The Culture of Generational Poverty > Chapter 1 - Providing Meaningful Help to the Impoverished

The Culture of Generational Poverty: Providing Meaningful Help to the Impoverished

Presented by
Rita M. Rizzo and Lance J. Parks


This course is recognized by the California Board of Behavioral Sciences.
This program is Approved by the the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) (Approval #886463870-6298) for 8 Cross-Cultural continuing education contact hours.
This program is approved for 8 continuing education hours by:
The California Board of Registered Nursing # CEP 14462
The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) # 886463870
The Florida Board of Clinical Social Work, Marriage and Family Therapy and Mental Health Counseling #50-14000
Texas Board of Examiners of Marriage and Family Therapists # 628
Texas State Board of Examiners of Professional Counselors #1646
The Texas Board of Social Worker Examiners # 5547
The National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) # 6412

Welcome to The Culture of Generational Poverty: Providing Meaningful Help to the Impoverished. This course is approved for 8 continuing education contact hours.

At Speedy CEUs, we hope that you grow professionally from taking this course. Ultimately our goal is to assist you in rendering the best possible care to your patients, clients, and customers.

Copyright Speedy CEUs, 2007

Using This Course Book

This course is organized into eight (8) chapters. Each chapter deals with a different aspect of generational poverty, and providing help to those who are in need. The Empty Pockets picture will indicate to the reader that an anecdotal story has been inserted to illustrate various learning points. These stories are entitled “The Real Deal” because they are true. The names have been changed to protect the anonymity of the people described.

When you have finished studying the coursework, you will be ready to take the online test, prove your knowledge, and be awarded your CEUs.

Compare the three predominant economic classes in America and examine the attitudes and beliefs held about each of them in mainstream culture.

  • Draw conclusions as to how economics impact the acculturation and exploitation of at-risk populations living in poverty.
  • Distinguish between how the poor, the middle class, and the rich view their history, their present possibilities, and their future potential.
  • Recognize the common tenets and norms of generational poverty culture.
  • Inspect the link between poverty and criminal activity.
  • Be able to explain the hidden rules of the middle class to their clients and customers who are attempting to escape poverty in order to promote their success.
  • Identify various State, Federal, and nonprofit social programs that assist the impoverished to promote effective linking and referral efforts.
  • Be able to use knowledge of poverty culture norms to provide meaningful advocacy for adults and children living in poverty culture.

If I were a Rich Man...

“There is no class so pitiably wretched as that which possesses money and nothing else.”   Andrew Carnegie

Think back to the 1980’s and recall the song by Cindy Lauper called Money Changes Everything. Is the song’s title accurate in its contention? Recall the old adage “Money rules the world.” Is this statement true? Does money alone bring people out of poverty? These and other thought-provoking questions will be discussed as we consider the nature of generational poverty. As if the issue of money is not controversial enough, there is also the cultural aspect of generational poverty. To some, the suggestion that there is a cultural aspect of poverty is quite offensive, and to others it makes perfect sense.

In an effort to keep from offending anyone, the first section of this course book is dedicated to explaining some basic principles of culture.

A Primer on Culture

Culture refers to the total system of values, beliefs, attitudes, traditions, and standards of behavior that regulate life within a particular group of people and are thought necessary to their survival in the context of their environment.

Any culture, be it familial or national, tends to be homeostatic and self-reinforcing in nature. Greet Hofstede is an early culture guru who explains this dynamic in his model entitled The Stabilizing of Cultural Patterns depicted in Figure 1.
Figure 1: Hofstede’s The Stabilizing of Cultural Patterns (1981)

Hofstede defines culture as “the collective programming of the mind which distinguishes the members of one human group from another.” He contends that cultural change is brought about primarily by outside influences consisting of forces of man and nature. When the strength of the outside force is greater than the culture’s self-regulating cycle, cultural adaptation, or change will occur. The self-regulating cycle is rooted in the group’s origins and involves ecological, genetic, and historical factors that shape and define the group. These origins form the basis for a shared values system upon which societal norms are built. Societal norms provide the framework to structure societal institutions such as families, roles, education, religion, and corporate and political structures. [i]

Do people who are living in generational poverty know that they are a part of poverty culture? Probably not. Hofstede compares culture to a fish swimming in water. “The fish does not know it lives in water until it is caught up in the fisherman’s net,” he contends. Likewise, people are generally not aware of their own cultural norms until they travel outside their culture of origin, whether it is travel to a foreign country, or to an area where another economic class is prevalent.

