Everybody knows that the fight was fixed,
the poor stay poor and the rich get rich.
That's how it goes.
In the United States, there exists a deeply held belief that the poor can rise to the ranks of the middle-class or upper-class through hard work and perseverance. Examples abound. Most of us know of someone who started off poor and ended up rich. The tendency is to celebrate these outliers and to ignore the masses that stay poor. Here, we examine the masses that stay poor, and the circumstances that conspire to keep them poor.
“Being poor matters a lot,” states Corcoran (1995:261), who studied four ways in which poverty is transmitted from generation to generation. First, low-income parents…have low incomes. They raise their children in disadvantaged neighborhoods with lower quality schools, fewer good role models, fewer job networks, and less social control. These children are likely to have poorer health, delays in physical development, more stress, a less stimulating environment, and lower cognitive skills. They are likely to acquire less schooling, make less money, work fewer hours, and cycle in and out of poverty as adults.
Second, low-income parents have other disadvantages. They have less schooling themselves. A poor family is more likely to be headed by a woman, which leads to less access to community resources and higher rates of high school dropout, teen pregnancy, and joblessness (even when income is held constant). In addition (and the subject of much debate), low IQs may contribute to parental poverty, and those IQs may be passed genetically.
Third, low-income parents are often mired in a stigma-free welfare system that leads to self-defeating attitudes and poor work ethics, which are passed on to children. Girls are more likely to drop out of high school, have children out of wedlock, and go on welfare. Boys are more likely to drop out of high school, father children out of wedlock, avoid work, and break the law. The negative effect of welfare use is much stronger if the welfare is received during the child’s adolescence as opposed to the child’s early years, and if the welfare use is long term.
Fourth, well-paying manufacturing jobs have been shifting from urban areas (where the poor live) to suburban areas. This causes an outmigration of the middle class (and a reduction in the tax base and in public services), while leaving the poor highly concentrated, socially isolated, and unemployed. Many of these parents are unable to teach their children strategies for job networking, risk taking, and confidence building; however, they may teach their children ways of dressing, talking, dealing with authority figures, and relating to small groups that will hinder their ability to land a job.
Barton (2003:1-37) focuses on conditions that lead to differences in achievement between students from poor and non-poor families. “This is a search for the roots—those aspects of the life and school experience found to be correlated with school achievement,” he writes (Barton 2003:1). At home, children from poor families are more likely to have been of low birth weight, to have been exposed to lead paint or pipes, to be hungry, to live in single-parent households, and to change schools during the academic year. They are less likely to be read to by parents, and they watch more television.
At school, students from poor families have higher class size and less-experienced and less-proficient teachers, with higher rates of teacher absenteeism and turnover. There are fewer computers and less internet access in classrooms, and fewer students pursue a rigorous curriculum. These schools are more likely to have street gangs present.
Inner-city joblessness is the target of Wilson’s research (2000:300-310). He lists three reasons for the scarcity of jobs for the inner-city poor: the computer revolution, the internationalization of jobs, and the suburbanization of jobs. He examines the impact on children of parental joblessness versus parental poverty. “The consequences of high neighborhood joblessness are more devastating than those of high neighborhood poverty,” he writes (Wilson 2000:301). Work in a formal economy provides a framework for daily activities, with expectations and goals; it requires regularity and consistency; it demands discipline. A child growing up in a home with employed adults will tend to develop good habits, such as "a recognition of the hierarchy found in most work situations, a sense of personal efficacy attained through the routine management of financial affairs, and endorsement of a system of personal and material rewards associated with dependability and responsibility” (Wilson 2000:301).
Wilson also asserts that the social conditions of the inner-city poor make them less desirable as employees. In the greater Chicago area, an overwhelming majority of employers—both white and black—expressed negative views about inner-city poor, including a lack of reading and language skills and poor grooming.
Wilson’s work is bolstered by that of Small and Newman (2001:23-45), which examines how cultural and behavioral patterns perpetuate the conditions of the poor. “Long-term unemployment generates a low self-efficacy among urban dwellers, making it difficult for them to take advantage of economic opportunities if and when these arise,” they write (Small and Newman 2001:38). People find it difficult to start working, even when jobs become available. Neighborhood poverty can cause residents to develop a culture that is directly opposed to the norms and values of the middle class, and consequently reject employment.
They are also likely to reject marriage. Once the poor are isolated in neighborhoods—without role models, job networks, or social networks of employed people—adolescents have a difficult time envisioning success for themselves. Small and Newman offer three possible cultural explanations for the high incident of teenage births among the urban poor: a shared code whereby promiscuity (versus virginity) improves a girl’s social status; a girl’s desire to have a satisfying relationship with a child (as opposed to the unsatisfying relationships she has with parents, teachers, and boyfriends); and a link between loneliness and poverty.
