You are here:

Generational Poverty By Janice Parker

Generational poverty is defined as being in poverty for two generations or longer; however, the patterns begin to surface much sooner than two generations if the family lives with others who are from generational poverty. Generational poverty is often confused with situational poverty, which is a shorter time period and caused by circumstances like divorce, death or an illness. Often the attitude in generational poverty is that society owes you something. In situational poverty the attitude is more of pride and refusal to accept a hand out.

Your financial health and well-being foundation was likely established before you ever received your first paycheck. Money habits and behaviors are learned from our parents, guardians and/or caregivers; the good, the bad and the ugly. As you can imagine, their money management skills were learned from generations before them. Every generation seems to desire for the next to do better by encouraging them to stay in school, go to college and get a “good” job.

Our previous generations may not have had a formal education or any at all, and were enslaved to their manual labor or factory jobs. Although they lacked the knowledge of how to get out of the financial storm they were in, they knew they wanted more for their children and grandchildren. Today, unfortunately, a great number of African-American families still do not know how to transition from living paycheck-to-paycheck to a wealthy lifestyle and continue to pass on generational poverty.

In the Black community, there are unrealistic hurdles to self-sufficiency, racial inequality, unhealthy money management skills and inadequate access to wealth generating channels, which all serve to perpetuate the cycle of poverty. Not to mention that most low-income households are overburdened with rent cost. (meaning a household is paying more than 30% of their income on housing). These are just a few reasons why poverty and poor money habits are transferred through generations.

What does it take for us to change the cycle of poverty? Increased knowledge and a collective movement devoted to gathering wealth and distributing it within our own communities. According to a recent study by the Nielsen Company, African-Americans will have about $1.3 trillion collective buying power in 2017, making us “more relevant than ever” as consumers. Despite our buying power, our lack of or mis-education regarding financial freedom keeps us barricaded in debt. We must learn from our previous generation and escape debt bondage. Some of us today may not know exactly what we want our legacy to be, but we are certain that we want it to be greater than our own personal financial struggles. Here are some key points to help move your future generation in the right direction!

  • Keep hope alive – Without hope and the belief that life can be better, the motivation and energy needed to break the cycle are very low.


  • Planning vs Surviving – People in poverty are focused on surviving day-to-day life events and responding to the most urgent needs. The concept of planning typically doesn’t exist, due in part because planning is tied to the belief that the individual has sufficient control of their life. When you have control of your life/finances, you are hopeful for the future and will plan accordingly.


  • Values vs Patterns – Generational poverty values generally center more on survival and short–term outcomes and following the patterns of pervious generations. In comparison, generally, middle class values encompass education, work and being perceived as a productive member of society.


Breaking poverty cycles takes time, persistence, community engagement, and relentless outreach. Any community or organization that sets out to address poverty, education, health care, justice, or community sustainability must acknowledge that is seeks change; change in the individual’s behavior, change in community approaches, and/or change in political/economic structures. Moving from poverty to self-sufficiency or even to middle-class is a non-linear process – it will never fit into a logic model or a flow chart. It has to occur in the context of everything going on in our lives — safe and stable housing, individual and family well-being, higher education, competitive job skills, financial capability, and a strong network of support to rely on. Take a look within your family and community and see if you can identify generational poverty, then ask yourself; what can I do to make a change.