Why is Poverty Cyclical?

Alex Smith
4 min readJul 30, 2023
A blue cycle image where a dark blue arrow leads to a lighter blue arrow which leads to a darker blue arrow, and then back to the dark blue arrow. The descriptions illustrate the poverty cycle. The first is titled Poverty: “Person ends up (back/in) Poverty” The second is titled Escape?: “Person attempts to escape using socially acceptable means”  Trapped: “The means to escape burn the person out or are taken away due to success”

Poverty is often described as a cycle, and this makes absolute sense, as anyone who has been in poverty, especially in the United States (which this is mainly geared towards) can attest to. There are many factors that contribute to its cyclical nature, and I will not be able to address each one individually in one article, so I am just gonna analyze it more generally.

What does poverty even mean exactly? That is one of the most politically charged and unfortunately abstractizized definitions that refuses to be concrete, as poverty is unfortunately: not concrete.

The U.S. defines poverty as anyone below the poverty threshold which is as listed on the HHS website as thus:

Now, as one who is making any one of these incomes (and this is BEFORE TAXES) could tell you, (especially in states with high cost of living), this table is some bullshit. Anyone making these incomes would not be able to afford the median rent in almost any state (with some rents being higher than total income), afford to feed themselves, and pay for gas in a car (all of which are needed to survive).

Now this metric is so egregiously inaccurate that a number of programs use percentages higher than 100% of this metric such as the following:

“Programs using the guidelines (or percentage multiples of the guidelines — for instance, 125 percent or 185 percent of the guidelines) in determining eligibility include Head Start, the Supplemental Nutition Assistance Program (SNAP), the National School Lunch Program, the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, and the Children’s Health Insurance Program.”

Now to further illustrate how ridiculous this is, consider the following:

The federal minimum wage (where 30 states and DC have minimum wages above it) is $7.25 an hour. If I worked a full-time job 5-days-a-week 8-hours-a-day at this wage for a full year I would make around $15,080 before taxes. This would disqualify me from being “in-poverty” by definition. After payroll and income taxes, federal, and state which we will low-ball at about 18% of this income I would end up with about $12,365.60. Now this would qualify me absolutely if my pre-tax income was taken into account, and I would probably be on the way to homelessness in almost every state if I had no other income source.

Now here is the kicker, in 2020 there was 37.2 Million people who are below this line. Which means about 11.4% of people in the United States were barely surviving. There were about 90.6 Million people or about 27.6% of the U.S. below 200% of the poverty line in the same year. This would be the following table:

Now $29,160 is a bit more doable, but still is an income that after-taxes which according to ADP, if we were located in Alabama would end up coming out to $25,735.32. Now this is enough to have median rent come out to about 50% of income for around 25/50 states. Now, with this in mind, when 30 states have minimum wages above the federal minimum wage of $7.25, it becomes readily apparent that the poverty guidelines are not only inadequate to calculate benefits, but also minimize the problem.

Given the costs of childcare as well, which is a topic for a WHOLE other time, the way we calculate this for families is absolutely ridiculous, the burden for families well exceeds this.

Now, our metric is definitively crappy, but how could we even begin to explain the realities of the situation? For those living in poverty, the facts and figures cannot describe the hardships they may overcome, the burdens and barriers they face, and how hard they try to escape this reality.

This is part of why an 80 hour work week is difficult to describe (especially if it’s not a desk job), why those that make policy around poverty without experiencing it themselves lack the context necessary to govern it. The systems we have in place currently are grossly inadequate to address poverty, and the consequences of its inadequacy remain painfully invisible.

I hope I can begin to address this as much as I can in this publication. But it is only those who are in poverty (which I would say is anyone who has a hard time paying rent, affording quality food, caring for their children, and taking care of themselves at the same time) who remain the experts.

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Alex Smith

Your not-so-average early twenties cishet white male activist with a huge heart and a penchant for dismantling societal institutions :)