Dollar Divide Generational Poverty

The Inheritance No One Wants: Breaking Generational Poverty

Troy Williams grew up in the segregated South and knows what it’s like to be poor. He describes his former living conditions as “horrible.” 

“In rural North Carolina, for my first 14 years, we lived in a home with no running water and no inside bathroom,” he says. 

Williams’ mother was a homemaker and domestic worker, while his father was a sharecropper. They only had a 3rd-grade education. Williams says he never went hungry because of the hogs his family raised for meat. But as one of eight siblings and the middle child, he was no stranger to hand-me-downs. While Williams’ maternal grandparents had some wealth, his paternal grandparents were very poor and died before he was born.  

“Trying to escape poverty, it’s more difficult than people give it credit for,” he says. “When you’re looking at a situation like that, what do you do?”  

What Is Generational Poverty?

Generational poverty is a family that lives in poverty for at least two generations. 

Even though Black Americans make up a smaller share of the overall population, they experience higher poverty rates. Black Americans comprise 64% of people who have experienced two generations of poverty. For three generations of poverty, that number rises to 83%.

Four generations of John Turnipseed’s family have lived in turmoil – in a cycle of poverty, incarceration, gang life, prostitution and illiteracy.

As a child, he remembers the roaches that fell off the ceiling when lights were turned on at night. The rats that were in his shoes before he went to school. The two pairs of pants and one shirt his mother washed every two days. How he went hungry rather than eat Spam sandwiches because of the people that made fun of him due to the smell. Turnipseed was called the “welfare kid” at school.

“Poverty is a very ugly, devastating monster,” he says. “It will make people do things that are not in their DNA. I stole a lot of property. I stole food. That’s the first thing I ever stole.” 

Turnipseed’s way of breaking out of generational poverty was through a life of crime. He would serve 10 years in prison over three terms. At 40 years old, he was facing life in prison. 

Causes of Generational Poverty 

What helped turn Turnipseed’s life around was Urban Ventures, a faith-based organization upending poverty in south Minneapolis through education. More than twenty years later, he serves as Executive Vice President and campus pastor. He cites hopelessness as one of the key contributors to generational poverty.

“You look at your parents who are supposed to be your heroes,” he says. “This is all I have and I’m gonna grow up in the same situation.” 

Surviving poverty often takes precedence over planning for the future. 

“If you’re on your little island, no food, no nothing, you don’t sit there and plan tomorrow’s meal,” says Turnipseed. 

The values and patterns of people caught in generational poverty differ from individuals who grew up in the middle class. 

“People can’t be what they can’t see,” he says. 

Economic Consequences of Generational Poverty

Homeownership is one of the biggest opportunities for building generational wealth. Decades after the 1968 Fair Housing Act made racial discrimination in housing illegal, Black Americans still have the lowest homeownership rate of any racial group. 

“We don’t own enough. If you’ve never owned and chances are if you don’t do what it takes, your kids, their kids and their kids will never own, they’ll continue to rent,” says Jasper Smith, known as “Mr. Build Wealth” and founder of the #BuildWealth Movement, a financial education initiative.

Not only are homeownership rates low for Black Americans, but Black-owned businesses are underrepresented relative to their share of the U.S. population and they face significant funding barriers. 

“We’d have a lot more representation in the startup world of Black founders, male or female if we had real money to work with,” he says. “Folks who want to pursue entrepreneurship will never have the funding to help them launch. “So we have to work to earn a living but never pursue what we’re passionate about.”

Crime can also create cycles of generational poverty. One in three people in the United States has a criminal record, disproportionately affecting communities of color and low-income individuals.

“If people are uneducated and don’t have a viable means of making a legitimate legal income, what do we think they are going to do?” asks Williams. “Generational poverty has very negative consequences, even for our country. We’re either going to have to house them in prison or they’re going to become permanent people the government is going to be taking care of.”

Research has shown that welfare, the government assistance program intended to meet basic needs, can increase generational poverty by reducing the need to work. 

“In some families, you see six or eight ministers and then in another family, you see generations of poverty and welfare,” says Turnipseed. “I grew up on welfare. Ninety percent of my family was on welfare and I have a large family.”

How To Overcome Generational Poverty 

Low homeownership, a gap in business ownership and high incarceration rates for Black people are some of the repercussions of generational poverty. 

“Think about all the dreams that never get fulfilled because we didn’t have the means or the network to do so,” says Smith. “That is critical.”

Have the Right Mindset 

Williams believes that a change in mentality can help poor people to move from poverty to the next level. During his last few years of high school, Wiliiams’ family moved into a home with running water and an inside bathroom.

“There are some people that just don’t believe that it’s meant for them to do it,” he says. “So they continue generation after generation after generation and they never break the cycle.”

Smith says the first step is busting through the fear.

“The hardest part is getting started and telling yourself it’s gonna get bad before it gets good,” he says. 

Buffie Purselle, personal finance expert and author of “Crawl Before You Ball” points out that even people that have emerged from generational poverty and achieved some sort of wealth need to prioritize how they want to change their financial lives for the better.

“There’s math we can put together to figure out how to do that,” she says. “You have to figure out what you want and then work toward that goal.”

The Importance of Education 

Education can play an important role in breaking the cycle of generational poverty. 

While Williams’ parents only received a third-grade education, they stressed the importance of doing well in school. At 17, he joined the military to get a college education. Williams served in the Air Force and the GI Bill allowed him to get an undergraduate degree. 

“In 2022, when you have first-generation college graduates still coming from African American families, in my mind, that’s not a good sign,” he says. “We’re not going to be able to get out of generational poverty without education.”

Minneapolis-based Urban Ventures guarantees a trip to college for any child in its one-mile radius if they wish to attend. Vocational schools and technical education are also effective ways to tackle generational poverty. While formalized education is beneficial, Smith says more people should take advantage of free resources.

“Even folks in the hood have smartphones,” he says. “Why aren’t you trying to educate yourself through YouTube? It’s free. There are plenty of free resources, but we don’t value free.” 

Prioritize Wealth Preservation 

Purselle’s grandparents were sharecroppers, but once her grandmother left the farm and got a job, she saved enough money to buy a property and start several businesses. 

“By the time they got to my generation, everyone was doing well, thanks to my grandmother,” she says. “They all knew about saving, the importance of compound interest, living well under your means and acquiring appreciating assets.”

For Black families that own a home, Purselle says the asset needs to be protected. 

“One house in a family, one piece of land in a family is generational wealth,” she says. “There’s the freedom you get knowing you have that in your family. You can borrow against the home to start a business if you don’t have any money.”

Business ownership is a significant driver of wealth for Black Americans that can be passed from one generation to the next. 

“I always think about my grandma and grandpa, they were sharecroppers and they figured it out,” says Purselle. “We are some of the most creative, innovative people and some of the best ideas for businesses are born out of that struggle.”

Set the Groundwork for Future Generations 

Williams overcame generational poverty and has a career as a legal analyst. He was determined to give his daughter a different life and sacrificed with his wife to send her to private school. His daughter is a veterinarian. 

“I want her to be somewhere I’m not,” he says. “There was a definite emphasis on purpose, to raise her differently.”

Breaking generational poverty needs to start with the individual, says Smith. If you’re married and have children, work with your partner to break the cycle of poverty and get your kids started early on the right path. 

“Once that’s done, you try to infect your family with the same stuff you’re doing.” 

He says changing the narrative for current and future generations must be intentional. 

“Somebody is still going to be eating real good because of the work you’ve done today,” Smith says. “That’s ‘baller.’ That is cool. You don’t have to be famous. You just gotta have a plan, execute the plan and your family will never forget you.”

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