According to the 2010 Census data, the poverty rate for Americans is up to 15.1 percent, matching the rate from 1993. 46.2 million people are living below the poverty line, a level delineated by earning less than $22,314 a year for a family of four or $11,139 a year for an individual. 22 percent of children under the age of 18 are living in poverty.
It’s easy to say that a family of four earning $22,314 a year can’t have it all that bad. After all, in developing countries, families get by on much less. That’s not always a relevant analogy because living in a developing country has little bearing on a person’s experience living in the United States.
Poverty is a societal problem, and it needs societal solutions. These problems tend to be ignored when the middle class is concerned with their own suffering, however, and the upper middle class and the wealthy are concerned with investments accounts losing value. Assuming equal economic opportunity for all in the United States, it comes down to individual decisions to avoid poverty. The rags-to-richest stories of the family who beat the odds to break free from poverty to thrive in the middle class are always popular, but it’s not that common.
Here are ways that individuals and society as a whole can reduce poverty at home or across the country.
The key to reducing poverty is not particularly education itself, it’s the idea that education is something to be valued. Requiring quality education from grade school through high school is only part of the solution. Parents need to be equipped to continue the learning at home. For families in poverty, the parents may not be able to support their children’s cognitive development. It’s not necessarily that the parents are uneducated, but they might be unavailable to be there for the children because they are stuck in low-paying jobs with schedules that conflict with their ability to help the kids with homework.
From a societal standpoint, more needs to be done to support education in poverty-stricken areas, but the answer isn’t just giving money to schools for more materials. Schools need to attract highly-qualified teachers. Many individuals who could be great teachers don’t even consider teaching as a profession because talented people are in demand in the private sector and can find better-paying jobs in their field.
There need to be more programs that help kids develop into professional young adults. A financial company with which I’m familiar offers an intern program in a city with one of the lowest socio-economic profiles in the state. For two months, high school students had the opportunity to see what it was like working in an office (well, a cubicle). Some may have been scared away from the middle-class corporate job, but others will see the possibility to earn a living and be mostly financially independent.
There should be some type of encouragement or assistance for parents who for whatever reason can’t assist their children with learning outside of school, including affordable or free after-school programs. Most importantly, there needs to be instilled in the public the idea that education is one thing that can practically ensure a life above the poverty line.
Families considered working poor might receive a paycheck or might receive their pay in cash. Either way, there’s a general mistrust of the financial industry. Rather than banks, many families living in poverty visit check cashing storefronts or payday lenders. Depending on where they live and the transportation available, these operations may be all that’s convenient, making banking as in its middle-class form all but impossible.
Sometimes the difference between living in poverty and not is having savings. Establishing savings is hard enough for people not living in poverty; it’s even more difficult for those who are. The idea is simple: manage to put 10% of your earnings aside. It’s not so easy when all you can afford is food for your family. The key is to start as small as possible and to make saving a priority.
Avoiding debt may seem impossible as well. Families living under the poverty line may not have access to mainstream credit options, like credit cards and mortgages, and instead need to make use of payday loans and short-term advances. To say that debt is slavery minimizes the true horribleness of real slavery, but there are certainly some aspects in common. For example, when your life is consumed by interest payments, the work you do doesn’t result in money for you and an increase of wealth, your work exists only to pay back your creditors and you have little to show for it at the end of the day.
Finally, we should be encouraging more participation among the poor in mainstream financial institutions like banks and credit unions. The finance industry won’t go for it for a variety of reasons, mainly due to the fact that these customers would not be profitable in the way banks like their customers to be profitable. They don’t make large deposits and they don’t qualify for credit cards. Many mainstream banks follow in the footsteps of payday lenders offering similar products at severely high prices when allowed.
Find better jobs
Leave the minimum-wage or just-above-minimum-wave jobs for middle-class teenagers who need a job to buy their first car. With a high school education, even someone living in poverty can find a new opportunity that pays better. If you can earn enough so that you can afford food and put money into a savings account or pay off debt, it will be much easier to move out of poverty. I know what it’s like to feel trapped in a job, and when you’re counting on every single cent of income, it can be difficult making any changes that might upset the pattern.
Beyond valuing education, completing high school, managing money, and using mainstream savings vehicles, poverty is often the result in life choices that end up making all of the above more difficult. Having children at a point when a family is not equipped to do so is one way to increase the chances that life will be difficult. A high school child having a baby of her own will face difficulties completing education, particularly if the family is already within poverty. This isn’t The Secret Life of an American Teenager, this is people already struggling somehow needing to find a way to make life work with a new set of responsibilities and expenses.
It’s easy for someone on the outside to look at poverty and see the possibilities for improvement. It’s easy to say that we live in a country where everyone has an equal opportunity and the fact a family lives in poverty is that family’s own fault. There are societal and cultural pressures that make class mobility difficult, though. Many families appear to be fully functional in poverty, but there is untapped potential.
You can’t just tell someone that they can take control of their financial life to improve their condition and place in the world and expect it to work. Families in poverty must see the opportunities for themselves and find a way to break through. It helps to have an a philosophy based on an internal locus of control, but if there’s nobody to guide a family through this realization, it’s unlikely to happen.
To summarize, here are some keys to moving past poverty:
- Belief that everyone has an opportunity to succeed, despite their upbringing and community.
- Philosophy that anyone can control his or her own outcomes.
- Recognition of the value of education and the support for learning outside the school.
- Ability to save even a little bit of income and trusting that saving to a bank to earn compound interest.
- Desire to eliminate debt, especially patterns of repeat debt like payday loans.
- Opportunities for jobs beyond minimum wage.
- Rejection of having children too early.
Published or updated September 14, 2011.