Born into a Trap: The endless cycle of Poverty in the U.S.

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Poverty in the United States:

Doctors, firefighters, professors and engineers. These are just a few of the professions that we are encouraged to work towards throughout our educational career. But what if you weren’t given the necessary resources to achieve such goals. Unfortunately, for nearly 15.3 million children in the United States who live below the federal poverty threshold, becoming an engineer or a doctor is nothing more than a dream (Kaufmann, 2015). For these children, poverty is a never-ending, generational cycle that reduces their ability to lead productive lives. While poverty in the United States is most common among children, it also strongly affects their parents, older relatives, and communities. Specifically, in 2016, 39.7 million people, approximately 12.3% of the U.S. population, lived in poverty. Of the 39.7 million, 18% lived 50% below the poverty line or in “deep poverty” (Hinshaw, 2018). Among them, 16.3% were women while 13.8% were men. Furthermore, African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans in the U.S. experienced twice as much poverty as Caucasians and Asian Americans (“The Population of Poverty USA.”).

Although poverty in the United States may come as a surprise to some people, it is an issue that is acknowledged by the federal government but continues to persist nonetheless. Therefore, in the early-1960s, the federal government established absolute and relative poverty lines to determine whether a family has a sufficient amount of money to sustain their household. While absolute poverty refers to the goods and services that a family cannot obtain, relative poverty is the minimum amount of income a family needs based on their amount. A few years later, in 1965, the federal government established poverty thresholds based on the number of people per household (Kaufmann, 2015). According to, in 1965, for a family of three, the poverty threshold was $2,514. For a family of four, the number was slightly higher at $3,223. In other words, a family who has an annual income below the poverty line is considered financially unstable or poor. Every year since 1965 the federal government has altered the poverty threshold to match the nations economic conditions. In 2019, the poverty threshold for a family of three increased to $21,330 and $25,750 for a family of four (Fisher, 2019).

This graph from UC Davis’ Center for Poverty Research shows how the U.S. Poverty Rate has changed over the last 55 years based on “Official Poverty Measure”, “Supplemental Poverty Measure”, and “Below 50% Federal Poverty Level”.

How Poverty Overlaps with Education, Healthcare:

For many families living below the poverty line, access to resources like sufficient education or health care is next to nothing. Currently, in the United States, 51% of children in public schools come from low-income families. While this allows them to qualify for programs such as free or reduced lunch, they also face setbacks in their schooling that is uncommon amongst wealthier families. Statistically, in comparison to children who come from high-income families, low-income children hear 30 million fewer words by the age of five. Therefore, on their first day of Kindergarten, children from low-income families are more than a year behind than children of college graduates. This drastic setback that they experience can be accredited to their lack of support, funding for pre-school, and stable home environments. However, their situation only worsens when these students begin school. As the more and more low-income students who have experienced setbacks enter the public school system, their teachers and schools are unable to provide the necessary attention and resources. Due to the lack of funding and support for public schools, low-income students miss out on essential educational guidance and opportunities that are key to breaking the generational cycle of poverty. Although some low-income students begin school at the same or higher level of education than their high-income classmates, they typically fall behind as they get older. Therefore, more than 30% of children who were raised in poverty do not finish high school. Furthermore, only 5% of first-generation students complete high school and go on to finish college (Porter, 2017). And as the years go on, this cycle of poor schooling and lack of education continues to trap families in endless poverty.

In addition to lacking sufficient education, many low-income families are unable to access routine check-ups and treatments. Unfortunately, most, if not all, impoverished adults work jobs that do not pay for sick days. Therefore, when they catch a stomach bug or have the flu, they are stuck between a rock and a hard place. If they decide to take a day off to get better, they will lose income, falling deeper into poverty. However, if they decide to work despite their illness, they may be able to work for another week, month, or even a year. But eventually, they hit a wall and burn out, which often leads to them losing their job(s). In other words, regardless of what they due, impoverished families are stuck in a negative feedback loop known as the “health-poverty trap”. This “trap” was proven in Raj Chetty’s study, which showed that since 2001, the life expectancy for the top 5% has increased by 2.5 years, but has not changed for the bottom 5%. Moreover, in comparison to wealthier citizens, people living in poverty are five times more likely to report being poor or fair health (Khullar, 2018). While 60% of higher-income workers receive health insurances through their employers, less than 33% of low-income are given the same support. Therefore, families without proper health insurance are less likely to receive regular check-ups and refuse care because it’s unaffordable. This often puts low-income citizens at a higher risk of heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and other chronic conditions (Khullar, 2018). In short, families living in poverty are also trapped in the generation cycle of poverty because they do not have access to proper health care and insurance.

Does Poverty Discriminate: The Statistics and Demographics of Poverty

  • 12.3% (39.7 million people) of American live in poverty
  • By 2016, 21.2% of children and 9.3% of seniors lived in poverty
  • Nearly twice as many Black, Hispanic, and Native American people are affected by poverty as Whites and Asians
  • More than one-third of female-headed families live in poverty
  • 17.3% of male-head households
  • 6.6% of married couples
  • 1 in 5 children live in poverty
Displays the demographics of poverty based on race

Why Do I Care?