[QN.No.#1. Which of the following statements do NOT apply to the definition and nature of "culture"?]

In today’s “politically correct” America it is difficult to discuss the norms of a given culture without someone claiming that stereotyping is occurring. There is a fine line between stereotyping and disseminating culturally relevant information. Every attempt will be made not to cross that line in this course book.

Stereotyping involves making a judgment or assumption about a person or his/her behavior not on the basis of knowing that person, but based upon generalized observations or beliefs about the group to which this person belongs. Stereotypes often contain a “kernel of truth” which has been over-generalized or exaggerated to the point of distortion.

Culturally relevant information describes the tenets, norms, beliefs, behaviors, attitudes and ways of thinking common to a group in the most accurate terms possible. Culturally relevant information is surfaced through observation and interview of similar groups over time and geography. This course offers a plethora of culturally relevant information about those who have lived in poverty over two or more generations in an effort to assist helping professionals in becoming more culturally competent in serving this population.

Cultural competence involves recognizing, understanding, and valuing cultural differences and the commonalties that underlie these differences. Cultural competence prohibits condemnation and seeks to foster understanding between those who view the world through the lenses of their own cultural perceptions.

This course is not about people who were raised in the middle class, and plummeted into poverty for a brief period due to transient circumstances. This course describes the culture of individuals who were born and raised in poverty, as were their parents and grandparents. Virtually every community in the U.S. is inhabited by at least a few families who have “always been poor.”

Is America Classist?

While it is true that America doesn’t have a caste system, it does possess economic layers labeled as poverty class, middle class, and wealth class. The middle class is further divided into lower middle class, middle class, and upper middle class, defining five economic classes in American culture. America is known as “the land of opportunity.” The underlying concept behind this idea is that anyone can be successful through perseverance and hard work. Is this an accurate concept? Can one go from rags to riches in America without winning the lottery?

In 2005, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal each published a series of ground-breaking articles about the changing nature of social class in America. The Wall Street Journal published the first in a series of articles called “Moving Up: The Challenges to the American Dream.” The lead article was a sobering review of data chronicling declining mobility and opportunity in the U.S. As the Journal observed, “As the gap between rich and poor has widened since 1970s, the odds that a child born to poverty will climb to wealth -or that rich children will fall into the middle class -remain stuck.” [ii]

An excerpt from an analysis of the two series of articles sums up America’s attitude towards classism:

When it comes to talking about class, it's as if we stumble and go speechless when confronted with the most basic of American divides. Of course class differences exist. And people talk about them, but often in code and euphemism. Our discourse on class is in arrested development compared to our conversations about the other ways we differ from one another. One indicator: put the words “racism,” “sexism,” “homophobia” and “classism” in your computer spell-checker and see which one is underlined as a misspelled.

The conclusions drawn by investigative reporters after a year of research into the topic of classism in America are as follows:
  • In the last three decades, we've become a vastly more unequal society. The rungs of the ladder of opportunity are weakening, threatening our national self-image as a meritocratic opportunity society.
  • Inequality matters and too much inequality can lead to worsened opportunity.
  • Classism wounds everyone, albeit in different ways. For poor and working class people, class divisions contribute to what sociologist Lillian Rubin described three decades ago as a “world of pain,” inflicting real physical and emotional damage to people.
  • If a society advertises itself as a meritocracy, but in practice allocates success based on hereditary advantage, many poor and working people are forced to internalize their shame and blame, instead of demanding that the society live up to its promise of opportunity.
  • Internalized oppression plays itself out in violence, put-downs, and the ways that families might hold their children back from their potential.

[QN.No.#2. When discussing class in America, which of the following statements is true?]

Could You Survive in Any Class?

Below are three short quizzes taken, with permission, from Ruby Payne’s book, A Framework for Understanding Poverty. [iii] These quizzes describe the skills needed to survive in poverty, middle class, and wealth cultures. Please take a moment and check all of the skill sets that you possess. Could you survive in any of the three classes?

Could you survive in poverty?

Put a check by the items you know how to do.

