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.


“Fist, Stick, Knife, Gun” By Geoffrey Canada

In Fist, Stick, Knife, Gun, by Geoffrey Canada, the three major points include the past, the changes, and the present because they help explain the current state of inner-city neighborhoods. In the past, Canada explains that to gain reputation on the block, one would fight, and winning said fights meant an increase in reputation. Children were “safe” more or less from other blocks when they were on their home block because the other children on their block would back them up. In this time, one learned empathy through learning to fight because they had to take some punches.

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While traumatizing in its own way, this type of life was mild to later changes. As Canada grew up, guns started to enter the streets, but they were limited to a few older kids. Furthermore, soon drugs, followed by guns, quickly became commonplace items on the street. As Canada explains in his book, guns, not toughness, determine the pack’s head. This explosion of crime helps explain the mass incarceration of Black people, the high arrest rates, and the many deaths within Black communities.

Often in the United States, many people discuss “Black-on-Black crime” —as if it’s any different than the regular crime— without realizing why crime is high in impoverished, minority communities. The increase in crime and drugs has no basis in an intrinsic fault among minorities or because minorities are dangerous people. Instead, high rates of crime are due to the circumstances to which individuals are subjected to.


Mothers and fathers who can’t or don’t care for their children leave teenagers and sometimes younger children to fend for themselves. Without a firm adult role model, who do they look to? As Canada explains in Fist, Stick, Knife, Gun, they looked to the “older boys,” were literally just the older kids who lived on the block.

multicolored wall with graffiti photo
Photo by Seven Shooter on Unsplash

Canada explains that after he left for college, he only returned to the South Bronx for holidays. Still, the city was nothing like he remembered. Kids were used by significant drug suppliers to sell drugs, and they made more money than they or their families had seen in their lifetime. However, since they were kids, they couldn’t buy houses or cars like their older drug dealer counterparts. So, the kids bought clothes and jewelry. But, wearing expensive accessories in areas where robbery is highly likely meant that you were even more of a target. The only solution? Defend yourself.


Unlike how Canada grew up with fist fighting, the kids nowadays have access to firearms, and so, they bought them, no more needing to know how to fight. As kids increasingly obtained guns, there were no “codes of conduct,” as Canada calls them. Codes of conduct include when you can fight someone else and when you can’t.

gray hand cuffs with the key next to them.
Photo by Bill Oxford on Unsplash

But with guns, Canada says, “Sometimes these days they yell and curse and then shoot you, sometimes they just shoot you.” So, without rules, people needed to defend themselves, so they also obtained guns, resulting in a tremendous number of weapons being carried down the streets.

Having the opportunity to go to Bowdoin College in Maine and Harvard School of Education, Canada was able to escape this environment. After graduating college, Canada eventually returned to New York City, Harlem, to be specific. He founded a Beacon Schools program that opens in impoverished neighborhoods where school enrollment is low, crime is high, and the city has no interest in fixing. These schools offer children extracurricular activities proven to benefit children, a security presence, and community involvement.

Canada has found that, through the opening of Beacon Schools, the community benefits directly. Crime goes down, enrollment increases, and even violence within the school goes down.

Photo by Ivan Aleksic on Unsplash

If you’re interested in crime in the United States, this book is highly recommended. Many individuals, including politicians, believe that the quick fix to crime and deviance is to increase police presence, such as Reagan’s War on Drugs. But Canada offers a different resolution. He advocates offering free, quality educations, security for children, and extracurricular activities.

When you think about it, in its simplicity, all that Canada is doing is offering kids a proper childhood. Children in these neighborhoods have to grow up all too quickly on the streets, which hardens a person. Through an education, activities such as the Tai Kwon Do program he leads, and a sense of safety, the children get to be children again. 

 And as any adult knows, childhood is short as it is, so shouldn’t children get to enjoy it in all its innocence and purity?

Here’s links to Canada’s work:

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  • Fist, Stick, Knife, Gun by Geoffrey Canada