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04 May 2017

Cycles of Poverty are Circular

I regularly teach a frosh-level Social Problems course. The students give several presentations and submit several papers. One "concept" shows up so often that I've added a bullet in my syllabus specifically to forbid it: the Cycle of Poverty. Poverty is, no doubt, cyclical in the sense that it is passed down over and over again from generation to generation. When my students invoke this phrase, however, they do so in a way that dismisses the actual causes of poverty. In effect, "the cycle of poverty" is a tautological argument. Why are black kids disproportionately poor? "Because their parents are poor." Why are their parents poor? "Because their parents were poor" ad infinitum. Why is the sky blue? "Because it reflects the ocean." Why is the ocean blue? "Because it reflects the sky." By this logic, poverty is intractable, and students can either throw their hands in the air and walk away or they can propose interventions that are far more likely to address the immediate consequence of poverty without actually confronting its causes. Sure, poverty is cyclical, but what was its prime cause? Black kids may be disproportionately poor because their parents were poor, but their grandparents may have been poor because they were denied affordable housing (e.g. Redlining) or because they were restricted from upward mobility through threats of violence (e.g. Jim Crow) etc. Part of teaching that social change is possible is getting students past the notion that "this is the way things are because this is the way things have been" mentality. I'm not certain what the cultural source of this thinking is, but it's insidious.

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