Is Poverty a Vicious Cycle?

Food bank

Above, a food bank director stocks tables with canned goods

For those who are living in poverty or struggling to make ends meet, sometimes it can feel like there is no hope in sight. Like they are living in an unending cycle that will continue to go on and on regardless of anything else that happens in life. And unfortunately, there is some truth in this. Recent studies have shown that living in dire financial circumstances often creates a negative “snowball” effect, where the day-to-day challenges make it impossible to create any momentum toward greater stability or building wealth.

Thanks to a comment on Kinja last Friday that has gone viral, lots of people are talking again about this reality. The bottom line is, no matter how much you’re struggling now, you can reach a more stable future. But it helps to understand the particular challenges of poverty and what may be done to combat them. Below, we’ll take a closer look at the struggles of those who cannot make ends meet and the possible solutions for them.

The Challenges of Poverty

One of the most recent studies on the effects of poverty was authored by Eldar Shafir, a Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs at Princeton University. In an interview with the Atlantic, he summed up his findings like this:

“All the data shows it isn’t about poor people, it’s about people who happen to be in poverty. All the data suggests it is not the person, it’s the context they’re inhabiting.”

In other words, the context of poverty can force anyone into bad decisions — the type of decisions that make it harder to reach long-term financial stability. An example would be a mother who puts items like back-to-school supplies for her children on a credit card, which eventually balloons into a larger monthly payment than she can afford. Or a father who is so busy working two jobs and taking care of his family that he forgets to pay the monthly credit card bill, thereby causing interest rates to go up and penalty fees to be charged.

These kinds of scenarios are all too common and can be extremely hard to avoid when living in trying financial circumstances. The thought-provoking comment mentioned above contained this troubling insight:

“Poverty is bleak and cuts off your long-term brain… We don’t plan long-term because if we do we’ll just get our hearts broken. It’s best not to hope. You just take what you can get as you spot it.”

No doubt many of us have felt similar thoughts and felt equally frustrated at times when money is tight and hope seems evasive or unrealistic. So then the question becomes how to combat these kind of challenges.

How to Fight Back

It’s not easy to overcome such challenges, of course, but there are some things that can help:

1. Make use of whatever resources are available to you. If you’re going through a hard time, programs like WIC, SNAP, Unemployment Insurance, and others can help you make ends meet until you are able to get back on your feet. It’s also important to remember that these programs are set up for exactly this purpose, so no one should feel ashamed or guilty about using them. Another great resource in dire times is a food bank. In addition, if you’re part of a religious or community group such as a church, synagogue, volunteer association, or union, don’t hesitate to reach out and ask them for help. Many such organizations would be happy to help since they see it as part of their mission.

2. Create a long-term plan for yourself. It’s also important to create a narrative about your life that can guide you and give you solace during the hardest times. The more specific a plan you can create for yourself, the better. For example, if you know that the career you want requires more schooling, plan out the steps you’ll need to take to achieve that goal (i.e. first apply to a degree program, second get a part-time job that fits with the course schedule, third budget for school costs in addition to regular expenses). No matter how long it may take you to achieve your goal, simply having a plan written down that you can look at whenever you need to can really give you the momentum that will push you forward.

3. Seek out opportunities. Along the same lines of pushing forward, it can be extremely helpful to always keep an eye out for opportunities. Certainly, this can be quite difficult when it seems like nothing is going your way. But every once in a while that golden opportunity will come along, whether it’s a better job, a scholarship, or a friend or “guardian angel” who can help you get ahead. By keeping your eyes open to such possibilities, you ensure that when the right opportunity does come along you’ll be ready to see it and accept it with open arms.

4. Try to organize and automate what you can. This can be very difficult when you’re struggling to simply survive, but organizing your finances and automating as many parts of the process as you can (monthly bill payments, etc.) will create the mental space you need to focus on other things, like the ones mentioned above. If you know where to find all your important financial documents, for example, and you know when your credit card bill will be paid, you’ll have much more peace of mind and ability to make progress on other tasks.

No matter what, poverty – or even living paycheck to paycheck – is difficult and, as the studies show, it makes everything harder. While there are no simple solutions, getting help from outside your own home, keeping your sights set on a better future, and staying organized can each play a role in putting you on track toward a more secure financial footing.

Have you had struggles with poverty or hard times? Let us know how you dealt with it in the comments below.

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