What should we do about the cycle of poverty?

By | January 5th, 2016

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.

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