Thirteen Lessons About Poverty

AmeriCorps VISTA
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Build on what you learned watching How Poverty is Measured in the United States to understand common assumptions about poverty in the US. The purpose of this assignment is two-fold. One, it will help you to think about what assumptions you may have about poverty, as you hear and see data you may or may not already know. Second, it will give you a chance to consider how other people’s assumptions about poverty might shape the work you’ll do as a VISTA.

As you view the video, reflect on the following questions:

  • What theories guided the war on poverty? (Because the VISTA program grew out of the war on poverty, these theories shaped the program)
  • How has our understanding about poverty changed over time?

We recommend that you watch the video in segments as described below, where you'll also find reflection questions for each segment.  At the bottom of this page you will also find a recommended activity to extend your learning.



Thirteen Lessons About Poverty - Segment 1 

Watch the first section of the video, up to 4:26, and reflect on the following questions:

  1. Who do you know who might be surprised to learn that 34% of all Americans experience short-term poverty?
  2. How should this information shape an overall strategy for addressing poverty -- especially given the different needs of people in short-term poverty, persistent poverty, or at risk of poverty due to income insecurity?

Is your project focused on serving people in short-term poverty, people in persistent poverty, or people who - for reasons such as income insecurity - might be likely to become poor in the future. Which aspects of your organization’s programs indicate the population you'll be serving?

Thirteen Lessons About Poverty - Segment 2 

Watch the second section of the video, from 4:27 to 9:24. This section of the video covers some of the specific factors that determine how likely someone is to experience poverty, what impact those factors might have on their experience, and what sort of supports different people in poverty need. After watching this segment, consider how the following topics covered in these lessons relate to your project:

  • Age at which someone first experiences poverty
  • Geography
  • Disparities across racial and ethnic groups
  • Need for childcare
  • Disability

Which of these factors are relevant to your project, and in what ways? What resources do you think you would need to know about to address these topics in the community where you serve?

Thirteen Lessons About Poverty - Segment 3

Watch the final section of the video, from 9:25 to the end. This section will cover larger structural causes and effects of poverty such as:

  • Low-wage work leaves many working Americans in poverty, even if they have multiple jobs.
  • Whether or not people have access to affordable healthcare can have a huge effect on whether they fall into or remain in poverty.
  • The poverty-prison-poverty cycle traps individuals and families, making it more difficult to alleviate poverty.
  • People in poverty are already experiencing more difficulties due to climate change and other environmental concerns.
  • The “War on Poverty” didn’t fail, although poverty persists in America.

Think back to what you learned about your organization’s Theory of Change through the diagram and definitions provided, and in conversation with your supervisor. Reflect on the following questions:

  • How does the Theory of Change address one or more of the structural causes and effects of poverty described in the video?
  • How will your activities as a VISTA build capacity and advance your organization’s Theory of Change?
  • What do you think some of the biggest challenges will be?

Thirteen Lessons About Poverty: Extend Your Learning (Recommended)

Most people make assumptions about poverty that aren’t entirely accurate. Understanding the subtleties regarding poverty in America today and anticipating what inaccurate assumptions other people might have about poverty in your community can help you be more effective in your work. You can use the following free resources any time during your service to deepen your own understanding--and to share that understanding with other people.

Income inequality: What we think it is, what we think it ought to be, and what it really is. Income inequality has been increasing dramatically--so much so, that even people who are concerned about income inequality may not realize how big the gap is between the richest Americans and the rest of the country. Even those in the middle class aren’t really in the middle in terms of income, and the poor have an increasingly smaller share overall, as the video below shows:



Where you live can determine whether you can escape poverty. Although we like to believe that America is a land of opportunity in which people who work hard can escape poverty, it is actually much harder to move up depending on where you live, as this comic book-style graphic narrative shows.

Individual stories can help us understand the big issues and challenges relating to poverty. The film The Line was created to raise awareness about poverty. It’s a great example of how to use stories to share information. It is relevant to nearly all VISTA projects, because it addresses a range of issues: the growth of suburban poverty, the effects of trauma on people living in poverty, the persistence of generational poverty, links between poverty and violence, how environmental factors impact people’s income, and how to maintain hope in hard times. You can watch all 43 minutes online for free using the hyperlink above, and you can even host a screening for your organization or your community, so that people can watch together and discuss what they learn.

The American Dream may be shrinking for nearly all Americans. It turns out that even during much of the 20th-century, most Americans weren’t really able to move up in terms of class, and in the 21st-century, many Americans will find they aren’t doing as well their parents did, as this article describes. How does the changing outlook for the middle-class shape our understanding of poverty?

Is there a “culture of poverty?” This thoughtful discussion demonstrates what can go awry when scholars try to determine why poverty is so persistent. If you want to understand theories about poverty, and why they aren’t always accurate, this is an insightful read.