What exactly causes poverty? And what can we do to stop it?
I believe that poverty leads to a lack of opportunity and that lack of opportunity leads to more missed opportunities,
like education, which then leads to low-paying jobs, which again leads to lack of opportunity, perpetuating the cycle
again and again, generation after generation.
According to The Center for American Progress “37 million Americans live below the official poverty line”. As one of the
richest nations in the world, numbers like these are alarming. In their article entitled “The Poverty Epidemic in America, by the
Numbers” they compare these staggering figures to the population of California, which is currently about 36.5 million. In the
United States of America, we have 37 million people living in poverty, while millions more barely make ends meet.
This is a huge national crisis that needs addressing. The fact that millions and millions of Americans are struggling to simply
survive day to day, makes many opportunities that the wealthy take for granted, virtually unattainable. Even the middle class
is beginning to struggle with every day expenses, limiting their opportunities for growth as well.
It’s well known that those with higher educations are more qualified for higher-paying jobs than those with lesser educations.
There are extensive studies comparing levels of educational attainment to their corresponding salaries. Recent U.S. Census
Bureau studies, What It’s Worth: Field of Training and Economic Status in 2001 (Issued September 2005) show that a much
higher percentage of the American population, age 18 and up are obtaining higher educations compared to data collected in
According to this study “In 2001, more people in the United States held postsecondary educational credentials than ever
before”. And this trend has continued. But for those without the financial means to pursue higher education, these
opportunities to improve their situations through educational attainment are almost impossible.
The failure of salaries to keep pace with the cost of inflation and the high cost of energy seem to be some of the driving
forces behind the push for higher education among working adults. Many adults who have been in the work force for years
are going back to school to obtain their degrees in order to survive in the workplace. A degree today is almost as necessary
as a high school diploma was 20 years ago. Without a degree, families across the nation are finding it increasingly difficult to
According to the U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics’ National Household Educational
Surveys of 2001, 46% of American adults participated in some sort of Continuing or formal education program between 2000
According The Poverty Epidemic in America, by the Numbers Published by the Center for American Progress “Poor children
have little chance at the American Dream…” According to their studies, “children that are born in the bottom quintile have
little economic mobility.” They claim that 42% of these children will remain in poverty as adults. According to their figures, the
poorest 20% of the American population earns just 3.4% of the nation’s income, while the wealthiest 1% of the American
population earns a whopping 19% of our nation’s income. And this gap continues to grow.
The question we must answer is why? Why do children born into poverty have overwhelmingly high odds of remaining poor
into adulthood? And what can we do to stop it?
According to this same report, 12.6% of Americans earned less than $19,971 for a family of four. Many of these citizens are
what is often referred to as the “working poor” earning minimum wage, which at the time of this report was just $5.15 (adjusted
for inflation, at its lowest point in 50 years). So even when employed full-time, or even working multiple jobs, these families
cannot make ends meet. Overwhelmingly, these same working poor citizens have little or no education, perpetuating the cycle.
When families can barely survive financially, higher education is rarely an option. Even a $35 or $50 application fee is
generally out of reach for these individuals, which, in effect, removes any chance of ever improving their financial situations.
And as we have seen, a lack of higher education, whether it be trade school or a degree, definitively translates into higher
Most jobs available to the uneducated tend to fall within the restaurant, retail, and construction industries, etc. where health
insurance benefits are generally not available. A lack of health care services adds additional strain to family budgets, and the
overall health of the individuals. This lack of health care translates into lost time at work and school, and results in more
serious health conditions. These types of jobs are also generally more labor-intensive, meaning they are working much
harder for less money, draining their energy besides.
According to the World Socialist Web Site in their article entitled “A million more Americans living in poverty”(published 9/1/05)
the loss of health insurance and the failure of wages to keep pace with inflation has led to increased rates of poverty in the
United States for the fourth consecutive year. These same catalysts have led to a decline in standards of living for many
Middle Class American citizens, as well, leading many to cut back on any unnecessary spending, affecting the entire economy.