Although I now attend a private school and have access to better educational resources, growing up, I saw how poverty influenced my life. When my youngest sister was born, my family finally qualified for WIC, which is a federal assistance program for low-income families. But I never really understood what it meant to be a low-income family or that we didn’t have enough resources. Yes, I knew that my parents were extremely frugal with their money. And yes, my father worked long graveyard shift to provide for my family. But it wasn’t until I was seven years old that I started to realize how drained my parents were because they constantly worried about not having enough money. I would always hear them strategizing about ways to use it so they could have enough for bills, basic necessities, and some extra spending. Therefore, I learned to stop asking my parents to buy me toys or “trendy” clothes. Instead, every time they offered to get me something as a reward for getting good grades, I would choose the cheapest items or just say that I didn’t need any anything at all. As I got older, I become more secretive about my situation. If my friends wanted to go shopping or out to eat, I would always lie about being too busy because I didn’t want to ask my parents for money. And now, as a low-income student attending an expensive private school, I rarely tell people that I receive significant financial support. Since being raised in a low-income family is something that is very relevant to my life, I though that it was only fitting for me to address it in my GOA catalyst project. As Nelson Mandela once said, “Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice. It is the protection of a fundamental human right, the right to dignity and a decent life.” And while I don’t have all the answers and I may not be able to end poverty in a year, two years, or even ten years from now, I hope to educate more people and gain more support in this fight.

What can You do now?

  • Micro Solutions (Individual Change)
    • Educate yourself and people around you. Whether you are sparking a small conversation with your family and friends or presenting to your classmates, just keep the conversations going
    • Find and volunter at programs that help low-income children raise their reading and math understanding
    • Protest! Protests throughout the U.S. are not rare. However, there aren’t many that address poverty. So, get together with a group of classmates or community members and start protesting. It doesn’t have to be so large that it makes it on the evening news, but get the attention of leaders near you (mayors, governors, etc.)
  • Macro Solutions (Laws/Policy Changes)
    • Create more jobs that pay well and have good hours
      • Raise the minimum wage so that families living in poverty can be lifted out.
    • Decrease the pay gap between men and women by fighting for equal pay. Most impoverished children live in female-headed households. One primary reason is that women earn 78 cents for every $1 a man earns. So if we fought for EQUAL pay, we could minimize the number of families living in poverty
    • Implement laws that require employers to provide their employees with paid leave and sick days
    • Implement laws that require ALL companies to give employees sufficient health insurance for regulaer & emergency doctor visits
    • Increase funding for public schools so they can provide better resources for low-income students
      • Better distribution of funding in cities. Even if one community make more money than another, their local taxes for that region or city should be collected and evenly distributed throughout poor and wealthy communities.

MLA Work Cited:

Share this project
  1. April 26, 2019 by Lauren.Elvrum

    Yoska, this is such an important topic! Raising awareness on poverty in America and the cyclical aspects of it is hugely important, and thank you for your insight.

  2. April 26, 2019 by Lali.Ghate

    Great research on the poverty cycle- I learnt so much from your detailed statistics! I also really loved the interactive aspect of the form at the beginning and the detailed graphs throughout. Your personal connection to this topic was really impactful as well and I can see that you are very passionate about this topic.
    Amazing job!!

  3. April 29, 2019 by Karen.Bradley

    Terrific Catalyst project, Yoska! I, too, thought the survey at the beginning was impactful as an entry point, and the manner in which you personalized the issue was powerful. The solutions you suggest–higher minimum wages, requirements for all employers to provide sick leave, equal pay for women–are things we should all care about and advocate for. Bravo!

  4. April 30, 2019 by Emma.McGaraghan

    Great work with this presentation! You brought to light such an important topic, especially within this community as local poverty is often not widely known about among youth. I especially liked your concentration on healthcare, as this is one piece of the puzzle I am not as familiar with, even though it’s an issue I really care about. Something that could be interesting if you’re interested in further research is how the incarceration system fits into this issue, and how it perpetuates the cycle of poverty. The documentary “13th” on Netflix does a wonderful job of diving into this phenomenon. Great job overall!

    • April 30, 2019 by Yoska.Guta

      Hi Emma,

      Thank you so much for looking at my page. I am glad that it informed you about health care and how it overlaps with poverty. Thank you for your suggestion. Although I am vaguely aware of how incarceration rates affect the cycle of poverty, I have never taken time to research. It is something I will definitely consider doing from now on because it definitely overlaps with poverty. Thanks again!!

  5. April 30, 2019 by Christopher Ko

    Great Catalyst project. I really like you in between each paragraph, you have photos, infographics or a video along with your survey. While many many of us don’t struggle with the problems of poverty and thus maybe aren’t well informed enough . You shed light on a topic that is very prevalent in modern day society. One question I do have though is with your solutions. You talk about raising the wage gap, equal pay for all genders and the increase in funding for public schools, and while I do agree in your solutions, I do want to know how practical you think these solutions are. As far as I know the US specifically is in debt by about 22 trillion dollars. Where do you think the money will come from.

  6. April 30, 2019 by Courtney Sell

    I loved your presentation and how you brought a survey into it. I think for those in poverty, the limited access to healthcare is something that needs to change. Another thing to think about is how obesity is associated with poverty. Healthier foods tend to be more expensive and fast food places tend to be the cheaper option, but so not as healthy, so this is something else to think about.

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