  • I know which churches and sections of town have the best rummage sales.
  • I know which rummage sales have “bag sales” and when.
  • I know which grocery stores’ garbage bins can be accessed for food.
  • I know how to get someone out of jail without using cash.
  • I know how to physically fight and defend myself physically.
  • I know how to get a gun, even if I have a police record.
  • I know how to keep my clothes from being stolen at the Laundromat.
  • I know what problems to look for in a used car.
  • I know how to live without a checking account.
  • I know how to live without electricity and a phone.
  • I know how to use a knife as scissors.
  • I can entertain a group of friends with my personality and my stories.
  • I know what to do when I don’t have money to pay the bills.
  • I know how to move in half a day.
  • I know how to get and use food stamps or an electronic card for benefits.
  • I know where the free medical clinics are.
  • I am very good at trading and bartering.
  • I can get by without a car.
  • I know how to raise money in two days to cover the cost of a funeral.

Could you survive in middle class?

  • I know how to enroll my children into Little League, piano lessons, soccer, etc.
  • I know how to properly set a table.
  • I know which stores are most likely to carry the clothing brands my family wears.
  • My children know the best brands in clothing.
  • I know how to order in a nice restaurant.
  • I know how to use a credit card, checking account, and savings account—and I understand an annuity. I understand term life insurance, disability insurance, and 20/80 medical insurance policy, as well as house insurance, flood insurance, and replacement insurance.
  • I talk to my children about going to college.
  • I know how to get one of the best interest rates on my new car loan.
  • I understand the difference among the principal, interest, and escrow statements on my house payment.
  • I know how to help my children with their homework and do not hesitate to call the school if I need additional information.
  • I know how to decorate the house for the different holidays.
  • I know how to get a library card.
  • I know how to use the different tools in the garage.
  • I repair items in my house almost immediately when they break—or know a repair service and call it.

Could you survive in wealth?

  • I can read a menu in French, English, and another language.
  • I have several favorite restaurants in different countries of the world.
  • During the holidays, I know how to hire a decorator to identify the appropriate themes and items with which to decorate the house.
  • I know who my preferred financial advisor, legal service, designer, domestic-employment service, and hairdresser are.
  • I have at least two residences that are staffed and maintained.
  • I know how to ensure confidentiality and loyalty from my domestic staff.
  • I have at least two or three “screens” that keep people whom I do not wish to see away from me.
  • I fly in my own plane, the company plane, or the Concorde.
  • I know how to enroll my children in the preferred private schools.
  • I know how to host the parties that “key” people attend.
  • I am on the boards of at least two charities.
  • I know the hidden rules of the Junior League.
  • I support or buy the work of a particular artist.
  • I know how to read a corporate financial statement and analyze my own financial statements.
Perhaps you are thinking, “I could live in any of these cultures without learning the skills common to the culture if I wanted to.” Of course you could, but would you be fully accepted into the culture if you refused to participate in the thinking, activities, educational level, possessions, and sensibilities of the culture? Would there be consequences rendered by others in the culture if you opted out of the survival strategies needed to fit in?

If you were able to move up from the class where you currently reside, how would others who support you now react to your good fortune? Would you be welcome in the new culture you are entering, or would those who are established in that culture attempt to undermine you?

Yes, the barriers to transcending class in America today are numerous and insidious, yet we still expect the poor to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” never noticing that they are too impoverished to afford boots. Much like the middle class who find themselves in a position to move to wealth class, people living in poverty might find they want the benefits of living in the middle class without learning the life style. For those who do wish to fit in, learning how to do so can present quite a challenge.

[QN.No.#3. Transcending class is...]

Skills, Sensibilities, Motivation and Connections

So what does it take to become “upwardly mobile” in 21st Century America? Certainly it is necessary to acquire new skill sets, but then the question becomes, “How does one know what they don’t know?” It is difficult to seek out new information and build new skills when you don’t recognize the gaps that currently exist in your knowledge. Each class has its own “hidden rules” that they don’t typically share with those outside their membership. How does one learn rules that are hidden, and whose existence is not known?

Making connections with powerful people is a highly valued success strategy in all three classes. Gaining assistance from important and influential others within one’s own class is often easier said than done. Making meaningful connections with those who live in the class above you is nearly impossible. It is primarily through such sponsorship that one is exposed to the hidden rules of a social culture. Even formal mentoring programs seldom address insider information that is common knowledge in the upper classes. These rules remain hidden in order to be a responsible gatekeeper for one’s own culture, thereby keeping the riff raff out of the sacred domain.

