The Cycle of Poverty

This lesson is the third in a series called “Issues of Poverty.” Students explore the causes of poverty in the United States and the structural factors that perpetuate it. Students will examine the ways poverty is closely related to economic and political policy, and will work to discover why it disproportionately affects members of nondominant groups—that is, groups that have historically been oppressed.
Grade Level


Activities will help students:

  • understand the difference between short- and long-term poverty
  • explore the factors that can determine and perpetuate poverty
  • determine which members of our society are most vulnerable
Essential Questions
  • What factors can lead to poverty?
  • What circumstances can fuel long-term poverty?
  • How can poverty affect succeeding generations?
  • Which members of our society suffer most?


In this third lesson, students will learn the factors that can both determine and perpetuate poverty over a lifetime and into succeeding generations. Students will understand the difference between short-term need and long-term poverty, brainstorm the circumstances that can lead to each and reach conclusions about which people in our society are most vulnerable to generational poverty. 



cycle (sy-kuhl) (noun) in this context, a series of occurrences that is repeated

incarceration (in-kahr-suh-ray-shun) (noun) imprisonment

long-term (lawng tuhrm) (adjective) applying to a relatively long period of time, usually more than one year

short-term (shohrt tuhrm) (adjective) applying to a relatively short period of time, usually a year or less

(Note: Factors related to poverty can be either short- or long-term. Family support, for example, could change if a parent or guardian gets sick or has to work far away from the family for some period of time—this is short-term. But if parents or guardians don’t support education in general, that would be long-term.)


Additional Resources

  • Do Something provides information and ideas for student projects concerning education, health and poverty.
  • Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) is a nonprofit child advocacy organization that works to ensure a level playing field for all children.



1. As students, you may often find yourselves short of money. You might not have enough to go to a Friday night basketball game. You might also be worrying about the amount of money it will take to continue your education. But you may have something on your side to help you achieve future success. As a class, discuss what that something (or somethings) might be. (Note: Students may have a family history and support for educational achievement, they may live in an affluent area with good schools and access to medical care, they may have physical or mental abilities that will give them access to certain professions.) In light of those factors, how would you describe your chance of success? How might your life be different if you did not have those advantages? 

2. Divide into four groups. Within each group, you will explore the short- and long-term impact of these factors of poverty: education, health, geography, and household and family structure. Using the handout specified for your group, brainstorm and list the ways in which specific circumstances tied to one of those factors might lead to poverty. An example is provided on each handout: Education, Health, Geography, and Household and Family Structure.
(Note: On each handout, one example is provided for circumstances under which education, health, geography, and household and family structure figure into a life of poverty. The following additional examples will help you guide students as they brainstorm.



  • National workplace emphasis on advanced degrees
  • Necessity of a high school diploma
  • Family support, including time and supplemental funds
  • Preparation for learning
  • Access to quality schools
  • Mobile existence
  • “Tracking” of students in schools     
  • Working outside of school
  • Civic engagement



  • Nutrition and food security
  • Access to quality medical care
  • Cognitive health, including problem-solving and decision-making
  • Chronic illnesses, such as diabetes or asthma
  • Mental illnesses, such as depression or bipolar disorder
  • Physical disabilities
  • Safe neighborhoods
  • Safe schools



  • Access to a safe neighborhood
  • Urban and rural access to quality food
  • Urban and rural access to quality schools
  • Rural access to quality jobs
  • Rural access to quality medical care
  • Rural access to social networks
  • Link between property taxes and school budgets


Household and Family Structure

  • Access to a safe home
  • Marital status of parents or guardians
  • Gender of single parent or guardian
  • Education level of parent or guardian
  • Income level of parent or guardian
  • Incarceration of a parent or guardian
  • Number of working persons in the home
  • Number of children in the home
  • People who live alone

3. After brainstorming, look again at your list. Using one highlighter color, mark the circumstances that you think could cause a short-term delay in achieving a higher level of success. With the other color, highlight the circumstances that you think could lead to long-term poverty—even into another generation. Share your work with the other three groups. Have all four groups reached the same consensus as to what is short-term need vs. long-term poverty? Discuss how being poor on a long-term basis could feed a cycle of poverty for generations.

4. Poverty does not exist just because people lack health-care insurance or just because they live in a rural area. People usually experience long-term poverty because their circumstances include more than one of its factors. For example, a teen in a single-parent household might drop out of school to take a fast-food job that will help keep his household afloat. If he is out of school for a long period of time, he is less likely to go back and then less likely to rise above his current employment level. As a class, take turns describing similar examples that draw from each of the factors you’ve discussed. For each example, explore what events or sets of events might break the series of circumstances. Then track your ideas by creating a mind map (Note: Examples of mind maps can be found here and here) so you can see the big picture.

5. In pairs or in your already established groups, think more about the educational, health-related, geographic and family-related circumstances that are most often connected to long-term poverty. Use your collective mind maps to support your understanding. Do you think that some members of our society are more vulnerable than others to these circumstances? If so, who are they? Why do you think they are more vulnerable? As a class, discuss your thoughts.

(Note: Lesson 4 will explore the issue of race/ethnicity and poverty.)


Common Core Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies: CCSS: RH.9-10.4, RH.11-12.7, RH.11-12.9