Ore (2003:182-204) also links culture to intergenerational poverty. She defines “cultural capital” as the “social assets that include beliefs, values, attitudes, and competencies in language and culture…the ideas and knowledge people draw upon as they participate in social life, including ‘proper’ attitudes toward education; socially approved dress and manners; and knowledge about books, music, and other forms of high and popular culture” (Ore 2003:193). The rich usually decide what counts as cultural capital, discounting the values of the poor. And the educational system perpetuates class stratification by unevenly applying the lessons of cultural capital: Schools in poor neighborhoods focus on rote memorization, while schools in affluent neighborhoods focus on creative and critical thinking and the application of abstract principles to problem solving.
Schwarz and Volgy (1992:159-173) take a very practical view as they examine two working families living at 150 percent of the poverty line. “Life is grim,” the authors conclude (1992:169). They describe the economy budget that must be embraced by families at this income. At a very modest level, they can pay for food, an apartment, utilities, an older car, clothing, personal/incidental expenses (tampons, light bulbs), and some medical care. They cannot afford movies, museums, concerts, ball games, or any establishment that charges admission; preschool, summer camp, lessons or any activity that charges a fee; books, magazines, music recordings, or toys (except for a $50 per year allotment for each family member for birthday and holiday presents); or pets, children’s allowances, cable TV, fast-food or restaurant meals, vacations, haircuts, alcohol, cigarettes, charitable donations, life insurance, college funds, pension plans, or emergencies.
To some degree, this paints a happy picture of a frugal family, eating wholesome made-from-scratch meals at home, spending time at libraries and parks, and avoiding many types of over-indulgence. But (in addition to living without a financial safety net), this level of near-poverty offers a paucity of opportunities to learn financial responsibility (no allowance), devotion and selflessness (no pets), and public manners (no restaurants). Apartment living doesn’t allow for frugal choices such as growing fruits and vegetables in the backyard, hanging laundry to dry, or keeping cars, bikes, and tools safe and out of the elements in a locked garage. One cannot depend on stable and well-known neighbors with whom to swap services such as babysitting or sewing. And a world can grow small without travel, and with limited cultural and educational opportunities.
In her lyrical and timeless analogy, Frye (1983:4) writes: “Consider a birdcage. If you look very closely at just one wire in the cage, you cannot see the other wires.” When the cage is observed so closely, it’s unclear why a bird—eager to escape—wouldn’t just fly around the wire. It’s necessary to step back and look at the entire cage. “It is perfectly obvious that the bird is surrounded by a network of systematically related barriers, no one of which could be the least hindrance to its flight, but which, by their relations to each other, are as confining as the walls of a dungeon” (Frye 1983:5).
And so it is with long-term poverty. Any of the obstacles, taken individually, might be overcome. A person might be able to clear the hurdle of a mediocre school or a less-than-stimulating home environment, and find success. But when taken in totality—when faced with hunger, stress, lower cognitive skills, fractured families, social isolation, neighborhood crime, teen pregnancy, an oppositional culture, poor work habits, joblessness, and a marked lack of community support and role models—it comes as no surprise that people are unable to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. They flounder, and the rest of us watch, unwilling or unable to help.
Barton, Paul. 2003. Parsing the Achievement Gap: Baselines for Tracking Progress. Educational Testing Service 1-37.
Corcoran, Mary. 1995. Rags to Rags: Poverty and Mobility in the United States. Annual Review of Sociology 21:237-267.
Frye, Marilyn. 1983. The Politics of Reality: Essays in Feminist Theory. Trumansburg, New York: The Crossing Press.
Ore, Tracy E., ed. 2003. The Social Construction of Difference and Inequality: Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Schwarz, John E. and Thomas J. Volgy. 1992. Economic Self-Sufficiency in Present-Day America. In Great Divides: Readings in Social Inequality in the United States. Thomas M. Shapiro, ed. Pp. 159-173. Mountain View, California: Mayfield Pub.
Small, Mario Luis and Katherine Newman. 2001. Urban Poverty After The Truly Disadvantaged: The Rediscovery of the Family, the Neighborhood, and Culture. Annual Review of Sociology 27:23-45.
Wilson, William J. 2000. Jobless Ghettos. In The Social Construction of Difference and Inequality: Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality. Tracy E. Ore, ed. Pp. 300-310. New York: McGraw-Hill.