From Medill Reports Chicago: Study: Poverty is not permanent, but it’s also not as easy to get out of as it once was

By LIFT on April 15, 2011

Categories: News, Our Work

by Donald Sjoerdsma

People who are poor are seldom poor their entire lives, a new study suggests. In fact, the cycle of poverty is broken more often than thought.

The study, by the U.S. Census Bureau, tracked a sample of individuals from 2004 to 2006 and found that of the 33 million Americans who started the period in poverty, only 23 percent remained poor for the whole period.

However, experts and those working in the industry said they aren’t seeing this today, a time of few economic opportunities.

Scott W. Allard, an associate professor in the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration, said it’s important to remember that the study subjects were tracked during a time of economic growth.

“The study shows that many people who are poor are only poor for a short period of time,” Allard said. “They lose a job or have an unexpected problem. Maybe they cycle in and out because of those tenuous connections to the labor market.”

One Chicagoan who works with the poor agrees with Allard.

Matt Forrest, who in July started volunteering at the Chicago arm of LIFT, a national organization committed to fighting poverty, has noticed that the health of the job market is a primary factor in helping clients out of poverty.

“Currently, the clients we are working with have been unemployed for six months to two years and have been doing nothing but searching for employment and jobs, anything to scrape by,” Forrest said.

Similarly, Edward Potts, who has been working in the social services industry for more than 30 years, said it’s difficult for organizations to help people rise above poverty permanently when the economy is weak.

Potts, a clinical associate professor at the Jane Addams College of Social Work at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said most community organizations fail to help clients move past addressing the urgent needs created by poverty and into fostering independence. (See sidebar).

“Obviously the state of our economy and the major cutbacks in support many agencies are experiencing makes it difficult to accomplish all those things,” Potts said. “You aren’t dealing with long term or good solutions.”


The long road to escaping poverty

Lifting people out of poverty is a perennial goal of social service organizations, and according to the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Edward Potts, there are four steps to leading an individual from poverty to self-sufficiency:

(1) Dealing with the emergency that caused the poverty: If a family is homeless, or on the verge of being evicted, the first step would be getting the family into serviceable housing.

(2) Encouraging the individual to develop a plan for how they’ll avoid falling back into poverty: “The family needs to develop this plan and have ownership of it,” Potts said.

(3) Further stabilization and prevention: “They have to get some temporary work. It may not be the best work or where they’d make the most money, but you want something.”

(4) Finding a path to long-term, sustainable growth: After reaching a certain level of autonomy, it’s important to keep pushing. This is where self-realization comes.