Generational Poverty

Working with People Living in Generational Poverty

“There is nothing new about poverty. What is new is that we now have the techniques and the resources to get rid of poverty. The real question is whether we have the will.”
~Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., March 31, 1968

As in all other pages of this website, the information here about poverty only accounts for general trends as discovered by research. All economically poor people do not fit the following descriptions and therefore when working with these people, professionals should not make assumptions. The information on this page is intended to help the reader understand some things they might need to consider when working with people who come from a background of poverty.


There are several types of poverty; there are both similarities and differences among the populations that are described with each definition. In order to understand the differences, three categories of poverty are defined below:

Situational Poverty
Having fewer resources (typically income) than one is accustomed to due to life events, such as the loss of job, that change a family’s living standard between one and five years. Some common characteristics among many people in situational poverty:

  • grew up in a stable environment
  • are surrounded by people who are educated or able to earn a living wage
  • attend (or attended) school regularly
  • have health care
  • generally are able to make it back to middle class
  • do not internalize the poverty as their own fault

Working Class Poverty
Having income but not one that allows for saving or extras. Some common characteristics among many people in working class poverty:

  • do not own property
  • live paycheck to paycheck
  • do not have health care
  • view poverty as a personal deficiency

Generational Poverty
When a family’s economic level remains low for two or more generations. Some common characteristics among many people who are from generational poverty:

  • family has never owned land
  • never knew anyone who benefited from education
  • never knew anyone who moved up or was respected in a job
  • highly mobile
  • high family illiteracy

Facts and Statistics

Families and individuals are considered to be living at the poverty level if the total family or household income was less than the poverty threshold which depends on family size, ages of household occupants and number of children under 18. The poverty threshold, which is used by the US Census Bureau, is changed yearly to account for inflation. However, the poverty threshold does not account for cost of living in particular locations; it is a national statistic.

Research shows that families generally need two times the amount defined as the federal poverty level in order to meet basic needs. A family who earns below this amount is considered to be living at the low income level.

2004 Poverty and Unemployment Rates
White children comprise the largest group of children living in poverty however, black, Latino, and American Indian children are disproportionately poor.  Statistics on children living in poverty by race/ethnicity/cultural group


In January of 2002 President George Bush reauthorized and amended federal education programs established under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) by signing the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) was originally enacted in 1965 as part of President Johnson’s “War on Poverty.” The purpose was to create equity in the classroom between children who came from poor families and children from middle- and upper-class families by providing extra funding to schools with a proportionately large amount of low-income students. Low-income status is determined by the percent of students who are eligible for free lunches or who receive public assistance. Research shows that Title I funding has helped students from low-income families improve performance but levels of performance are not commensurate with those from higher income families. 

NCLB is often criticized for blaming schools, particularly those with a high number of students who live in poverty, for not meeting standards. Critics believe that NCLB should instead work to remediate the inequalities in access to quality education that exist between schools in high-income and low-income areas.

Communication Styles

Oral versus Print
In general, there are two styles of communication: oral and print. Print communication is highly valued in the US education system. People from generational poverty tend to have an oral style of communication and people from middle class backgrounds tend to have a print style of communication. Understanding systems of communication is important when working with people of different cultures and backgrounds. Here are some of the characteristics of oral and print communicators:


Formal versus Casual Register

  • Within communication styles, several registers can be used. Two that might be important to distinguish when working with children and adults from a background of generational poverty are formal register and casual register.
  • Formal Register is used if you speak in compete sentences and use specific words such as those that are considered appropriate at work, school and for business transactions. Formal register contains little, if any, slang.
  • Casual Register is the language used in conversation with friends. Words used are less specific and the message depends more on nonverbal cues than messages using a formal register.
  • Some people have not been exposed to formal register which is the style commonly used in schools, hospitals, and clinics. If this is the case then explicit teaching might need to be done in order to help a person succeed in a particular environment.

