Beyond Bootstraps: Why Poverty is So Hard to Escape

The state of American workers today is jarring.

50% of all jobs pay $34,000 a year or less (about $24,000 after taxes), thus 48% of Americans live in poverty or earn low income and 56% have under $1,000 in the bank (see this article). Inequality is worsening; the bottom 50% of Americans own just 2.5% of the nation’s wealth, the bottom 80% just 7%. The cost of rent, food, utilities, healthcare, and college exploded over the past three decades, while worker wages remained stagnant — a recipe for growing poverty.

Also remaining unchanged are the thoughtless diatribes against low income persons, most common among conservatives but not exclusive to them. Stories of neighbors who escaped poverty and built for themselves a life in the comfort of the middle or upper class are waved in the faces of those who have not. The slandered are said to have serious flaws: laziness and lack of ambition, being unwise, irresponsible with money. So despite the fact millions of Americans who work full-time (some with multiple jobs, others begging for a job or more hours) are still poor, working harder and “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” can get you anywhere.

These ideas betray a frightening ignorance of both empirical research and how social conditions are perpetuated — passed down from generation to generation. To a large extent, one’s economic opportunities are affected by factors beyond one’s control.

For example, a 2014 study from Harvard and the University of California – Berkeley found where you grow up greatly affects your opportunities, your economic mobility:

The probability that a child reaches the top quintile of the national income distribution starting from a family in the bottom quintile is 4.4% in Charlotte but 12.9% in San Jose… High mobility areas have (1) less residential segregation, (2) less income inequality, (3) better primary schools, (4) greater social capital, and (5) greater family stability.

More importantly, this study and many others found your income can usually be predicted by your parents’ income. Parents at every rung on the economic ladder are not all that likely to see their children climb higher. In fact, the relationship between parent and child in terms of income is even closer than in terms of physical attributes like height.

As one would imagine, rising from a lower or middle class family into the upper class is extraordinarily rare. 2006 studies indicate a child of a low-income family has a 1% chance of making it into the wealthiest 5%, and a child from a family of middle-quintile income has a 1.8% chance (and is actually slightly more likely to fall to a lower quintile than rise to a higher one). Data from 2007 showed people born in the lowest, second, and middle income quintiles have below a 5% chance of making it to the top 10% of income earners — in the fourth quintile, it’s about 8%. Only those in the highest income bracket have the opportunities that grant them a better chance, at over 40%.

This does not mean there is no social mobility. A 2007 study found that a minority, 34% of Americans, manage to reach a higher quintile (for example, moving from the lowest to the second quintile). Yet “children of middle-income parents have a near-equal likelihood of ending up in any other quintile, presenting equal promise and peril for those born to middle-class parents.” 42% of people born into the lowest quintile die there, and the vast majority of those who escape the lowest quintile die in the second lowest. The very poorest and the very richest are those least likely to leave the social class in which they were born.

This is not a temporary problem. In 2014, economists found children have about the same chances of economic advancement that children had 50 years ago.

Social class is much more rigid than many would suppose. Blaming the poor for their position in society — talk of laziness and irresponsible spending — is a stereotype that evades sociological contexts, even the most obvious, like if your wages are low enough everything you earn must be spent immediately on rent, utilities, and groceries, or the simple availability of high-paying jobs (in 2014, 46% of employed college graduates under 27 were working in a job that did not require a college degree, and about 15% had part-time work but wanted full-time work).   

Factors that have some basis in reality deserve consideration: low wages, worthless inheritances, jobs available, the cost of higher education, the cost of living, anti-poor and racial prejudice, wealth disparities between suburban and urban areas, and so on.

Obviously, individuals making low wages must spend everything or almost everything they make on groceries, electricity, water, rent, and gas or bus fare right away. If anything can be saved, it is often wiped out by the typical hurdles of life that better-off people consider mere annoyances, such as broken down cars or doctor’s visits. There is no money for college courses. Even with some grant and scholarship opportunities available, low test scores or a family that cannot go without income right now will rule out these possibilities. Most poor people will remain stuck. While hard work may lead to a job promotion or a new job that pays a bit better, there are no guarantees: for every person who “gets in,” there will be many hard-working competitors, many with families to feed, whom there simply isn’t room for. The management jobs are few, the non-management jobs are many. We should not pretend that if all workers at the bottom of society simply worked harder then they could all be managers — whom would they manage? Even college graduates, after all, don’t always get a spot. In 2014, 46% of employed college graduates under 27 were working in a job that did not require a college degree. Half a million college graduates make minimum wage. Sometimes there are simply not enough high-paying jobs for all who need them. The jobs that do exist pay very little.

