Generational poverty: An unwanted family heirloom

There is a big difference between generational and situational poverty. I had dinner with a friend a few weeks back and he talked about living in a run-down, rodent-infested apartment while in medical school. His poverty was situational. He was passing through poverty to a more abundant life. He now manages a very successful medical practice.

In 1964, the U.S. Census Bureau established poverty “thresholds” to better evaluate poverty in America. These dollar amounts help determine a family’s or individual’s poverty status. For instance, the 2015 “poverty threshold” for a family of four was $24,259 in annual income; the poverty threshold for a single person less than 65 was $12,331 in annual income.

By some research accounts, nearly 40% of the American population will experience situational poverty at some point between the ages of 25-60. This makes a lot of sense. College students are situationally poor. If you are in between jobs, you may be situationally poor.

Generational poverty is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a poverty that is handed down from generation to generation like a precious family heirloom. However, unlike a precious heirloom, generational poverty has a way of snatching hope from the womb. It is tied to our neighborhoods, to our parents and to our beliefs about what is possible for us.

Overcoming generational poverty isn’t as simple as ‘try harder.’ While effort must be a principal component of any strategy to overcome generational poverty, it is hard to command effort when our mental models are outdated. Imagine you are a child who rarely saw anyone get up and go to work every day and on time. With this perspective, it is a stretch to suggest that a strong work ethic would manifest itself in your life. Absent the cultivation of a different point of view, your childhood experiences would predict your future outcomes. Absent the exposure to mentors and others who can show you a different path, impactful change cannot happen. It is possible to build this mental muscle and change expected outcomes, but it takes time. By successfully cultivating a new mindset and receiving the support of exhorters who will hold you accountable, you can go as far as your vision and talent will take you.

We need to encourage our youth to graduate from high school, choose two-or four-year degrees, trade or military careers, and learn skills that will position them to compete for the jobs of the 21st century.

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