Situational Poverty and Generational Poverty Are Not Useful Categories

This post is based, in part, on this post from 2017. It also incorporates some ideas from Radical Charity: How Generosity Can Save the World (And the Church).

One of the strangest things that poverty skeptics try to do is redefine poverty. Most of us have a pretty intuitive definition of ‘poverty’: it means something like ‘not having enough money’ or ‘not having enough wealth’. Charity skeptics tend to make poverty about something other than money. Ruby Payne, for example, writes that “the ability to leave poverty is more dependent upon other resources than it is upon financial resources.” These other resources include emotional resources, mental resources, spiritual resources, physical resources, support systems, relationships, knowledge of the hidden rules of class, and coping strategies. For Payne, poverty is a little bit about money, but it’s mostly about attitude and culture.1Ruby Payne et al. Bridges Out of Poverty: Strategies for Professionals and Communities. Highlands, TX: aha! Process, Inc., 2009. Kindle locations 196-237.

That way of defining poverty is problematic enough, but what I want to talk about here is a particular way that charity skeptics define different kinds of poverty.

When we think about poverty as not having enough money, it’s natural to ask, “Enough money to do what?” And that makes it natural to distinguish between absolute poverty and relative poverty. Someone who lives in absolute poverty doesn’t have enough money to meet basic needs. Someone who lives in relative poverty doesn’t have enough money to participate meaningfully in their community. It’s a simple enough distinction, and it does a good job of answering the question.

Similarly, when we think about poverty as not having enough wealth, it’s natural to ask, “What kind of wealth?” Here, we might distinguish between income poverty, asset poverty, and liquid asset poverty. income is how we normally measure poverty: a household income below a certain threshold means that a family is poor. Asset poverty expands on that idea to include the household’s potential financial cushion: someone who lives in asset poverty doesn’t have a big enough net worth to stay above the poverty line for three months without income. Liquid asset poverty expands on that idea even further to include savings: someone who lives in liquid asset poverty doesn’t have enough savings to remain above the poverty line for three months without income and without losing important assets like a home or business. Again, it’s a simple enough distinction, and it does a good job of answering the question.

But charity skeptics don’t use these distinctions. Instead, they favor a popular distinction that speaks to the cultural aspects of poverty: generational poverty and situational poverty. Under this rubric, generational poverty is present when one family has had two or more generations born into poverty. So if you were born into poverty and your parents were born into poverty, you live in generational poverty (and the same is true if your grandparents and great-grandparents were born into poverty, as well). Situational poverty covers everyone else who lives in poverty.

It’s easy to see how this distinction plays into the idea of poverty culture. Payne occasionally uses immigration as a crude metaphor for the movement from one economic class to another. Payne suggests that people moving from one economic class to another need to learn new languages, customs, and practices, just like people who move from one country to another. And, of course, over a couple of generations, the ‘immigrant’ family might find their place in their new setting (or they might not). Class is culture, poverty is one kind of class culture, and moving from one class to another is just as daunting as moving from one country to another.2Payne et al. Bridges Out of Poverty. Kindle locations 1118-1164.

Of course, we wouldn’t imagine that we could divide all visitors from a foreign country either as tourists or immigrants and leave it at that. Those categories aren’t useful on their own. And categories like situational poverty and generational poverty also are not useful. And they’re not useful for two major reasons.

First, there is too much internal variety in each of these categories. For example, someone who has lived in poverty for three months and someone who is in the first generation of their family born into poverty both live in situational poverty. Putting both of those people in one category strikes me as ridiculous on its face. Their experiences are obviously going to be very different. Similarly, someone who is in the second generation of their family born into poverty and someone whose family has been living in poverty since time immemorial both live in generational poverty. And again, their experiences are almost certainly very different. Two categories that are this broad obscure important differences within each of them.

Second, these categories are asked to explain too much. For example, 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.”

Similarly, Payne ascribes 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.”3Payne et al. Bridges Out of Poverty. Kindle locations 699-700.

