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.

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