Class entrenchment begins at birth.

Historian James W. Loewen (Lies My Teacher Told Me) outlines how the cycle of poverty functions so well I cannot help but quote him at length:

Affluent expectant mothers are more likely to get prenatal care, receive current medical advice, and enjoy general health, fitness, and nutrition. Many poor and working-class mothers-to-be first contact the medical profession in the last month, sometimes the last hours, of their pregnancies. Rich babies come out healthier and weighing more than poor babies. The infants go home to very different situations. Poor babies are more likely to have high levels of poisonous lead in their environments and their bodies. Rich babies get more time and verbal interaction with their parents and higher quality day care when not with their parents. When they enter kindergarten, and through the twelve years that follow, rich children benefit from suburban schools that spend two to three time as much money per student as schools in inner cities or impoverished rural areas. Poor children are taught in classes that are often 50 percent larger than the classes of affluent children. Differences such as these help account for the higher high school dropout rate among poor children.

Even teacher attitudes toward poor children perpetuate social class. Some years ago, education researcher Jane Anyon (“Social Class and School Knowledge”) found that

…students of different social class backgrounds are still likely to be exposed to qualitatively different types of educational knowledge. Students from higher social class backgrounds may be exposed to legal, medical, or managerial knowledge, for example, while those of the working classes may be offered a more “practical” curriculum (e.g., clerical knowledge, vocational training).

In the working-class schools Anyon studied, teachers and administrators were less interested in student success.

A principal told a new teacher, “If they learn to add and subtract, that’s a bonus. If not, don’t worry about it.” Many teachers believed students were lazy. “You can’t teach these kids anything,” one teacher said. The teachers concentrated on presenting basic skills to the students and keeping them busy with copy work and rote memorization. They avoided textbook pages that called “for mathematical reasoning, inference, pattern identification, or ratio setup.” The students therefore felt the teachers were lazy, saying a good teacher would “teach us some more” and “help us learn.” A majority of fifth graders said their grades would not be high enough to go to college. Anyon wrote that “many of these children already ‘know’ that what it takes to get ahead is being smart, and that they themselves are not smart.”

Jonathan Kozol (Ordinary Resurrections) wrote later on that poor (usually minority) children were looked upon as different from other kids, part of a culture of poverty that made them “quasi-children” or “morally disabled children.” Children of the slums were seen as criminals-to-be or “premature adults.” This prompted teachers to use “a peculiar arsenal of reconstructive strategies and stick-and-carrot ideologies that would wouldn’t be accepted for one hour by the parents or teachers of the upper middle class.” Loewen writes:

Even when poor children are fortunate enough to attend the same school as rich children, they encounter teachers who expect only children of affluent families to know the right answers. Social science research shows that teachers are often surprised and even distressed when poor children excel. Teachers and counselors believe they can predict who is “college material.” Since many working-class children give off the wrong signals, even in first grade, they end up in the “general education” track in high school. “If you are the child of low-income parents, the chances are good that you will receive limited and often careless attention from adults in your high school,” in the words of Theodore Sizer’s bestselling study of American schools, Horace’s Compromise. “If you are the child of upper-middle class-income parents, the chances are good that you will receive substantial and careful attention.” Researcher Reba Page has provided vivid accounts of how high school American history courses use rote learning to turn off lower-class students…

He also notes:

As if this unequal home and school life were not enough, rich teenagers then enroll in the Princeton Review or other coaching sessions for the Scholastic Aptitude Test. Even without coaching, affluent children are advantaged because their background is similar to that of the test makers, so they are comfortable with the vocabulary and subtle subcultural assumptions of the test. To no one’s surprise, social class correlates strongly with SAT scores.

Indeed, the poorest students score on average 400 points below the wealthiest students on the SAT; many score so low they will not be admitted to 4-year colleges.

American schools with the highest test scores and graduation rates tend to be very fine buildings serving middle class and wealthier populations, usually white. The poorly performing schools are crumbling facilities serving the very poor, usually black and Hispanic, who disproportionately suffer with low-quality teachers, overcrowded classes, and a lack of books, supplies, and physical and mental health care. “I want to be able to go to school and not have to worry about being bitten by mice, being knocked out by the gases, being cold in the rooms,” a Detroit student, Wisdom Morales, said in 2016.

