The American Cycle: Poverty and Prison

With an increasing cost of living and relatively stagnant minimum wage, matched with ever-fluctuating employment rates, poverty seems to be a never-ending cycle. Children who grow up in poverty are more likely to experience poverty as adults themselves. Whether this is due to the lack of educational resources, opportunities, or lack of guidance, the statistics speak for themselves. However, poverty in adulthood is not the only issue that impoverished children face growing up. Imprisonment rates in adulthood are also higher for children who grow up in poverty. And to complete the destructive cycle, previously incarcerated individuals are likely to earn zero income after releasement, therefore not being able to contribute to their household’s income. Thus, the cycle repeats for the children of these individuals, creating the American Cycle: Poverty and Prison.


Impoverished Children Facing Poverty In Adulthood

According to UNICEF, poverty affects children disproportionately. Nearly a billion children lack access to education, housing, nutrition, sanitation, or water, hundreds of millions living on less than $1.90 a day, and death rates twice that of their wealthier counterparts.

As is evident, children are much more vulnerable to the impacts of poverty. Therefore, it makes sense that studies show how children raised in poverty are more than likely to live their adulthood in poverty.

According to the Nation Center for Children in Poverty, out of the individuals who report living in poverty for 51%-100% (8-14 years) of their childhood lives, 40%-50% also report living in poverty from 20 years old to 35 years old.

The issue of intergenerational poverty becomes worse when you take a closer look. Upon further studies, the National Center for Children in Poverty finds that 24.8% of African American children are likely to live in poverty for 76%-100% of their childhoods compare to only 3.0% of whites.

Additionally, 71.7% of white people are likely to “never lived in poverty” compared to 29.6% of Black people.

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Impoverished Individuals Face Higher Rates Of Imprisonment

Children learn from the people who raise them and whom they look up to. This applies to all the good and bad qualities of adults. And inevitably, children who experience a parent or guardian going through incarceration have a higher chance of experiencing imprisonment themselves.

It is widely known that poverty levels increase with the level of one’s education level. However, the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Institute for Research on Poverty connects how individuals with lower education–and therefore high poverty rates– are more likely to be incarcerated at some point in their lifetimes.

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Re-entry Into Society 

When incarcerated individuals are released back into society, it is expected that they become “productive” members of society. However, that’s a big ask when you imagine the difficulty previously incarcerated individuals face finding work opportunities.

According to the Brookings Institute, their studies report that 51% of incarcerated individuals previously earned zero income in the 2 years before incarceration. And 44.5% report zero income during the first full year after incarceration. And only 55% of the total released individuals reported any income at all.

This shows two important things: as stated in the sections above, impoverished people are more likely than their wealthier counterparts to be incarcerated at some point in their lives. And after they are released from prison, many individuals don’t leave the poverty they endured beforehand.


The Cycle Repeats

As explained, impoverished individuals are more likely to go to prison than their wealthier counterparts. They are also more likely to leave prison with little to no income within the first year.

This means that individuals are likely to leave prison, go home to their impoverished families and raise their kids in poverty. And as was explained earlier, children who grow up in poverty and experience a parent or guardian’s incarceration are more likely to live in poverty and experience incarceration as adults.

Therefore, the American cycle of prison and poverty keeps individuals–disproportionately minority communities– cycling through the seemingly perpetual circle.


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