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Notes from the Field

Proposed Solutions for Breaking the Cycle of Poverty

How can we minimize the barriers that trap people in the cycle of poverty? The answer, at least in part, is a combination of providing access to resources and transportation.

The views expressed in this report are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland or the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System.

At the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland’s Policy Summit 2019, a city planner from Dayton, Ohio, stated that there are two thousand entry-level jobs available in the city. Yet, even though people may be qualified for the positions, they often cannot access them because there is a lack of supportive services such as training centers and public transportation. This discussion, like many others I heard at the conference, gave me a glimpse into the cycle of poverty—that series of barriers and setbacks that prevent someone from attaining a self-sustaining economic class. Throughout the Policy Summit, many speakers and participants focused on a number of obstacles that perpetuate the cycle. In the sessions that I attended, the speakers concentrated on two: the inaccessibility of resources and the lack of efficient public transportation networks. The gaps that exist in resource accessibility and transportation often starve families of opportunity, trapping them in a cycle of poverty.

During the first session I attended, Refusing the Inheritance No One Deserves: Breaking the Cycle of Poverty, the panelists discussed the importance of family-centered approaches to combat intergenerational poverty. Family-centered approaches are those that focus on providing “services that engage, involve, strengthen, and support families” by working with the parent and child simultaneously.1 The speakers, Elisabeth Babcock and T’Pring Westbrook, explained that children often mimic their parents or guardians in adulthood, so many of the values, lessons, and experiences taught by the guardian are passed to the child. This connection between a child and a guardian makes it imperative that the parent is equipped with the skills necessary to navigate and access resources such as career centers and financial services so that beneficial behaviors can be passed to their children. Often, under-resourced parents are not able to provide guidance to their children because the parents have limited knowledge of available resources or attaining such resources is too complex to navigate. One way to strengthen under-resourced families, according to the panelists, is to focus on policy interventions that direct resources to training centers or higher education programs that support and assist these families and their children.

Policy alone, however, is not enough. Because even if policy changes make supportive resources more readily available, families may not have access to the necessary transportation to take advantage of these resources. The second session I attended, When Transit and Business Miss the Bus on Job Access, focused on how the lack of transportation perpetuates poverty by decreasing access to jobs and resources. US cities tend to be designed around the convenience of automobiles and mobility, putting those without a car at a disadvantage. This disadvantage makes it difficult for under-resourced individuals to access job opportunities and complete daily tasks, such as grocery shopping or taking children to daycare, because they have limited transportation options. Panelist Joanna Ganning cited transportation challenges in her research about shrinking cities—that is, cities experiencing remarkable population loss. She found that in shrinking cities, as total jobs decreased, job accessibility decreased at twice the rate. Ganning’s research emphasizes the divide between job location and job accessibility. Although Ganning focused on shrinking cities, transportation is a problem for growing cities and rural communities as well. Panelist Joe Grengs proposed a solution to this dilemma for rural and urban regions. Grengs maintains that transportation should be focused on accessibility rather than mobility. He defined accessibility as “the ease of reaching destinations” and mobility as “the ease of movement.” If transportation is designed around accessibility (that is, making it easier to reach the place you’re going) instead of mobility (or reducing the amount of time it takes you to get somewhere), says Grengs, families in poverty could more readily reach to supportive resources and labor market opportunities.

Although both sessions had different views of poverty and how to overcome it, both offered answers to this critical question: How can we minimize the barriers that perpetuate the cycle of poverty? The answer, at least in part, is a combination of providing access to resources and transportation. As a child, I saw practitioners of this work trying to reduce barriers by merging the two. Growing up, I remember my mom (a school social worker) buying clothes and school supplies for families who could not afford them and driving parents to school to meet with teachers and other school officials when parents did not have access to a car. Because of the sessions at Policy Summit 2019, I understand that my mom was doing what she could to minimize the challenges that can cause families to fall further behind; local governments, philanthropy and non-profits can work together to do the same. The persistence of poverty is a challenging cycle to break, but better access to both supportive services and transportation options can be valuable steps forward.