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   [ + ]

Charity Skepticism

This post is a reworking of a few previous posts to introduce a key reason that I research and write about charity: the rise of charity skepticism in the Christian church. The posts that this brings together are The Case Against Charity (January 18, 2016), The Case For Charity (May 30, 2016), and Charity Matters (January 4, 2016).

Half a decade or so ago, I was given a copy of Robert Lupton’s book Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It). I was surprised at what I read. The core argument of the book is that charity – except in cases of real crisis – is harmful to both donors and recipients. It fosters dependency, erodes work ethic, and creates a sense of entitlement. Instead of giving charity, he argues, we should help people in poverty by creating jobs programs, using asset based community development, providing loans, and helping people participate in systems of reciprocal exchange. Traditional charity, according to Lupton, cannot hope to lift people out of poverty. We need a different strategy

What I didn’t know when I first read Toxic Charity was that it was my introduction to an entire genre of literature and an informal movement aimed at reforming traditional charity. Lupton’s book is one of the more famous in the genre, but there are plenty of others: Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert’s When Helping Hurts: Alleviating Poverty Without Hurting the Poor… and YourselfSteve Rothschild’s The Non Nonprofit: For-Profit Thinking for Nonprofit SuccessRuby Payne’s Bridges Out of Poverty: Strategies for Professionals and Communities, and more. There are TED talks, articles, seminars, workshops, and lots of other channels for this movement. All of them telling churches and other nonprofits that we need to rethink how we serve the poor.

Call it charity skepticism.

Charity skepticism comes in three forms.

Skepticism about giving. Charity skeptics are skeptical of the idea that traditional charitable giving – usually described as ‘doing for others what they can or should be able to do for themselves’ – hurts the people who receive it and keeps them trapped in poverty. Traditional forms of charity like food pantries, clothes closets, Christmas toy drives, and so on encourage dependency and entitlements while destroying the work ethic of the poor. In order to avoid hurting the poor in these ways, we need to avoid using charity except in real cases of emergency. Instead of using traditional charity, we should help the poor enter into systems of reciprocal exchange where they can earn their way out of poverty: microcredit, co-ops, small businesses, and so on. The path out of poverty runs through the marketplace.

Skepticism about the nonprofit sector. Charity skeptics are skeptical of the idea that the nonprofit sector is able  to attain the scale and influence necessary to solve massive social problems like poverty. Nonprofit organizations a tiny compared to the challenges that they want to conquer. And they are kept that way because they are unable or unwilling to adopt the best practices of successful for-profit businesses. In order for the nonprofit sector to increase its scale and influence, it needs to invest in talent, improve its marketing, and attract investors. The best way to do this is to attract large investors with the promise of financial returns. The path out of inadequacy runs through the marketplace.

Skepticism about people living in poverty. Charity skeptics tend to argue that people living in poverty have a distinct culture: they use casual language, rely on verbal and physical violence to settle conflicts, live in the present, see money as something to be spent, and so on. This culture works when a person is living in poverty, but doesn’t include good strategies for escaping poverty or fitting into the middle class. When a poor person receives a financial windfall, for example, she is more likely to spend it on immediate gratification than invest it in a future return. In order to make the transition out of poverty, people in poverty need to adjust more than their financial situation or their behaviors. They need to adjust to a new culture: the culture of the middle class. The path out of poverty runs through American middle class values.

Over the last decade, this movement’s influence has grown by leaps and bounds. I’ve heard its ideas discussed in nonprofit board meetings. I’ve had its books and other media recommended to me by employers. I’ve been asked to comment on it during talks at churches. I’ve seen the principles of Lupton’s ‘Oath for Compassionate Service’ listed as criteria on grant applications. I’ve seen individuals change how they give, and churches and nonprofits change how they operate, based on the advice coming from this reform movement. But this movement is changing more than the strategies and tactics that we use to address poverty; it’s doing more than recommending microcredit over cash transfers. It’s asking us to change the way we think about the effectiveness of charitable giving, the way we imagine the church and nonprofit sector, and the way that we think about the poor.

But charity skepticism is wrong. Emerging research and rapidly growing literature indicate that charity — giving money to people living in poverty — is an effective way to alleviate poverty… provided that it is generous enough. Poverty is largely the problem of having enough money. And when people living in poverty are given money, they tend to invest it in ways that improve their lives. Not every time, of course, but often enough that giving money is almost certainly one of the most cost effective ways to address poverty.

But charity skepticism is wrong... When people living in poverty are given money, they tend to invest it in ways that improve their lives... Giving money is almost certainly one of the most cost effective ways to address poverty. Click To Tweet

That doesn’t mean that charity skeptics are arguing in bad faith. I think that Robert Lupton, Ruby Payne, and others really do want to help people who are living in poverty. Unfortunately, charity skeptics have a prior commitment to the modern Western economic order. The skeptical argument wants to help people experiencing poverty within the bounds of systems that prioritize exchanges over gifts. Or, to put it bluntly, the skeptical argument tries to solve poverty with the systems that create and maintain poverty in the first place.

And charity is a powerful alternative to those systems. One of the things I’ll be doing with the blog going forward is making a strong case for charity from a Christian perspective. This will be based on three key ideas:

That charity is a cornerstone of the Christian faith. Traditionally, Christians have encountered the literal presence of Christ in two deeply intertwined ways: communion and almsgiving. In communion, we come before the altar to receive Christ’s presence. In almsgiving, we go to people living in poverty and make gifts to Christ. Communion and charity form a complete cycle of giving and receiving between Christ and the world.

That charity presents an alternative to living in an uncaring world. Poverty and marginalization usually go hand in hand: the poor are pushed to the ragged edges of society, and those on the edges of society are denied access to the things they need to improve their lives. It doesn’t have to be this way. Charity presents a vision of the cosmos that competes with the vision of our dominant political and social structures. It suggests that we do not live in a world of limited resources that must be carefully distributed, but in a world where generosity is not only possible but natural.

That charity works. As I already mentioned, a growing body of research shows that giving to people living in poverty really does have transformative effects. People who are experiencing poverty tend to know what they need to do to improve their lives, and tend to meet those needs when they are given the resources to do so.

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