Types of Poverty

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Understanding the different types of poverty is key to helping people get the assistance they need to make a better life for themselves.

What Is Poverty?

Poverty is defined as the condition of not having sufficient resources. Traditionally, we think of poverty in a purely economic sense. However, a person living in poverty may be lacking more than just money. Other resources can include:

  • Emotional, as in the capacity to control and choose responses to a situation without resorting to self-destructive behavior.
  • Mental, as in the basic literacy skills needed to deal with the tasks of everyday life.
  • Physical, as in health and mobility.
  • Support systems, as in friends, family, and community members who can provide assistance in times of crisis.
  • Role models and relationships, as in people who are nurturing and set a good example.
  • Spiritual, as in a belief in divine purpose and guidance - not necessarily participation in organized religion.

All of these resources are connected. For example, people who don't have enough money to pay for health insurance may not get the care needed to treat depression or other forms of mental illness. These untreated problems can lead to difficulty maintaining relationships and the support systems that would help them deal with crisis situations effectively.

Types of Poverty: Situational vs. Generational

Dr. Ruby K. Payne, author of the book A Framework for Understanding Poverty, reports that there are two types of poverty: situational and generational.

Situational Poverty

Situational poverty is a type of poverty that occurs as the result of a specific event. For example:

  • Immigrants who are building a new life in a foreign country.
  • A man who must find a new career after becoming injured or disabled at his previous employment.
  • A mother struggling to make ends meet while she attends school after her divorce.
  • Parents who are having trouble repaying medical debt from the birth of a premature baby.
  • Trouble with finances after the unexpected death of a spouse.

Since situational poverty usually has one specific cause, this type of poverty is most often temporary. Once the main problem has been addressed, the person's financial situation improves. For example, once a single mother finishes her schooling, she has a much greater earning power to help take care of her children.

Generational Poverty

While the American dream is to have your children enjoy a higher quality of life than you, sometimes this does not happen. Generational poverty refers to the ongoing poverty that is passed down from parent to child. In economics, this is sometimes called the cycle of poverty.

There are a number of reasons why generational poverty remains a problem:

  • A mother who grew up in poverty may find it hard to imagine any other way of life for her child; the "culture of poverty" is all she knows.
  • Parents struggling with drug addiction or mental illness that is not properly treated due to a lack of suitable health care options find it hard to properly supervise their young children.
  • Parents who did not attend college themselves simply do not know how to help their teens navigate the world of higher education.
  • Young adults with parents who are living in poverty miss out on the networking opportunities that can lead to finding stable employment.

The Role of Public Assistance

The two types of poverty are portrayed very differently in the media and in policy debates about the best way to help those in need. Situational poverty is often seen as more deserving of help than generational poverty, even though both result in similar daily struggles. This is why the government places limits on the length of time families can receive cash assistance; the goal is to avoid having poverty become a "lifestyle" choice.

While not traditionally thought of as anti-poverty programs, the following are also examples of how the government is working to fight situational poverty:

  • Programs to help high school dropouts earn their GEDs
  • Scholarships for college
  • Day care assistance for single mothers
  • Help paying medical bills

Dealing with generational poverty is much more complicated than resolving the issues associated with situational poverty. The most commonly accepted theory, however, is that education is key. This includes working to improve the quality of education in public schools as well as providing mentors and resources to help low-income children make smart decisions about their future.

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Types of Poverty