Intergenerational Poverty – Term Paper

How do we explain intergenerational deprivation in an affluent society?

Intergenerational poverty definition

Intergenerational poverty is poverty that is brought about as a result of an individual’s parents’ challenged economic or social background. It means that the parents continue to pass on their status to the next generation which is their children and grandchildren.

Poverty can be defined as a state whereby an individual or a group of people within a certain population lack adequate resources for them to engage in activities, have access to diets, amenities and living conditions that are considered necessary or customary within the societies that they belong.  When a Group is referred to as poor, it means that their resources are critically lower compared to those controlled by the typical or an ordinary person or family settings within the society. This, therefore, means that these individuals are barred from normal activities, customs and general living conditions and patterns. An important element that is brought out by a majority of stakeholders is the fact that democratic regimes which have consequently led to a rise in neo-liberalism,  does not work regarding being able to contain economic inequality.  The regimes preserve proper political equality in addition to institutionalizing the majority rule. They are however unsuccessful when it comes to implementing better economic justice. In More Than Just Race, the sociologist William Julius Wilson writes about the studies that he conducted for more than twenty years and captures the systemic and institutional hindrances and barriers as well as cultural deficiencies that are responsible for confining the disadvantaged Black community from avoidance of poverty and escaping the ghetto. Philippe Bourgois also discusses his experiences in his book, In Search of Respect, while he was living in East Harlem. Bourgois narrates the story of high rates of poverty and ethnic separation within New-York and the activities that these residents engage in, mainly their underground drug economy to raise their standards of living. Both books talk about the poor groups within the society, and these two groups happen to be the African American community and the Latinos who consist of mostly Dominicans, Puerto-Ricans and Mexicans. Democracy seems to have led to a widespread of policies that slowed down the struggle for better economic equality since the beginning. Democracy is faced with the challenge of intergenerational poverty because instead of consolidating all stakeholders, competitive elections have become mechanisms through which members of the elite communities and backgrounds compete against each other to attain ruling privileges and at the same time, strengthening their power and control over the entire political arrangement as a class.

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Intergenerational poverty cycle

 These two authors address both structural and cultural aspects of poverty. Policymakers continue to debate on whether or not poverty is brought about by behavioral or cultural elements while others believe structural or economic reasons cause it. Cultural considerations as regards poverty in the society essentially argue that poverty is caused by behavioral and social deficiencies among individuals hence making them presumably less economically viable within the society. Nevertheless, because of consistent poverty in some areas, the culture of poverty argument, further proposes that it is individuals who are responsible for creating, sustaining, and transmitting to the upcoming or new generations, a culture that strengthens a variety of behavioral and social deficiencies. This ideally means cultural poverty is as a result of the individuals’ behavior or their choices. Philippe Bourgois admits in his book when explains that his book centers on the experiences of poverty and culture of East Harlem as well as the struggle for survival in the poor region that is surprisingly located in one of the most affluent cities globally. Conversely, the structural considerations when it comes to poverty hold a different argument. Structural causes of poverty come about due to the notion that poverty is traced back to fundamental issues innate to the economy or the relevant institutions and environments which appear more inclined to favoring specific communities or groups of people over others usually based on race, class or gender. This view is adopted by Bourgois as he states that he felt that he had to share his experience of the oppression he witnessed(12). He describes it as oppression because he feels that the life he experienced is structurally encouraged. Wilson echoes these sentiments when he argues that it is both structural and cultural elements that are to blame for the intergenerational poverty in the United States. He further explains that, systemic hindrances which consist of the racism legacy and the dramatic economic modifications that have occurred causing unequal severity on the poor blacks. He explains that State-enforced racial discrimination has created the existence of ghettos. This came about when the government during the early years of the twentieth century began separating the different races into segregated neighborhoods. Consequently, the white community used intimidation, violence and private agreements to prevent blacks from occupying “their” neighborhoods. The government’s support further worsened the situation through some housing agencies which practiced racial redlining when they refused to guarantee inner city neighborhoods mortgages. This essentially led to people moving to less costly housing. Wilson continues to explain that it these and other structural deprivations that have led to the persistent poverty levels, particularly for the African Americans. (6) He argues that the economic changes and the racism legacy are the main causes of the lifestyle found in the ghetto. He also refutes claims that the blacks are to blame for their situation and is resolute that a strong public policy response is indispensable to break the poverty cycle. A corollary argument to Wilson is the fact that to survive, these poor groups end up developing distinctive and in most cases dysfunctional societal norms.