These are what we might call bold claims. Someone who lives in generational poverty might not have personally benefitted from a post-secondary education, but the idea that they would never have known anyone who benefitted from education seems… unlikely. Similarly, the idea that people in one kind of poverty almost universally have an attitude of utter entitlement while people in the other kind of poverty almost universally have an attitude of pride is nothing more that classist stereotyping.

Effectively, the distinction between situational and generational poverty is asked to explain everything about why some people successfully navigate the path out of the poverty while others don’t. At the very least, it tells people where to put the blame: the situationally poor person with a sense of pride is probably kept down by the social systems arrayed against them; the generationally poor person who feels that society owes them a living is kept in poverty by their own bad attitude.

In the end, the distinction between situational and generational poverty—and especially the heavy reliance on these categories—does little more than provide a way to make quick, value-laden, evidence-free judgments (as Payne and other charity skeptics routinely do). We have so many other ways to classify and sub-classify poverty that we can safely abandon these useless and prejudicial categories.

Footnotes   [ + ]

Food Stamps and Fungibility

A week or so ago, a Facebook friend of mine posted about his experience meeting someone outside of a Chicago grocery. The person he met tried to sell him food stamps, offering $100 in purchases on her EBT card for $80 in cash. My friend thought this was funny, because this person was doing what he thought was a terrible job of negotiating. And, of course, the comments on his post were predictable: this person doesn’t have a job, this is taxpayer money, and so on.

But here’s the thing: that person trying to sell access to her EBT card at a discount makes sense. It’s a sensible thing to do.

And here’s why.

First, food stamps (or, more accurately, SNAP benefits, usually stored on an EBT card) are non-fungible. People can only spend those dollars on things that the state has decided that she can spend them on: bread, cereal, fruit, meat, dairy products and so on. People cannot spend those benefits on alcohol, pet food, hot food, or anything that would be eaten in the store.

And that’s all fine and good. But it also means that people can’t spend them on household supplies that you might find in the store, like paper towels, toilet paper, soap, or feminine hygiene products. And, of course, it also means that people can’t spend them on other necessary things like medicine, doctor visits, rent, utilities, or clothing.

Food stamps are for food only. And as long as the person needs food, that works fine.

Second, poverty involves a lot of trade-off thinking. People who don’t live in poverty often think of prices in terms of money. For example, since I had to buy a new dress shirt recently, I know that dress shirts at a certain store cost about $89 plus tax. But we can also think of prices in terms of goods. I could think of that shirt as two dinners out or a month’s internet bill. People living in poverty often think in terms of trade-offs: every purchase made means being unable to make a different purchase later.

And people living in poverty think that way because they have to. When someone doesn’t have enough money to make it through a month, she has to decide what necessities she will buy and which ones she’ll try to forego. This person who my friend met may have had a car repair, a rent payment, or medication that she needed to pay for. And she may have been willing to give up a certain number of meals for that.

Food stamps are for food only. When the person needs something else, that doesn’t work at all.

What this person was willing to do was commit benefit fraud (an extremely rare occurrence) to purchase fungibility. And she was willing to pay a premium for it.

And, if what she needed was money for rent, transportation, or heat, that is entirely reasonable.

Consumerist: More Than 40% Of Americans Struggling To Make Ends Meet

The survey, which was conducted in 2016, asked respondents 10 questions, on which they were then given a score from 0 to 100.

In all, the average consumer score was 54. About a third of all adults in the U.S. have financial well-being scores of 50 or below, meaning they struggle to make ends meet or experience material hardship.

Consumerist: More Than 40% Of Americans Struggling To Make Ends Meet

Christopher and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Week

Last week was a rough week for me:

I recently bought a new house and, after some storms, we discovered water in the basement. That led to the discovery of some broken and disturbed asbestos tile, which will need to be abated before we do any finishing work in the basement.

In an act of petty vandalism, someone threw a rock through my car window. Since the amount to replace the window was less than my deductible, insurance didn’t cover it.

I broke my glasses. I have an extra pair, so I can still see (or I wouldn’t be able to write this), and I was due for an eye exam anyway. Still, it sucks.