School funding is based on property taxes, which ensures poor neighborhoods have poorly-funded schools. It’s also often based on test scores, which ensures low-performing schools stay poorly funded.

A harsh environment can harm physical and psychological well-being, birthing social, emotional, and behavioral instabilities. Children who grow up in poverty are more likely to experience high-stress homes, absent parents, abandonment, displacement, homelessness, hunger, violence and sexual abuse, exposure to alcoholism, drug use, and crime, poor health, depression, developmental delays, decreased concentration and memory capabilities, and a host of other problems. Poor housing alone damages one’s mental health, leading to depression. A 2015 study showed that parts of the brain tied to academic performance are 8-10% smaller in children from very poor households. (Being poor creates a mental strain on adults that is equivalent to sleep deprivation or losing 13 I.Q. points). This will happen to private school children or public school children, white children or black children.

Loewen continues:

All these are among the reasons why social class predicts the rate of college attendance and the type of college chosen more effectively than does any other factor.  After college, most affluent children get white-collar jobs, most working-class children get blue-collar jobs, and the class differences continue.

Indeed, a Brookings Institution study of 18,000 people in 5,000 families from 1968 to 2015 found that while a college education does increase income for poor Americans, an earning gap persists afterward. The poor with degrees will earn 91% more money during their career than the poor without degrees, while middle- and upper-class persons with degrees will earn 162% more than their socioeconomic peers without degrees. By middle age, a poor college grad is earning half what a rich college grad makes (even worse than when they both graduated, when on average poor grads make two-thirds what rich grads do). Factors that contribute to this include differences in academic performance between poor and rich students, and the colleges the poor can afford — public versus private, for instance.

Loewen concludes:        

As adults, rich people are more likely to have hired an attorney and to be a member of formal organizations that increase their civic power… Because affluent families can save some money while poor families must spend what they make, wealth differences are ten times larger than income differences. Therefore most poor and working-class families cannot accumulate the down payment required to buy a house, which in turn shuts them out from our most important tax shelter, the write-off of home mortgage interest. Working-class parents cannot afford to live in elite subdivisions or hire high-quality day care, so the process of education inequality replicates itself in the next generation. Finally, affluent Americans also have longer life expectancies than lower- and working-class people, the largest single cause of which is better access to health care. Echoing the results of Helen Keller’s study of blindness, research has determined that poor health is not distributed randomly about the social structure, but is concentrated in the lower class.

Ultimately, social class determines how people think about social class. When asked if poverty in America is the fault of the poor or the fault of the system, 57 percent of business leaders blamed the poor; just 9 percent blamed the system. Labor leaders showed sharply reversed choices: only 15 percent said the poor were at fault while 56 percent blamed the system. (Some people replied “don’t know” or chose a middle position.) The largest single difference between our two main political parties lies in how their members think about social class: 55 percent of Republicans blamed the poor for their poverty, while only 13 percent blamed the system for it; 68 percent of Democrats, on the other hand, blamed the system, while only 5 percent blamed the poor.

Most Americans die in the same social class in which they were born, sociologists have shown, and those who are mobile usually rise or fall just a single social class.

All these obstacles have lasting effects. One researcher found that “the residual effects of wealth remain for 10 to 15 generations.”

This is not to say some poor people won’t spend money on non-essentials, fall into a routine that doesn’t devote much time to searching for a higher-paying job, or give up on a job search in despair. These things happen and are predictable. Yet these issues must be understood within the context of the cycle of poverty; to focus on them alone is to deny socio-economic realities.

The factors that make poverty so hard to escape are numerous, but not difficult to understand. We should recall what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said of poor blacks, who are to this day disproportionately impoverished due to past and present racial discrimination, which makes them special targets for those wishing to attack the poor as lazy or foolish. King condemned our propensity to view poverty as due to personal flaws, like an unwillingness to work hard, ignoring different opportunities within different social conditions. To paraphrase King (Why We Can’t Wait), the poor man

…is deprived of normal education and normal social and economic opportunities. When he seeks opportunities, he is told, in effect, to lift himself up by his own bootstraps, advice which does not take into account the fact that he is barefoot.