cancer, a near-fatal car accident), a lost job (or perhaps a lost trade - think about industrial and service jobs that have migrated to Asia), a divorce - any of these can bring expenses or losses that destroy an individual's or family's fragile financial structure. Whatever the reason, it's possible for people to find themselves in a downward spiral that ends in poverty and isolation.
Culture of poverty. The phrase "culture of poverty" has been used to describe the world view of people whose families have been poor for generations. It's difficult to estimate how many of the poor are actually part of this culture, but it definitely exists, and the number who grow up in it is significant. These are people who are raised in poverty, and are never taught the values, attitudes, and habits of mind necessary to become self-sufficient in modern society, largely because their parents weren't taught them, either. They can end up in a cycle of early parenthood, lack of skills and credentials, lack of interest in or respect for education, and lack of belief that life could be any different for them or their children. This cycle can be broken (and is broken more often than most people think), but it takes a change of world view, as well as support for that change and the opportunity to learn new skills and behavior.
This list applies specifically to adults, but a large number of the poor are in fact children. Recent figures (2004) show that 17.8% of children in the U.S. live below the poverty line, as compared to 12.7% of the general population. Fully a third of African-American children are poor, and nearly 29% of Hispanic children, while about 10% of white and Asian children fall into that category.
A majority of poor children live in single-parent families, and virtually all are affected by the same list of reasons for poverty that pertain to adults, because they live with those adults. In addition, because they are poor, they tend to live in places that are less healthy, and more dangerous in terms of crime and the availability of harmful substances and opportunities. They are more likely to attend substandard and unsafe schools, and there is little social support - even if such support exists within their families - for the kind of behavior and thinking that might lead out of poverty.
Andre's purpose is to reconnect people to their Dignity and Honor in Being Human.
We are never far
nurturing the seeds of change
Andre Koen, Facilitator
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