Are Situational and Generational Poverty Useful Categories?

Did you know there’s a more recent version of this post? You can read it here.

A lot of popular writers on poverty make a distinction between situational poverty and generational poverty. According to these writers, situational poverty is poverty caused by a particular chance in their circumstances: a lost job, an unexpected medical bill, and so on. Generational poverty, meanwhile, is the poverty that exists when a single family has lived in (or been born into) poverty for at least two generations.

But, while this distinction between situational and generational poverty is popular, is it useful?

I don’t know the answer to that. But as I’ve thought about it more, I’ve grown skeptical. Here are three reasons why.

These Categories Leave People Out

If we took everyone who is living in situational poverty and everyone who is living in generational poverty, we would still have some people living in poverty who aren’t included in either group. For example, someone who has lived in poverty for twenty years doesn’t strike me as ‘situationally’ poor; but if they aren’t in the second generation of their family’s poverty, they aren’t generationally poor. Similarly, someone who is in the first generation of longterm familial poverty isn’t considered generationally poor. There is a gap here that this distinction doesn’t account for.

That wouldn’t be a problem if these were two categories in a larger and more comprehensive system. But they are asked to stand on their own, leaving some people in poverty unaccounted for. One problem with this is that it keeps us from accounting for a family becoming generationally poor. Without looking at people who aren’t situationally poor, but who aren’t yet part of families that are generationally poor, we can’t look at the transition into generational poverty.

These Categories Have Too Much Internal Variety

Related to the first, point, there is a lot of internal variety within situational and generational poverty. Someone who has lived in poverty for three months and someone who has lived in poverty for two years might both be situationally poor, but their circumstances are obviously different. Why don’t we account for differences that might exist between these subgroups.

Similarly, there are families where exactly two generations have lived in poverty and families who have lived in poverty for all of living memory. There are also families who have been poor as far into history as we can follow them. Again, these seem like substantial distinctions. There may be differences between the experience of poverty when someone’s grandparents were not poor (and, therefore, other family members might have wealth) and that experience when no known ancestor has had wealth.

When we divide poverty into these two broad categories, we miss those potentially revealing distinctions. Again, this might be solved by having a larger system in which these were just two super-categories, but that isn’t the case here. Instead, we’re asked to believe that diverse situations and experiences can be accounted for by just two categories.

These Categories Explain Too Much

This is the biggest problem I have: situational and generational poverty as asked to explain too much. A page at Portland State University – which adds ‘working class poverty’ to the mix, makes claims like:

  • People living in generational poverty “never knew anyone who benefited from education,” and
  • People living in generational poverty “never knew anyone who moved up or was respected in a job.”

Those are what we might call ‘bold claims’. Someone living in generational poverty might not have anyone in their family or neighborhood who has benefitted from education, but the idea that they would know no one who has seems unlikely: the people teaching their children, the physician at the urgent care clinic, and so on have benefitted from their education.

Of course, the most famous person who makes bold use of the distinction between situational and generational poverty is Ruby Payne, who manages to ascribe different cultures and linguistic traditions to the two groups. In fact, one of the key differences for her is that “the attitude in generational poverty is that society owes one a living,” while “in situational poverty the attitude is often one of pride and a refusal to accept charity.”((Ruby Payne et alBridges Out of Poverty, Kindle Edition (Highlands: aha! Process Inc., 1999), Kindle Locations 699-700)) These are all huge differences, especially considering that no differences within situational or generational poverty are noted.


As I said at the beginning, I don’t know whether situational and generational poverty are useful categories or not. I’m skeptical for the reasons I listed, but I’m also not ready to just cast them aside.

Perhaps they would be useful as part of a bigger system, or as categories with sub-categories, or as part of a multi-axis system of considering poverty. As they stand however, they strike me as arbitrary categories that let people make quick, value-laden judgements (as Payne does).

There has to be something better.

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