Community possessions or wealth is a major approach to deal with the poverty cycle in addition to health and social services, education and quality neighborhoods. The people within these environments are usually used to lacking some of these assets and end being entrenched in this deprivation. Wilson explains through his research that communities differ not just in place and position but also in behavior due to the neighborhoods within them (16). Some reasons for these differences include; the resources and assets that are controlled by members of that community as mentioned above, how much the community has been isolated from the rest of the society as a whole, the benefits that those inside the community obtain from their available resources, the cultural experiences of the community members from their past  and current economic, historical and political arrangements as well as the influences that they may have from the previous arrangements. This goes to show that a community may in some cases have the power to detach itself out of the poverty cycle depending on whether or not all the above factors enable them to. Because communities have been segregated, the poor individuals who live in these isolated places develop their way of coping and surviving which pulls them further away from the mainstream economy. In his book, Philippe helps to understand how the community he lived in worked and why they had to engage in selling drugs. He points the problem of unemployment, how culture hindrances make it even harder for the community members to be hired they are stereotyped, lack of the social skills that enables the community members to interact with outsiders, lack of education. A concrete example of this Ray, is the powerful drug lord from the book who cannot read and is therefore not able to take care of the legal paperwork required. These are examples of what some of the poor communities have to deal with. Needless to say that, the community members of such a community will be unable to compete with the rest of the people outside for a better life. They end resulting to drugs and crime to earn a living and the cycle continues because they are unable to get themselves out of deprivation, which the government, unfortunately, does little or nothing to change. Consequently, the community is made up of both structural and cultural aspects that are woven together to continue reinforcing deprivation and making it appear that these communities are completely isolated from the norm. As Wilson (17) explains, culture is closely related to social relations as regards providing the apparatus which include the styles, habits and skills to either create constraints’ or opportunities. Some constraints that the community or environment creates for its members include cultural visions or frames, shared worldview, decision-making processes among others.

Race wealth and intergenerational poverty

After establishing the causal effects of intergenerational poverty, it is obvious that there needs to be a difference in the way things are done, that is the policies put in place. A lot of policies and programs meant to reduce not just the levels of poverty but the cycle as well. Wilson suggests that racism is not a major reason for the poverty levels among the Black community but other reasons such as lack of neutral race change within the current labor market. He advocates for policy reforms for some of these structural causes to be eliminated. Some areas that he addresses for these policies include, changing the way in which the inner cities are left out and ensuring that both the private and public sectors will create employment opportunities that pay fair living wages, putting programs in place to ensure proper training for people to acquire new skills. And also making sure everyone understands the current job market and an equal opportunity for everyone to occupy economically and racially segregated neighborhoods which offer better and healthier cultural norms and more opportunities for schools and other factors. Once policies that tackle the land segregation issue, unemployment and education are put into place and implemented, then things are more likely to start falling into place. The interaction between the different races removes barriers and provides the poor communities with opportunities to prove themselves and get out of the poverty cycle. If the community members have the skills, the education it leads to different outlooks on life and they start thinking about development and infrastructure in their neighborhoods and keeping the government on toes. Wilson continues to explain that most demographic and economic have worsened the ghetto problems. The examples he gives include newly built highways and low-priced real estate, middle-class industries and resident who moved to cheaper places in the past years.; Another issue is the fact that companies have gradually replaced the only available unionized and well-paying jobs with much cheaper labor from overseas and in some cases with machines. Philippe also says there needs to be a change in policies. He proposes that for the United States to decrease the violence and crime in the drug communities, the government needs to rethink some of its policies such as considering decriminalization of drugs. He says this move would starve the small dealers and push them out of business and therefore eliminate reasons for them to engage in violence and crime, making the streets safe for everyone. In addition to reducing violence, he says this kind of policy if well implemented would also provide employment opportunities to community members who may not have the necessary skill, qualifications and training to be employed in the mainstream economy.;


It is evident that intergenerational poverty is caused by both structural and cultural aspects within the community that confines the members and prevents them from fulfilling their dreams. If the government puts in place the proper policies to tackle the major areas like education, employment and neighborhood segregation, then the cultural aspects will slowly fade away as the community members become more exposed and interact with outsiders as opposed to being isolated within the cycle of poverty.


Bourgois, P. I. (1995). In search of respect: Selling crack in El Barrio.

Wilson, W. J. (2010). More than just race: Being black and poor in the inner city. New York: Norton.