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Generational Poverty: Why Breaking the Cycle is So Hard

Date: May 30, 2024
Est. Reading: 6 minutes

We all want to better our communities and help those in less fortunate circumstances. Many have poured time and money into philanthropic work, but the problem of poverty persists. 


Generational poverty is one of the most challenging cycles to overcome. Like other similar issues, it is complex and multifaceted. The first step to interrupting the cycle is to understand the problem better. 

At RaiseUp Families, ending this cycle is our passion. We’ve written this blog to help shed some light on why breaking out of generational poverty is so difficult and how to do it effectively.

Let’s take a closer look. 

What is Generational Poverty? 

Compassion International defines generational poverty as a “familial pattern [of poverty] for at least two generations, although it typically affects multiple generations. Unlike situational poverty, in which a family experiences poverty for a brief period due to a crisis, generational poverty is lasting and systemic.”

Someone is considered to be living in poverty if they make less than $15,060 a year per person in the family. For example, a family of four lives below the poverty line if the total household income is $31,200 or less.

Close to 12% of Americans live in poverty, including 11 million children

Important Contributing Factors 

As we’ve already mentioned, generational poverty is very complex, but there are always biological, social/systemic, and psychological contributors. Here are a few factors that contribute to the cycle of poverty:

  1. Limited Access to Quality Education: Without a good education, individuals have fewer opportunities to secure well-paying jobs, limiting their ability to improve their economic situation.
  1. Inadequate Healthcare: Poor physical health can limit one's ability to work and can result in high medical expenses, further straining financial resources. People living in poverty are often more at risk due to living in polluted areas, poor nutrition, and a host of other factors. Dealing with the constant stressors of poverty also puts tremendous strain on mental health. More on this in the next section.
  1. Lack of Employment Opportunities: In regions with few job opportunities, it is difficult for individuals to find work that pays a living wage. This is a frequent issue in rural poverty or in areas where high crime rates have caused businesses to move elsewhere. 
  1. Environmental Factors: Living in neighborhoods with high crime rates, poor infrastructure, and limited social services can perpetuate poverty.
  1. Cultural Attitudes and Beliefs: Cultural norms and beliefs about work, education, and success can influence whether individuals seek to break out of poverty. Beliefs and norms affect everything from caring for family members to appropriate ways to spend money or whether saving money is considered.
  1. Social Networks: Limited social networks can restrict access to job opportunities and other resources that could help individuals escape poverty. For example, if no one in a family has been to college, a potential student will struggle to know what to include in an application or how to access scholarships.

This is by no means a comprehensive list, but it offers a brief sketch of the contributing factors to generational poverty.

Generational Poverty: Why Breaking the Cycle is So Hard

Biological Effects 

Generational poverty profoundly affects DNA expression and brain development, with significant implications for mental health. There are three primary factors at play. 

  1. Chronic stress
  2. Inadequate nutrition
  3. Limited access to stimulating environments 

For example, inadequate nutrition can hinder neural growth and function, while a lack of enriching experiences and educational opportunities can stunt cognitive and emotional development. Parents under the strain of poverty may struggle to provide a supportive and stimulating environment while focusing on providing bare necessities like food, clothes, and shelter.

Let’s examine some of the areas affected by these factors. 

  1. Epigenetic Changes 

Chronic stress, a common aspect of generational poverty, can lead to epigenetic changes. These changes don’t actually alter the DNA sequence but do modify gene expression and can significantly impact psychological outcomes. Stress-response genes may be particularly affected, resulting in heightened sensitivity to stress and an increased risk for mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression. These modifications can be inherited, contributing to the cycle of poverty across generations by embedding stress susceptibility into the genetic makeup.

  1. Telomere Shortening  

What exactly is a telomere? 

Telomeres, the protective caps at the ends of chromosomes, shorten naturally with age and stress. However, individuals exposed to chronic stress from extreme poverty may experience accelerated telomere shortening. Resulting problems include 

  • Premature cellular aging 
  • Greater risk of physical and mental health issues. 
Generational Poverty: Why Breaking the Cycle is So Hard
  1. Brain Development

The stark reality is that poverty affects brain development. Children from impoverished backgrounds often exhibit reduced volumes in key brain regions such as the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex. These areas are critical for memory, decision-making, and self-control. Such structural changes can lead to difficulties in learning and memory and impaired executive function, which encompasses skills like planning, flexibility, and inhibitory control.

  1. Mental and Emotional Regulation 

Poverty can disrupt neural connectivity and brain network organization, impacting mental and emotional regulation. Because of this, children from low-income families can be at greater risk of decreased attention, learning, and emotional regulation. Possible effects include: 

  • Lower IQ scores, 
  • Reduced executive functioning
  • Greater emotional and behavioral dysregulation. 
  • Risk of psychological disorders 
  1. Neurotransmitter systems 

Elevated levels of stress hormones like cortisol can interfere with the development and functioning of neurotransmitter systems, which are crucial for mood regulation and mental processes.

Here’s an example. 

High stress decreases dopamine levels (the hormone that makes us feel good), disrupting reward processing and motivation. This increases the risk of substance abuse and other maladaptive behaviors

Addressing these impacts requires comprehensive interventions that provide support in healthcare, nutrition, education, and psychosocial domains to break the cycle of poverty and its biological and psychological consequences.

Generational Poverty: Why Breaking the Cycle is So Hard

RaiseUp Families’ Interventions 

RaiseUp Families is committed to comprehensive, effective interventions. We accomplish this by offering a variety of interventions, including our HandUp Program (step 1) and the AfterCare Program (step 2). Within these programs, we offer two courses that specifically address generational poverty: Bridges out of Poverty and Getting Ahead

Bridges Out of Poverty

Bridges Out of Poverty is a framework that helps community partners like businesses, churches, schools, and social service organizations address poverty in a comprehensive way. It provides ideas, tools, and resources to help community partners further understand the experiences, struggles, barriers, and strengths of those living in poverty. 

Getting Ahead

Getting Ahead in a Just-Gettin-By World is a book and a 20-session curriculum that helps impoverished individuals build their resources for a more prosperous life for themselves, their families, and their communities. Getting Ahead provides people in poverty with the same information found in Bridges Out of Poverty, developed for professionals and others working to end poverty in the community.

The curriculum involves rigorous work done in a safe learning environment with the support of an experienced facilitator and co-facilitator. Participants, called investigators, are encouraged to examine their own experience of poverty and explore issues in the community that impact poverty: banking, housing, jobs, and transportation. This provides critical information the community can use to take action to end poverty. 

Program facilitators guide investigators through a thorough assessment of their own resources and how to build those resources as part of their move to self-sufficiency. Getting Ahead puts the concepts, tools, and relationships in the hands of people in poverty to make a difference in their own lives and the lives of their communities.   

Generational poverty is a huge issue, and we can’t address it alone. Read our blog Resources for Career and Vocational Improvement to learn more about organizations we partner with.  


We hope this blog helped you understand more about generational poverty and its effects. If you’d like to learn more about this topic, the following blogs provide additional helpful information.

To learn more about the work we do at RaiseUp Families, explore our site or reach out! 

Together, we can break the cycle of generational poverty and work for a brighter future!

Helping parents achieve self-sufficiency so they can lead their kids to a brighter future!
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