While it was a difficult week, I’m fully aware of how fortunate I’ve been through all of this. I have savings that can help with the cost of asbestos remediation. I have savings specifically for automotive expenses that can cover the cost of a new car window. And I have vision insurance that will cover an eye exam and most of the cost of a new pair of glasses.

In other words, I have savings and slack. I can absorb a few unexpected expenses as long as they’re not too big.

Many, many people do not have that ability. For these people, asbestos, even with water in the basement, would be something they have to live with. A broken car window would mean putting up a garbage bag (or something else) and getting on with life. Broken glasses would mean living with broken glasses or trading the ability to see with the ability to pay some other bill.

All of us have bad days or bad weeks. But bad days and bad weeks don’t have the same consequences for all of us. That’s an important thing to remember.


Recently, I was talking to a colleague who told me about her need to see a financial planner. Here’s what her reasoning was. When she has money, she is disciplined about saving. When she doesn’t have as much money – when she needs to spend the money she has on other things – she’s not so disciplined. She needs someone to hold her accountable all the time and make sure she’s disciplined about saving.

And, she said, the low-income people she works with need the same thing: someone to make sure their disciplined about saving.

And that struck me as a weird way to use the word ‘discipline.’

Imagine two pieces of rich decadent chocolate cake. One piece is in front of someone who has just had a big meal: an appetizer, house salad, a 16-ounce ribeye, fried, and some asparagus. A feast. That person has eaten so much she feels a little queasy. She says no to the cake.

The other piece is in front of someone who has just been rescued after getting lost on a hiking trip. He hasn’t eaten in three days and is absolutely starving. He gobbles down the cake in what seems like a matter like seconds.

Is either of these people acting on discipline? Is the first person showing discipline? Is the second person showing a lack of discipline?


The difference between the first person and the second person isn’t discipline; it’s need. Of course we’re good at saying ‘no’ when we’re living in abundance. It’s easy to refuse some chocolate cake when we’re full or to put some money into savings when we have extra. And we’re much worse at saying ‘no’ when we’re facing scarcity. It’s hard to refuse the cake when we’re starving or to save money when almost every dollar is going to some necessity.

This is true for my colleague and the low-income families she serves. It’s easy to save when we have extra money. It’s hard to save when we don’t. It has little (if anything) to do with discipline.

What’s particularly fascinating here is the moral dimension to this. We usually understand discipline as a virtue and a sign of good character. People who are disciplined are good. Conversely, we understand a lack of discipline as a sign of poor character. People who don’t show discipline are bad. That’s problematic enough as it is, but there might be some truth in it. Some people might really be undisciplined. And they might be more virtuous if they were able to control their impulses better.

But we make it worse when we confuse discipline and need. If we think that the person who hasn’t eaten in three days is undisciplined because he eats the cake, and we think that being undisciplined is morally suspect, then we eng up saying that being hungry (even after a prolonged period of not eating) is morally wrong.  Similarly, if we think that the person who has just had a feast is disciplined because she refuses the cake, and we think that being disciplined is a virtue, then we end up saying that she it virtuous because she’s had more than enough to eat.

In other words, we end up saying that having very little is a sin and having a lot is a virtue. And I don’t think that any of us want to make that claim. At least, I hope that none of us want to make that claim.

So we need to be careful not to confuse discipline with need.

The Atlantic: Escaping Poverty Requires Almost 20 Years With Nearly Nothing Going Wrong

And how is one to move up from the lower group to the higher one? Education is key, Temin writes, but notes that this means plotting, starting in early childhood, a successful path to, and through, college. That’s a 16-year (or longer) plan that, as Temin compellingly observes, can be easily upended. For minorities especially, this means contending with the racially fraught trends Temin identifies earlier in his book, such as mass incarceration and institutional disinvestment in students, for example. Many cities, which house a disproportionate portion of the black (and increasingly, Latino) population, lack adequate funding for schools. And decrepit infrastructure and lackluster public transit can make it difficult for residents to get out of their communities to places with better educational or work opportunities. Temin argues that these impediments exist by design.

