Why Do Some Families Stay Poor?

What is it that allows some folks to claw their way out of poverty while others just seem to get stuck there, for generations?

My spouse says it is attitude. I suspect there is much more to it. Just getting an attitude adjustment won’t necessarily do the trick.

My Dad grew up in a lifestyle I consider to be ‘poor’, although he may not have. His parents were farmers. Grandma and Grandpa both went only through the 6th grade. Their parents before them were farmers with limited education. Yet Grandma and Grandpa worked hard enough to buy their own land and support themselves. They sent two sons through high school and Dad through trade school.

The land they worked so hard to buy had to be given up in the dust bowl days of the depression. The family became sharecroppers on their own land – farming it for the owner and splitting the crops with them. Even so, stories told by family members indicate that Dad and his brother had plenty to eat during school lunches while others had to make do with little.

By the time I came around, Grandma and Grandpa had pieced together a 200 acre farm and owned it free and clear. However, they had no running water or indoor plumbing and they heated with wood or propane and used a wood burning kitchen stove.

Dad married into a more affluent family and Mom and Dad worked hard and saved like crazy. They did well, even paying my and my brother’s way through college.

So why did they make it to middle class instead of staying in poverty?

Ruby K Payne has studied the issue of generational poverty. She identified types of poverty, of which generational is just one. Esther Cepeda in Overcoming Generational Poverty reported that:

“Payne has a 20-item list of the characteristics of generational poverty, which includes constant high levels of background noise, the overvaluation of entertainment as a respite from the exertions of survival, a strong belief in destiny or fate because choices are in low supply, and polarized thinking in which options are hardly ever examined (again, because so few tend to be available). Also pervasive in the culture of poverty is the sense that time isn’t for measuring, that it occurs only in the present, and that the future exists only as a word.”

And quotes her as saying:

“Being proactive, setting goals and planning ahead are not a part of generational poverty. Most of what occurs is reactive and in the moment. Future implications of present actions are seldom considered.”

Persistence and perseverance are also lacking. Even if a child learns to make a plan, if she or he doesn’t have the grit to stick by it and execute it through thick and thin, hard times and good times, that child will likely give up and sink back into poverty.

According to Paul Tough, author of How Children Succeed, the ones who make it are the ones who always had adults around them to show them examples of goal setting, working towards the goals and handling difficulty getting there.

Celia R. Baker in the Deseret News article Fighting poverty with education; hope for breaking the cycle of multi-generational poverty thinks that a parent’s educational attainment levels accurately predict the child’s – the kid thinks it is OK to quit after 6th grade if the parent did.

Yet Dad and his brother went on through high school. My brother and I graduated from college, my brother even obtaining a Master’s degree.

Perhaps it was because my grandparents and parents set up savings accounts for education?

“Research shows that kids who have a savings account in their name, particularly a savings account for college, are more likely to go to college,” says Caroline Ratcliffe, an economist who co-authored the study “Child Poverty and Its Lasting Consequence,” by the Washington, D.C.-based think tank the Urban Institute.

I think it has more to do with Dr. Paynes ‘hidden rules’ among classes though. In A Framework for Understanding Poverty, she lists these hidden rules as the unspoken cues and habits of a group and claims that schools favor the middle class cues.

For those in generational poverty (defined as poverty extending over 3 generations so that no family member living remembers anyone who succeeded), the cues and habits focus on entertainment (as a relief from the survival struggle) and relationships.

For those firmly ensconced in generations of middle class, it is all about work and achievement.

For those with generational wealth, she says the cues and habits relate more to financial, political and social issues.

This, I believe was the key factor in my family’s climb to middle class and hopefully generational wealth. The focus of all generations I remember was always on work and achievement. Dad watched his parents lay plans to climb out of the depression and saw them execute the plans through trips across the country to find work. He watched them work hard and overcome obstacles to once again become land owners.

I watched my parents grow their ability and wealth from a circumstances where they lived in a rural 4 room house with no indoor plumbing and a coal stove for heat to a comfortable suburban life.

Our sons watched us work hard, go after bigger and better careers and build wealth.

Hopefully, the grand children are watching our hard working grown children and learning those same lessons, even as we try to help them also start to develop cues and habits of the generational wealthy – those cues and habits related to financial, political and social issues.

So maybe, after all, attitude does hold the key.

What are your observations on families climbing out of poverty?