This article addresses the absurdly low poverty rates determined by our government as well. In this article, like “The Poverty
Epidemic in America” article, the author is very clear that these types of incomes are “a subsistence level”, meaning they can’t
possibly survive on these types of incomes. Interestingly, the article also sites the fact that according to the Census bureau,
median earnings for women dropped by another percent from 2003 to 2004. Mens’ median incomes dropped by 2.3% for the
same period, which according to the author, (adjusted for inflation) is less than the median income back in 1973.
In an article entitled “Despite more jobs, US poverty rate rises” by Sara B. Miller and Amanda Paulson, staff writers of The
Christian Science Monitor, the authors discuss the steadily increasing poverty rates in America, despite the fact that the
number of jobs increased. In the course of the year, the number of Americans living in poverty grew from 12.5% to 12.7%.
According to the authors, politicians on both sides continue to point fingers, blaming the rising numbers on the other party’s
policies, but the fact remains that an increasing number of Americans are struggling just to survive. Salaries are simply not
keeping pace with the high cost of living.
There is some controversy as to how the numbers are determined, with analysts holding different views, both pessimistic, and
optimistic. However, the trend is alarming, as the effects of poverty are long-reaching.
An article in The Washington Post, “Poverty Rate Up 3rd Year in a Row- More Also Lack Health Coverage” confirms the
findings. Published in Aug., 2004, America was still feeling the effects of the Recession. While some analysts argue that
continued increases in poverty rates are common and to be expected after rebounding from recession, others disagree.
Simply stated, “This recovery has failed to reach those in the bottom half”. Jared Bernstein, from the Economic Policy Institute
feels that the recovery has not reached our most vulnerable and needy citizens.
President Bush and the Republican Party report widespread recovery and job growth, while the reality seems to be that
Americans are falling deeper into debt, and higher education is becoming further and further from their reach.
What some of the analysts fail to take into consideration when counting jobs is the type of jobs and the salaries they pay.
These are deciding factors as to whether or not those jobs will have a positive financial impact on workers. Job growth adds
little value to the economy or to the lives of those at the bottom of the ‘financial food chain’ when those jobs are paying
minimum wage with no benefits.
And who typically fills minimum wage positions? Young, inexperienced workers, and those without higher educations. And
therein lies the problem. Poverty limits opportunities available to obtain a higher level of education due to the lack of time and
Minimum wage positions require that employees work longer and harder just to get by. This necessity limits the time and
energy available to pursue an education. Other family responsibilities; e.g. such as in the case of single parents, children
supporting their parents, or working to help support the family, teenagers supporting siblings or themselves, etc. limits one’s
opportunities to pursue an education.
According to The Washington Post article, loss of health care benefits hits the middle class and the poor the hardest. America’
s wealthiest can afford to pay any out of pocket expenses, and in most cases, have higher educations which provide health
care benefits as part of their compensation packages. If for some reason they do not receive benefits as part of their
compensation, they can afford to provide their own.
The poor do not have that option. In most cases, minimum-wage positions do not offer the option of health care, and if they
do, the bulk of the employee’s salary would be consumed by the premiums. Due to this simple reality, many of these working
poor must choose not to take the health care offered, as their salary cannot cover the cost of the benefits and still support
their families. This is yet another lost opportunity, as the reality (lack of sufficient funds) does not allow the employee to take
advantage of the opportunity to have health insurance coverage for their family.
Opting out of the benefit plan (again, out of necessity) creates more problems by way of untreated illnesses, no preventative
care, lost school and work time, etc. This again, perpetuates the problem of poverty by adding to financial losses, which adds
to the financial difficulties these people are already living with.
So what can be done to stop this endless cycle of poverty and lost opportunities? The National Association of Social Workers
has addressed this issue as well. In an article entitled ”Number of Americans Living in Poverty Increases” Elizabeth Clark,
PhD, ACSW, MPH, the executive director of NASW isn’t surprised that the numbers of Americans living in poverty is on the
rise. She sites several factors as causal, such as the loss of blue-collar jobs, decreasing wages for low-skilled workers, and
increased unemployment. But Clark knows there are things that can be done to help stop this cycle of despair. “To reduce the
number of families and children in poverty, better education, training, and access to resources such as child care and
transportation is necessary,”
Things that many take for granted, like readily available transportation are NOT necessarily available to low-income citizens.