How does one adopt to the sensibilities needed to transcend class without exposure to these ways of thinking? Sadly, the primary avenue for exposure to the sensibilities of the upper classes comes to us through television and the Internet. The lower classes learn what it means to live in the upper classes by watching soap operas, reality shows, talk shows, news shows, sitcoms, and dramas. They read the news bites that stream constantly over the Internet, and participate in blogs that discuss how Paris Hilton fared during her brief incarceration. They believe the spin, and are misled by the hope that they are integrating true messages from a corrupt media.

Yet and still, Americans remain convinced that if you just try hard enough, you can achieve upward economic and social mobility. The trick is simply to keep your motivation high, apply some elbow grease, and be willing to work from sun up to sun down, and you too can have a piece of the American dream. If you are not willing to do these things, you are condemned as being lazy, inept, or too easily satisfied. Hence, the cycle of internalized oppression is fed.

The Real Deal
Paul could hardly believe the good fortune that had recently befallen him. After struggling for years on a meager salary as a mechanic at a small neighborhood car repair shop he finally hit the big time. He was hired by a major car dealership to repair and maintain luxury cars. At a salary of $18/hour he could finally afford to purchase a home for his family in a safe neighborhood in the town’s best school district.

Shortly after moving into his new home he was working late one night and had just finished repairing a Lexus when he received a call from his wife stating that one of their children had been taken to the emergency room for a head injury incurred while riding her bike. Paul rushed to his own dilapidated car only to find that it wouldn’t start. Desperate, Paul “borrowed” a loaner car from the dealership and drove it to the hospital. He returned the loaner car, unblemished and full of gas, early the next morning before the other employees arrived at work.

At about noon Paul was called to his boss’s office to view a video tape of him driving off in the loaner car. Although he did his best to explain his actions, his boss insisted that he must have taken the luxury car to impress his friends, and even wondered aloud if he had been driving drunk after a night of heavy partying before returning the vehicle. The police were called and Paul spent three days in jail before Paul’s wife was able to show his employer the paperwork from the emergency room to prove his story was accurate. The theft charges were dropped, but Paul was fired for his “poor judgment.” The story of Paul’s arrest appeared in the local paper, but there was no retraction printed when the charges were dropped. The day after the story appeared Paul was confronted by his tearful daughter. “Daddy, Kelly isn’t allowed to play with me anymore because her Mom says you are a thief,” the little one sobbed. Paul was almost relieved several months later when his new home went into foreclosure and he was forced to move his family back to their old neighborhood. At least there people understood the fact that desperate times call for desperate measures, and they forgive lapses of judgment instead of levying lifelong punishment on your family.


[i] Hofstede, G. (1980) Culture’s Consequences: International Differences in Work Related Values, Sage Publications.

[ii] Ladd, Jennifer, Yeskel, Felice (2005, June) Class in America: Two Elite Newspapers Tackle The Big Taboo. Retrieved July 10, 2007 from Common News Center Website (1997-2007) at

[iii] Payne, Ruby K (1998) A Framework for Understanding Poverty. RFT Publishing Company, Highlands, TX.

Question No.1. Which of the following statements do NOT apply to the definition and nature of "culture"?

a. Cultural change is brought about primarily by outside influences consisting of forces of man and nature.
b. People are acutely aware of their own cultural norms at all times.
c. Culture is thought necessary to a people's survival in the context of their environment.
d. Culture refers to the total system of values, beliefs, attitudes, traditions, and standards of behavior that regulate life within a particular group of people.

Question No.2. When discussing class in America, which of the following statements is true?

a. Anyone can achieve economic success in America through working hard and persevering.
b. Americans are candid about discussing classism and comfortable with the topic.
c. In the past three decades America has become a vastly more unequal society.
d. Internalized oppression is not caused by class constraints but can be attributed to self-pity.

Question No.3. Transcending class is...

a. Easy.
b. A process wrought with barriers.
c. No reason to learn to change how you have always done things.
d. A purely economic matter.
The Culture of Generational Poverty > Chapter 1 - Providing Meaningful Help to the Impoverished
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