Class is an uncomfortable subject in the United States. Americans tend to believe that we alive in an egalitarian society “where all men are created equal” (but not women apparently…) and everyone has the opportunity to climb the social ladder if they only have enough hard work, determination, and skill. But this isn’t the whole picture. Poverty exists. And generational poverty exists because of complex systems that act in concert to keep people down.
Poverty is hard to define, as is class. The categories that sociologists and social workers use to make distinctions between lower class and middle class or middle class and the upper class are arbitrary. The fact is that class is a continuum and many people live their lives with one foot in poverty and the other in the middle class. This is called situational poverty and it tends to happen solely within one’s lifetime. Someone gets sick, someone loses their job, maybe the death of a loved one or an economic slump means people who used to live a middle class lifestyle temporarily fall into another socioeconomic bracket. When families get caught in poverty for more than one generation, this is generational poverty and it suggests that a number of problems are going unresolved.
People caught in the cycle of poverty don’t get to unwind when they come home. It’s can be just as stressful for them to come home as the situation at work that they left behind. Especially with substandard housing, coming home can be unpleasant. Social workers can attest that many people who rely on welfare spend the same amount of money on entertainment as their middle class counterparts, if not more so; they own a big screen T.V., or a gaming console and a blu-ray DVD player, among other amenities like a smartphone or an ipad. Unlike their counterparts, though, people caught in the cycle of poverty cannot afford luxuries like vacation time, a reliable car, or even plane tickets.
The primary release is largely through their vices (video games smoking, drinking, junk food) so programs that target the individual causes of poverty don’t address the the fact their destructive habits can be the only stress release. That is why so many low income families who don’t get vacations and instead tend to spend money on flat screen T.V.s and manicures and other luxuries. It’s not a character flaw on their part; it’s a rational economic decision that is hyper-focused on day-to-day survival. When families have to work paycheck-to-paycheck, they miss the opportunity to invest in retirement. For these families, vacations are out of the question, too. People trapped in the cycle of poverty don’t get that break from reality. A curious study found that people are most relaxed just before they go on vacation, not during or after as one might think. This anticipation of a future reward seems to be more calming than the actual event. The act of looking forward to something brings them relief.
I believe that there is a parallel to be drawn here between the cycle of poverty and religiosity. While institutions like banks may keep low income people in a cycle of financial poverty, institutions like religions keep the middle and upper class in a cycle of poverty that is just as insidious. I tend to draw parallels between this cycle of poverty and the promises of an afterlife in religion. Research has shown that with the exception of individuals from a racial or ethnic minority, religiosity is actually linked to socioeconomic status where the wealthy are more devout than their low-income counterparts. There are exceptions, of course, since religiosity tends to be strongly correlative with racial identity in African American and Latino communities. But among white and Asian minorities, race or ethnicity is not linked to religion. This might seem counter intuitive because, after all, religion is meant to be a source of personal strength and religious charities across many faiths work to alleviate poverty, homelessness, substance abuse, and other problems that differentially afflict low-income neighborhoods. Surely, interaction with religious charities would make the working poor more inclined to religiosity, or so one would think. Yet, the opposite seems to be true. Historically, Christianity has been used to justify economic and social inequality as well as justify economic and social justice.
If poverty is defined as the extent to which an individual does without resources, then there are many resources that individuals need access to in order to navigate their environment and succeed at life besides money. One resource that might be as obvious to some is the ability to communicate effectively; not just to be able to talk to someone but to be able to listen and achieve a meaningful exchange of information. Everyone speaks in a certain register, which is the collection of their vocabulary, diction, syntax, grammar and the other aspects of language that make up the words that they prefer to use and how they communicate. The word prefer is important here because while most people have a set register that they prefer, they can usually reach up to a different register or dip down into a another. Most people speak in one of three registers; formal, consultative, and casual. The casual register employs the simplest syntax and vocabulary and relies the most on non-verbal body language and facial expressions. The consultative register tends to entail more correct usages of syntax and sentence structure than the casual register. And the formal register tends to require the largest vocabulary and the most complex sentence structure.
This is important because each register tends to be associated predominantly with the lower, middle, or upper class. Remember, that people are really only comfortable with one register above or below their own. When someone from the upper class is speaking with someone from the lower class, there can be a great deal of confusion because of the gap between their two registers. There is even the potential for hostility or conflict when this confusion makes people feel defensive, invalidated, or threatened. We cannot eliminate generational poverty without engaging people from all three socioeconomic classes to work on solutions. But these situations can be difficult to maneuver. People don’t like to reminded of their class or of the institutions that keep them down. Those in the upper class need to take care to bring their register down into a more casual way of speaking and those in the lower class may need to raise their register up into a more formal way of speaking.