Unavailable or unreliable transportation affects one’s ability to find and keep a job, low-paying or not. Should they find the
time and means to attend school, unavailable or unreliable transportation affects one’s ability to attend class. An inability to
get to class has a negative impact on one’s grades. A lack of transportation also limits the variety of jobs available to the
employee, which can limit their potential for advancement once they find a job.
NASW has a legislative agenda to deal with this laundry list of problems plaguing our nation’s poorest citizens. They
understand the importance of curing the cause, rather than treating the symptom. The key lies in breaking the cycle of
This huge body of professionals knows from first-hand experience working with the neediest, most underserved segment of
the American population what types of programs can and cannot help lift people out of poverty, and how to help them stay out
of poverty. In order to have lasting success, they understand that the situational impediments must be removed to allow these
people to take advantage of opportunities for growth. NASW’s “Promoting Economic Security Through Social Welfare
Legislation” addresses the problems that plague our nation’s poor and underserved, and offers real solutions for addressing
One of the most critical obstacles to escaping poverty is not having access to higher education. As such, making the process
easier to comprehend, making funding more readily available, and addressing the real, physical needs of these individuals,
by helping to provide reliable, accessible transportation is a great way to help some of our most vulnerable citizens reach for
and take advantage of those opportunities that others take for granted.
Until our nation starts addressing the cause, instead of the symptoms, the endless cycle of poverty and missed opportunities
will continue. In conclusion, the idea that a lack of opportunity leads to a cycle of poverty and more lack of opportunity is
correct and fully supported by research. Fortunately, there are professionals (NASW) who recognize the problems and have
come up with viable solutions to address and one day solve this endless cycle of poverty and inopportunity in our nation.
• The Center for American Progress
• U.S. Census Bureau, “What It’s Worth: Field of Training and Economic Status in 2001”, Issued Sept. 2005
U.S. Department of Commerce, Economics and Statistics Administration
• Center for American Progress “The Poverty Epidemic in America, by the Numbers”, April, 2007
• World Socialist Web Site, www.wsws.org
“A million more Americans living in poverty”, Sept., 2005
• The Christian Science Monitor, www.csmonitor.com, “Despite more jobs, US poverty rate rises
• Washingtonpost.com, “”Poverty Rate Up 3rd Year in a Row”, Aug., 2004
• National Center for Education Statistics
• U.S. Department of Education, National Household Education Surveys of 2001, “Participation in Adult Education and
Lifelong Learning 2000-2001
• National Association of Social Workers (NASW), “Numbers of Americans Living in Poverty Increases”, Sept. 2003
• NASW’s “Promoting Economic Security Through Social Welfare Legislation”
• Economic Policy Institute, Research for Broadly Shared Prosperity
• Occupational Outlook Quarterly
|DOES LACK OF OPPORTUNITY LEAD TO A CYCLE OF
LACK OF OPPORTUNITY?
By Kim Chernecky, Founder & Director,
|WHAT IS THE MEANING OF LIFE?
By Kim Chernecky, Founder & Director,
I think most people at one time or another have pondered the meaning of life. What am I here for? What is my purpose?
What kind of mark will I leave on the world when I’m gone? Of course, life is so busy today that many of us never really take
the time to make a difference in the world. Most of us never take the time to reach out to fellow human beings, and that is a
Today, in modern society we face the same ethical challenges and suffer with the same emotional issues as people did
years ago. Society has changed, but humanity has not. Humans still feel anger, jealousy, love, fear, hatred, and sorrow just
as they did long ago. It is our connectedness that strengthens our humanity; our spiritual connection. It is the need for
interaction with others that provides the continuity of spirit from one soul to another. We need each other.
I believe that human empathy is born of suffering. While this may not be true of everyone, in so many cases, it is only when
one has experienced trauma or heartache, a crisis or loss that action is taken to bring about change in our world.
For example, the rape and murder of John Walsh’s son, Adam, led Walsh to create America’s Most Wanted. The rape and
murder of Megan Kanka led her parents and legislators to create “Megan’s Law” which requires sex offenders to register
with authorities. Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (M.A.D.D.) was created after Candy Lightner’s family suffered a devastating
loss at the hands of a drunk driver, and so on.
