When Damien Paul was a child, his father purposefully disabled himself to capitalize on a work-related incident. His family of five survived on a lone disability check every month and eventually qualified for food stamps. Their lives became so precarious that they eventually moved into his grandmother’s basement then to the West Virginia Panhandle.
Paul’s situation isn’t a unique one, however. Living in poverty is a reality for millions of Americans across race and gender lines. In 2015, 13.5 percent of Americans lived in poverty, and America has relative poverty rates higher than most other wealthy nations. While many believe poverty is based on bad luck, a bad upbringing or simply laziness, the real reasons that Americans remain below the poverty line have more to do with our history than an individual’s ability to pull themselves up by the bootstraps and thrive.
“There is a lot of research that exists [about] intergenerational mobility,” says Tazra Mitchell, senior policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “Economic mobility in America is very sticky. 40 percent of people born in the bottom rung stay there, and if you are in the top fifth, 40 percent of those adults stay there. We call that the stickiness. That raises questions—how much of the American Dream actually exists?”
According to a study by the Economic Mobility Project, economic mobility of families across generations paints a picture that flies in the face of the idea of the American Dream. While it is true that the current generation of adults is better off financially than the previous generation, the clear majority of the income growth has gone to the top fifth percent of society. The study also points out that a child’s economic standing as an adult is most heavily influenced by the economic standing of their parents.
“If you look at that data by race, especially for black men, you see that black men in the middle to top, they are more likely to drop down [to a lower economic level],” explains Mitchell. “Children who experience poverty have a hard time escaping it during adulthood, but for children of color, they are far more likely to live in poverty, far more likely to live in persistent poverty—that means poverty for longer times—and they are more likely to live in concentrated poverty, so that double burden of not only living in poverty but also living in a poor neighborhood, that tends to not offer you better schools, better air quality, parks, job opportunities, all of those things that make it essential for living and thriving and reaching that middle class.”
Economic mobility in America is very sticky. Forty percent of people born in the bottom rung stay there, and if you are in the top fifth, 40 percent of those adults stay there.
“America has institutional racism and systemic racism has been written into [its] DNA since its founding. We had centuries of slavery, we had decades of ‘separate but equal’ and Jim Crow, and now we’re facing mass incarceration on top of ongoing job discrimination. So when all of those forces collide, it’s no wonder that people of color aren’t doing as well and have not amassed the wealth that white families have in our country.”
While it might be easy to roll your eyes and assume that this is laying blame on something in our past as opposed to just working through it (Kanye, we’re looking at you), the last 400 years of history shows us that when your starting point is a violent, subjugation of humans for personal gain, those with power will continue to fight to keep that power by any means.
In their study “What We Get Wrong About Closing the Racial Wealth Gap,” Willian Darity Jr. et al point out that although black Americans make up 13 percent of the population, black folks only own less than 1 percent of the wealth in the country. And for poor Americans, white households typically own around $18,000 worth of assets while for black families at or below the poverty line, their household wealth often sits at zero.
Low-income Americans often pay high fees to banks and other institutions or find ways around spending in order to avoid the fees that may bankrupt them at any moment. A 2015 study in The Economist points to the fact that nearly 8 percent of American households don’t even have an active bank account in order to avoid the high fees associated with overdraft or insufficient funds returns. And with most poor Americans living paycheck-to-paycheck, many turn to predatory payday loans, which often plunge families into greater financial ruin. According to the Center for American Progress, the reasons more folks are turning to these loans are multiple: a stagnating economy, housing insecurity, restricted access to low-interest loans and sudden disasters can all lead to predatory loans.
To top it all off, some government programs often use prepaid debit cards to dispense welfare and other social services to recipients. Those who cannot access the bank that issues the cards face high ATM withdrawal fees—losing out on precious dollars they could use for food or other expenses. And if the unexpected happens to a low-income person, like a death, illness or divorce, these folks often spiral into further financial chaos.
Children who experience poverty have a hard time escaping it during adulthood, but for children of color, they are far more likely to live in poverty, far more likely to live in persistent poverty
Unfortunately, however, for children born or plunged into poverty, these sudden shocks may last a lifetime. “Not only is poverty a physical condition of being, but a mental condition that has lasting effects throughout life,” Paul explains. “I sit as a 28-year-old with a stable, well-paying job in an advanced field, constantly fighting poverty anxiety: What if something happens during payroll processing and my direct deposit is delayed? Will this bank holiday cause my account to overdraft? Double-check that you paid this. No, triple-check. Forgo the doctor's appointment—you can wait and see if this is just a cold or not."
So, while a family may be able to dig out of a short-term poverty situation, the lasting effects it can have on the children are incredibly damaging. Mitchell says that 1 in 3 children in the U.S. spends a year of their lives in poverty before their 18th birthday, and that the longer you spend living below the poverty line as a child, the longer the effects of poverty will accumulate and lead to more harm throughout your life into adulthood.
“We know that children in general that experience poverty are worse off compared to their peers,” she says. “They are more likely to enter school behind their peers. Poor children speak fewer words than their peers when they enter school. The ones that are in elementary school, they are more likely to score lower at tests at school. And then less likely to graduate and when they are adults, they tend to work less, and earn less and have worse health outcomes.”
Research done by the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health lists toxic stress as a leading factor in several long-term negative health outcomes directly related to poverty. Toxic stress, caused by repeated exposure to adverse experiences in childhood, changes the architecture of a child’s brain, permanently altering executive function and the hippocampus—the area of the brain that handles memory and learning.
While it may be easy to place blame on the shoulders of those struggling with poverty, it is public policy, racism, and general classism that keep poor people below the poverty line.
For those trying to survive emotionally, financially and physically, the best way to help is to collectively seek change. Things like healthcare, affordable child care and policies to help educate and employ low-income Americans will help curb negative outcomes and, in fact, strengthen (not weaken) our economy. In her study “Promising Policies Could Reduce Economic Hardship, Expand Opportunity for Struggling Workers,” Mitchell points out that the lack of good job networks, discriminatory hiring practices, and lack of childcare and transportation keep people out of employment and in poverty. And that the current administration is actually working to enact policies that will make it tougher for poor Americans to get out of the trenches shows we have a long way to go in income equality.
But evidence points directly to positive outcomes not just for those seeking assistance but also for the economy as a whole when more people are safe, healthy, and actively working and contributing in their own ways. “We can reduce poverty by making sure that parents have opportunities to afford higher education, build skills, earn a living wage, and access the supports that make work possible in the first place (such as affordable child care and paid leave),” Mitchell says. “When parents do better, children do better.”
And that’s what social assistance programming is supposed to do: Give adults opportunities to thrive while lifting up children to ensure that toxic stress doesn’t trickle down to a new generation. Yet, the myth of the Welfare Queen or lazy poor person continue to exist in the U.S. In fact, welfare policy has been shaped by this myth for more than 40 years, blaming victims of oppression and poverty for their own station in society, while simultaneously enacting policies to further hold poor people down. “People don’t understand how bad poverty is in America,” Mitchell explains. “So just educating oneself on the extent and struggle that people live in day-to-day despite doing their best to get ahead is really important. In order to solve poverty, we have to put a face on it. We have to humanize it. These are not just loveless statistics that we talk about and read about every day. These are real children and families and older adults who need all of our support to get by.”
While it may be easy to place blame on the shoulders of those struggling with poverty, it is public policy, racism, and general classism that keep poor people below the poverty line. So the next time an upwardly mobile person blames someone in poverty for their own misfortune, it might be prudent to remind them that the very system that keeps them safe, healthy and rich does so at the cost of those unable to get access to the support they need to thrive.