Defining Poverty (Generational / Situational)

Posted on January 27, 2017

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Dr. Ruby Payne wrote her seminal work on poverty in a book called A Framework for Understanding Poverty. In this classic work, she gives a working definition that brings clarity to two different types of poverty: generational and situational. She states, “Generational poverty and situational poverty are different. Generational poverty is defined as being in poverty for two generations or longer. Situational poverty is a shorter time and is caused by circumstance (i.e., death, illness, divorce, etc.).”[1]

It is important to remember that poverty is relative. Dr. Payne says, “ If everyone around a person has similar circumstances, the notion of poverty and wealth is vague. Poverty or wealth only exists in relationship to known quantities or expectations.”[2]

This is important to note because some families in poverty do not even acknowledge that there is a problem, making it hard for others to understand that are coming from another socioeconomic class that may be trying to help.

In order to truly help, it is imperative that the reasons a person would ever leave this cyclical pattern. Dr. Payne states, “Four reasons one leaves poverty are: It’s too painful to stay, a vision or a goal, a key relationship, or a special talent or skill.”[3] In these scenarios, something or someone helps individuals see that there is another path that can be chosen. Christians must not underestimate the importance of their role in the lives of families in poverty. Their presence alone can be one of the factors that help others break this suffocating pattern. Tavis Smiley and Cornel West challenge Christians living in America to consider what greatness truly means in their book The Rich and the Rest of Us. They state,

“How can America be first if the least among us are our last collective concern?”[4] 

Along with definitions of the types of poverty, it is also important to understand the role of money for individuals in poverty. Where a middle or upper class family would predominantly view money as a source of security, families in poverty have a much different perspective. Dr. Payne states, “Money is seen in poverty as an expression of personality and is used for entertainment and relationships.” She continues, “The notion of using money for security is truly grounded in the middle and wealthy classes.”

This is yet another example of how important it is to listen and learn long enough to understand the mindset of people in poverty in order to be able to have constructive conversations that lead to understanding, mutuality, and growth for all involved.[5]

[1] Ruby K. Payne. A Framework for Understanding Poverty. Highlands, TX: Aha! Process, 2005. 3.

[2] Ibid., 2.

[3] Ibid., 3.

[4] Tavis Smiley, and Cornel West. The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto. New York: SmileyBooks, 2012. 55

[5] Ruby K. Payne. A Framework for Understanding Poverty. 44.

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