I think we are all guilty of apathy when it comes to big issues that affect others, but when an issue touches us personally or
our loved ones, human nature makes us sit up and take notice. And even after being affected by an issue such as these,
most people do not choose to act. Of those people affected, only a few will decide to stand up and change the world.
Former slave and author, Frederick Douglass, Professor Morrie Schwartz, and author, Mitch Albom all chose to respond to
their circumstances with action. Frederick Douglass chose to change his own situation by first becoming educated and
escaping from slavery, and then by expanding further to educate and then change the world by becoming actively involved
in that change.
Morrie Schwartz felt and experienced all of the sadness, anger, sorrow, and more that every human being that is faced with
their impending death would. But he made a conscious decision to live his life to the fullest, despite his prognosis. Not only
did he make that life-altering decision, he chose to actively reach out to others, specifically Mitch Albom, his beloved
student. It was this gesture that in turn, changed the life of Albom.
Mitch Albom at first reflects on the way he is racing through life, never really experiencing it or making time to really connect
with his friends and family. But he really doesn’t understand this until he reconnects with Morrie. Once he does so, his initial
response is like most people; he goes to see Morrie before he dies, so therefore, he feels he has completed his obligation
to his former professor and friend. But when Morrie encourages Mitch to continue to come and visit, Albom’s life is
transformed. It is at this point, that Albom realizes he has choices, too, and that he is not really experiencing life in a
meaningful way. When he takes an active role in sharing Morrie’s story with the world, he touches all of us on a spiritual
The reason I identify with these people is that, through years of suffering as a child (neglect, abuse, abandonment) I gained
a strong sense of empathy and independence. Never did I feel powerless to change my situation or the world. And being a
‘powerful’ victim, for lack of a better term, I feel compelled to both speak and act on behalf of those that do feel powerless. I
admire all of these people who have chosen to do the right thing; not necessarily the easy thing.
I believe that everything happens for a reason. We are all part of God’s plan. And he has a plan for all of us. We may not
know what that plan is, but our actions play a part in the lives of many. Every kindness and every hurt is felt by someone
besides ourself. No matter what our religious beliefs, we must realize that every choice we make has some impact on
When we are hurt and suffering, it’s easy to ask “why me?” but really the question is “why not me?” As the saying goes,
“there but for the grace of God go I”. I believe that we all have the power to change the world. We all have the power to do
good things, to make others feel cherished and loved, and the power to make a real difference in the lives of others.
I find it frustrating when I am faced with people who don’t want to help themselves. As I tell my children, you can’t help
someone who doesn’t want to help themselves. The story of Sonny’s Blues hit close to home for me. I had a very close
family member who struggled with addiction and drug abuse. It was the most painful and heartbreaking experience I have
ever lived through. But we did make it through. And we did so by staying connected to one another and loving one another
no matter what.
Even when that person pushed us away, we were there. When that person continued to make poor choice after poor
choice, we were there. Love should be unconditional. And while we can never know what goes through their heads or why
their souls are in so much pain that they seek to escape through drug use, what we must remember is that we will always
love them no matter what. We may not like the behavior. We may not like or deserve the treatment they dish out, but if the
love remains, one day, things will be better.
As a spiritual (but not religious) person, I strongly believe in life after death, and the fact that we all have a soul. I believe
that we all have lessons to learn while we are here, and it is our experiences on this earth with our fellow humans that teach
us those lessons. Some of us learn the lessons we are intended to learn. Some of us don’t.
I live my life with the understanding that to reach out and touch someone takes so little effort, there’s no excuse not to do
so. I cannot in good conscience look the other way when someone needs help or just needs a smile. Life is good. It’s only
right that we reach out to others and share our love, even if it’s a stranger in the store.
We are all like a pebble hitting the water. We only touch that one spot when we land, but the ripples carry on forever; one
leading to the next and the next. If everyone made a conscious effort to be kind to one another every day, the world would
be a better place. I’m determined to do my part. Won’t you join me?