The Atlantic: Escaping Poverty Requires Almost 20 Years With Nearly Nothing Going Wrong

Self-Sustainability Isn’t a Thing

There’s a buzzword that I keep hearing from colleagues in the social services sector: self-sustainability. If you gathered a bunch of professionals in one room and asked them what their primary mission is – not as individuals or organizations, but as social services agencies – my guess is that a lot of them would say, “To help the people we serve become self-sustaining (or self-sufficient or independent or whatever).”

And that’s strange to me. Because no one is self-sustainable.

Here’s a thought experiment to illustrate that point. Imagine, for a moment, that you are lost in the desert. How long would you survive? Probably not long. You aren’t self-sustaining. You need things like food, shelter, and water.

But let’s say that you had the skills to survive in the desert. You know how to get water from cacti (and which cacti it’s okay to get water from), how know which plants are edible and which ones aren’t, and you can use what’s around you to make a crude shelter. You still aren’t self-sustaining. You are dependent on the environment around you, as well as the people who taught you how to survive.

I am not lost in the desert right now (and, hopefully, neither are you). But I am dependent on a wide array of people and institutions. I’m dependent on by family, my employer, my landlord, the various companies from which I buy the things I need, the government services that make it possible for all of these things to operate, and so on. I am enmeshed in a complex web web of relationships. I am interdependent with others.

I am not self-sustainable. You are not self-sustainable. No one is self-sustainable.

Self-sustainability isn’t a thing.

We are all interdependent.

When people in social services sector say ‘self-sustainability’, what they mean is ‘interdependent in a way that I approve of’. That tends to mean, ‘interdependent in a more-or-less middle class way’: depending on their employer, on their landlord (or mortgage holder), on the companies from which they buy the things they need, and so on. And there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that (well, there are many things wrong with that, but that’s for another post, maybe). But when we call that form of interdependence ‘self-sustainability’, we hide the fact that it is interdependence. We make it look like it’s something else, like it’s independence. And, in turn, we make other ways of being interdependent look bad, like they’re being dependent.

And that helps us disguise the fact that we’re all relying on each other; that we’re all interdependent; that none of us is self-sustaining. It helps us, in other words, lie to ourselves about the nature of the world.

The Atlantic: How Poverty Changes the Brain

When a person lives in poverty, a growing body of research suggests the limbic system is constantly sending fear and stress messages to the prefrontal cortex, which overloads its ability to solve problems, set goals, and complete tasks in the most efficient ways.

This happens to everyone at some point, regardless of social class. The overload can be prompted by any number of things, including an overly stressful day at work or a family emergency. People in poverty, however, have the added burden of ever-present stress. They are constantly struggling to make ends meet and often bracing themselves against class bias that adds extra strain or even trauma to their daily lives.

And the science is clear—when brain capacity is used up on these worries and fears, there simply isn’t as much bandwidth for other things.

The Atlantic: How Poverty Changes the Brain

Vox: Growing Life Span Inequality Has Given the Rich an Extra $130,000 in Government Benefits

Historically, the distribution of benefits was about flat. Richer people received more Social Security benefits, but that was offset by higher Medicaid and disability insurance payouts to lower-income people. But for younger cohorts, the affluent get about $130,000 more in lifetime benefits than the poor. And they find that the most simplistic forms of program cuts that involve raising the age at which you can first claim benefits exacerbates the situation.

Vox: Growing Life Span Inequality Has Given the Rich an Extra $130,000 in Government Benefits

On the Media’s Series on Poverty Myths

I don’t know how I missed On the Media’s powerful multi-part series on myths about poverty, but I did. Busted: America’s Poverty Myths draws on some of the same research that I use in my critiques of the case against charity. This series is both a powerful indictment of how poverty is portrayed in the media and a helpful corrective. If you don’t have time to read book after book about the reality, psychology, and economics of poverty, I highly recommend listening to this series… repeatedly.

Part 1: The Poverty Tour

Part 2: Who Deserves to be Poor?

Part 3: Rags to Riches

Part 4: When the Safety Net Doesn’t Catch You

Part 5: Breaking News Consumer Handbook: Poverty in America Edition

I also recommend downloading, printing, and using the consumer’s handbook that On the Media has produced.

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