How to End the Cycle of Poverty

In 2014, the official overall poverty rate in the United States was at almost 15 percent. For children under the age of 18 years old, that statistic jumped significantly to more than 21 percent—almost a full quarter of our nation’s children. We have heard the phrase “cycle of poverty” repeated for so long at this point that we have forgotten just how very real the struggle to be financially stable is. And that is just in America. Today, over a quarter of the world’s population—so somewhere around 1.8 billion people—still don’t earn enough to have reliable access to food. And a billion people are “extremely poor,” earning less than $1.25 a day.

The numbers simply don’t lie: adults who remain in financially challenging situations pass these same obstacles down to their children and this pattern continues on through the generations. So how do we begin to change these numbers to tell a different truth? What would a world without poverty really look like?

When Dress for Success was first established, we were very much a welfare-to-work organization. Over the years, the face of the Dress for Success woman has changed—she can hold a Bachelor’s degree just as often as she could hold a benefits card (sometimes she is even the owner of both!)—but the fact still remains that we as a society have much to do to eradicate poverty and expedite the economic independence of those in our global community who are so eagerly striving to obtain it.

An undeniable barrier facing poverty is, quite frankly, getting jobs that pay living wages. Workers are finding it difficult to maintain themselves and their families because the only employment they’re able to secure are positions that pay them below what they need to simply survive—let  alone thrive—as productive members of society. In order to elevate the economic status of our lower income peers around the world, we need to find a way to increase their wages.

Millions of men and women are working low paying jobs as maintenance workers, janitors, taxi drivers, waitresses and other occupations in the restaurant/fast food industry. These are necessary roles that must be filled to maintain the quality of our collective life, but jobs such as these offer shockingly low wages and little—if any—benefits. And let’s not forget that most of these positions are only offered on a part-time basis. Many employers hire several part-time positions because having a high quantity of staff is still less expensive than having to provide benefits and paid time off to full-time employees, even though the quality of work arguably suffers. Whether part-time or full-time, all workers should be compensated with a wage that allows them to provide for themselves and their families, as well as to plan for their future—to those inevitable days that will come where they simply are not able to work any longer, be it due to an emergency or a planned retirement.

Once we see the wage increase that our global society so desperately needs, we need to ensure that it’s implemented justly across the board. As we all know, despite how far we’ve come with women’s equality, women are still paid more than 30% less than men here in the U.S. for doing the same work.

In 2014, the median income for women who worked full time was $39,621 compared to that of men which was $50,383. Due to the wage gap, it’s no surprise why a great amount of women fall into poverty. This is a problem that all businesses must rectify, however, the ability to make an impact does not solely fall on the institution. Working women can do their part by allowing their voices to be heard, asking for raises or promotions based on the value and performance they bring to their jobs. Yet women tend to shy away from such situations because of the fear that it will be detrimental to their careers. Speaking up and taking initiative is perceived to be a risky endeavor. A recent article in The New Yorker shows that when women take the initiative to ask, being assertive and authoritative, they are often seen in a negative light. They are perceived as “tough” and employers are less inclined to work with them.  We need to create infrastructures and environments that encourage more women to speak up for what they want and receive what they rightfully deserve. Closing the gender gap alone would cut poverty in half for working women and their families.

Unequal pay and low wages are just a few of the many challenges we face in poverty. Women who fall into poverty are often also caregivers—workers who are mothers caring for their children and also at times their sick or aging relatives. The hurdle they face is the lack of policies to support them. Among advanced economies, the U.S. stands alone in not mandating for paid leave, the Family and Medical Leave Act. When caregiving duties call and a woman must take time off from her job, the result can be a drastic reduction in her paid work hours.  One can imagine the conflict faced in deciding whether to stay to earn the money from the job she needs or take leave because of the necessity of caring for an elderly family member or a young child. Not having paid leave creates fear of financial security— anxiety of whether she can make enough money in spite of the other challenges in her life.  As a result, after an absence from the workplace, a women is less likely to return, leaving her struggling to find a new career path and leaving a company scrambling to fill a new position and train a new hire.

Out of 185 countries, the U.S. stands with Oman and Papua New Guinea, both developing nations, in not granting paid maternity leave. Some of the developed nations that do offer paid maternity leave include the United Kingdom, which offers 40 weeks, and Vietnam and Ireland, both offering 26 weeks. Research shows that paid maternity leave of up to five months increases mothers’ employment. More women will enter and remain in the workforce as a result of paid maternity leave. Providing employees with paid leave is vital because it fosters a workplace culture in which mothers and caregivers belong in the work world. A study based on California employees and employers provides evidence of this phenomenon. Workers with low-quality jobs who used family leave insurance were more likely to return to their employer: 82.7% of workers who used paid leave returned, compared to 73% who did not have paid leave.

Wage increases, pay equality and paid family leave are all major issues to tackle, but I think that we as a society are up to the challenge. As the saying goes, “there’s no better time than right now,” especially as we see more women becoming the main providers for their families and as more women are aspiring for greater leadership positions throughout all sectors of industry. Plainly put, every aspect of the world suffers when the employment rate is low and the poverty rate is high, and we have suffered long enough.

So what does a world without poverty look like? It’s a world where every child has an education and is able to read because they don’t have to drop out of school to earn money for their family. It’s a world where family structures are strong and sustainable because parents are afforded the time away from work that it takes to lay a solid foundation on which the family can be built. It’s a world where workers are happy to perform their jobs, which leads to higher rates of production and better quality work. It’s a world where women have a true voice because they are provided with infrastructures that empower and support them, which leads to more women in leadership and more profitable companies.

Achieving a world like this requires the efforts of everyone. It requires us all to advocate for the government to perform its duties by ensuring that it implements policies that serve to help all people. We need to be vocal about the need to maximize programs and policies that empower women because empowering women worldwide is not just a win for women, it’s a win for everyone—and it’s a huge leap forward in eradicating poverty across the globe.

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