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Cycle of Poverty Hard to Break Across Generations of Families

By Sierra Lewter, Amora Campbell and Isabel Fajardo

Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, is shown being interviewed by UHMP intern and New York University freshman Sierra Lewter.

After growing up in foster care, Chanel Feyh, 41, had built an amazing life in New York City. An apartment and her own business.

Then she got sick with two autoimmune diseases - scleroderma and lupus - and suddenly the woman who had started out poor was poor again. Medical bills and treatments took all of her money. She had to close her business and move to get better healthcare. She now lives on disability insurance from the government. When she feels okay, she drives for UBER.

“I feel like I’m on the cusp of living,” said Feyh, who now lives in Los Angeles. Since she got sick “it’s just been constant survival.”

She was born into poverty and trauma and was adopted by a loving foster family in rural Kansas when she was 5. Now, it’s back to poverty.

“I hate it. To have come from where I was to this is very humbling. I’m just above water,” she said. “We all want to be that one percent, but I’m the lowest of the low.”

Like millions of others, Feyh fought to get out of poverty, but then fell back when a financial crisis hit. Experts say that getting out of poverty takes a strong support system from schools, churches, family and government resources. Poverty is often multi-generational, and even a lot of support cannot be enough.

Using just one measurement of financial health, look at retirement savings. An average white family has more than $130,000 in retirement savings and one in four have enough financial resources to consult with a financial professional. The average black family’s finances are dramatically lower; they have only $19,000 in retirement savings, and only one in 10 consult a financial advisor, according to The Urban Institute.

One-third of African Americans and Latino households have no financial assets at all -- no cash savings, no college education money, no money to buy a home and no money for emergencies. The other two-thirds of households of color don’t have enough savings to last three months if they were to lose a job. Of those, half are African American.

This means households of color struggle to get by if any income is disturbed by a job loss or illness. That could impact their children’s future if the family were to become homeless, according to Policy Link, a non-profit that advocates for racial equality.

Being Born Poor Means You’ll Often Stay Poor

Many question why it is so hard to break the cycle of poverty. It matters who your parents are.

“What’s the number one reason people are in poverty? Birth,” said Mark Bergel, CEO and Founder of A Wider Circle in Silver Spring, Md. It is a non-profit program dedicated to helping people rise out of poverty. One of his program’s highlights is positive role models and supporters who advise a client for up to 5 years.

“We think poor people don’t try hard enough, or that they’re lazy, but that’s not true. They were born into poverty,” said Bergel.

Just being born poor can hamper you and your family for generations.

“By the time you are three years old in poverty, you have 30 million fewer words in your vocabulary than people in wealthier situations. You are already so behind that you don’t bother catching up,” said Bergel. This is the reality for over 12.7% of Americans, he said.

Poverty becomes a multi-generation cycle because children don’t have access to a way to even learn about money which makes them ill-equipped for the future. When that happens, suddenly the child stays poor like the parent, continuing the cycle.

“We have trapped people in a system of poverty. We have blamed them for that, and we have pointed to the outliers of studies that say they don’t work,” said Dr. Georges Benjamin, the executive director of the American Public Health Association. This “trapping” takes place when there is a lack of financial knowledge for those who need it most. Without positive methods for handling finances, cycles continue and families fail.

Rivan Stinson is a fact-checker at Kiplinger Finance Magazine in Washington, D.C. She said positive role models helped her become financially successful. She learned what she knows from her parents. She paid special attention to her mother’s infamous question: “Can you pay for that?” She said it still rings in her ears today before making a purchase. Although Stinson was fortunate to get a lot of her information about personal finances from her parents, she does not remember her high school teaching her anything about the topic. She recalls her school having a business or stock market class, but not having a class specifically to teach students financial literacy.

A History of Financial Inequality

The classic American dream of “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” is a complete fallacy to those trapped in the cycle of poverty.

Communities of color are more likely to fall victim to poverty due to the systemic inequalities like a lack of financial assets and education that often prevent people from escaping. “America has a long history of financial inequality,” said Lee Hawkins, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal. “We’ve had financial discrimination for centuries that has left inequality.”

First, obviously, was slavery itself when African American people were property and not allowed to own anything. After the Civil War, many black veterans who fought for the North were unfairly denied disability pensions by the Union Army. Then after Reconstruction following the end of the Civil War, former slaves could acquire property, “but African Americans lost land they had rightfully purchased,” he said.

Next came “redlining” by mortgage lenders who segregated black homeowners into certain neighborhoods, as well as housing discrimination, he said. Jim Crow laws that segregated Blacks from Whites led to a boom in entrepreneurship in black neighborhoods, he said. “Because of segregation, we had to collaborate, on barbershops and banks and produce shops that were supported by African Americans,” Hawkins said. “We had a boom in entrepreneurship.”

“Around 1950s, we moved for jobs and the Great Migration to the North for auto jobs began.” Currently, the mass incarceration of black men since the 1980s has meant “losing a breadwinner for African American families.”

“Urban War” Makes Cycle Hard to Break

The stress of being poor and the violence in poor communities can cause physical and mental illness, including PTSD, just like soldiers suffer in a war zone, said Dr. Terry Jarrett, a psychiatrist in Washington, D.C.

“It’s an urban war,” she said. “The unpredictable violence that occurs where people sleeping at night hear gunshots, or they wake up the next day and find someone has been killed.” Also, the stress of poverty can seriously affect a person’s health. “The day-to-day grind and the pressure to try to fight through life can really take a toll.”

Even things as small as lack of access to a good night’s sleep has an impact on a person’s health, said Hawkins. “A good night’s sleep is really taken for granted,” he said. “But if you don’t have it, how are you supposed to do well in school and get an education? It’s difficult to perform at work or school.”

Living in the middle of an “urban war” can make a person’s brain develop “executive function disorder,” Dr. Jarrett said. That means a person has trouble getting things done, may develop ADHD, depression or even schizophrenia. They can suffer from “trauma-focused cognitive behavior,” she said.

“The brain is an organ just like the lungs, the kidneys,” she said. “Sometimes the brain cannot always work.” When people are struggling with mental and physical health issues because of poverty, it’s hard to lift themselves up, she said. “Say a lady has bipolar disorder and she has these ups and down. If it goes untreated it wreaks havoc on her life,” she said.

“Tell me she’s ready to break the cycle of poverty!”

Feyh knows that kind of life all too well. Her parents were both addicted to drugs and she still has horrible memories of things she saw at age 4. She began getting therapy for the first time in 2018 and doctors believe her illness is related to early trauma and stress from her work in advertising and marketing in New York City.

“My life has been a journey of constant survival and resilience, but isn’t everyone doing the same thing?,” asks Feyh.

Contributing: Kate Covington


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