Working with People who are Living in Poverty

There are many people who criticize information such as that shown below for treating people who come from and live in generational poverty as a cultural group, for creating stereotypes, and for viewing people from generational poverty as if they have deficits other than economic ones. Furthermore, these critics feel that working with people in the manner described below ignores the systemic problem of classism that exists in our society. Others believe that as we try to change the system we should understand how to help people who are currently living in poverty by understanding how their lives might be different than the lives of people from the middle class. For these people, understanding personal values and beliefs is important when working with people of different cultures and backgrounds such as generational poverty.

Trends in the Belief Systems of People from Middle Socioeconomic Status (SES) and from Generational Poverty

*The list below is compiled from research done specifically on participants who have come from a background of generational poverty and from personal interviews with people from the same population. The suggestions were made for teachers in the classroom but can be applied to other professionals and settings.

Suggestions for Working with People who Live in Generational Poverty

  1. Expect all students to learn; tell them what you expect from them.
  2. Give meaningful assessments that are related to curriculum and instruction.
  3. Give thoughtful feedback.
  4. Form personal relationships with those you are working with.
  5. Discuss different economic situations with students to reduce status issues between students.
  6. Make curriculum and activities enjoyable.
  7. Create mentor programs with mentors who understand generational poverty.
  8. Understand oral culture and include literacy approaches that include oral culture learning styles.
  9. Learn about causes of poverty, what people in poverty often experience, and best practices for working with people from generational poverty.
  10. Educate others on causes and experiences of generational poverty; do not tolerate low expectations
  11. Collaborate with community groups who work to help families in generational poverty succeed
  12. Include generational poverty in multicultural discussions
  13. Create family involvement by focusing on common interests (the students).
  14. Create safe, clean school grounds with current textbooks and materials.
  15. Do not judge families and/or behavior.
  16. Make extra efforts to ensure understanding, silence does not mean understanding
  17. Examine your own attitudes about people who live in poverty.
  18. Consider rewards and motivators – are they based on middle class beliefs and values?
  19. Reconsider homework, something that does not fit well with a generational poverty lifestyle. Is there another way to ensure learning?
  20. Expression appreciation to parents and family members for any effort shown to help their child/relative/spouse succeed.

Implications for the SLP

Language Development and School Readiness

Poverty does not cause language impairments. Some children who were born into generational poverty, however, face issues such as hunger and limited or no access to health care. Research shows that these issues along with low educational levels of caregivers can affect the language skills of these children.

Economic factors can also affect school readiness skills. The number of books in a child’s home positively correlates with the child’s emergent literacy skills. Because families with fewer economic resources are unable to purchase books, their children often have fewer early literacy experiences and therefore their beginning literacy knowledge is at a lower level than their middle class counterparts.


Because children from low-SES backgrounds (including generational poverty, working class poverty, etc.) show up to school with fewer pre-academic skills and struggle more in school, a disproportionate number are referred to special programs. Furthermore, standardized tests used to qualify children for these special programs are biased against those from low-SES backgrounds and the result is special education programs with a high number of kids from poverty. Because cultural and linguistic diversity overlaps with poverty in the US, a disproportionate number of culturally and linguistically diverse kids are also included in special education programs.

When assessing children from generational poverty, it is important to assess their ability to learn rather than their knowledge which is affected by factors such as the education level of their parents, their culture, and the family’s economic status. Currently there are five steps that are considered important to understanding a child’s underlying language-ability rather than their knowledge. They are a) conducting a screening and response to intervention (RTI), b) gathering a thorough case history, c) evaluating related areas such as vision and hearing, d) modifying standard assessments to make them appropriate for those who are from generational poverty, and e) using non-standardized, informal and alternative measures such as processing tasks.

Screening and Response to Intervention

Screening a child for language intervention can help to understand if further testing is needed. However, they can also lead to unnecessary, standardized testing that might be biased against those from a background of low-socioeconomic status. If a teacher refers a child for testing, many schools now use a RTI model to determine if the child just needs to adjust to school culture or if there is an actual language impairment.

To implement RTI the appropriate specialist works with the child, often in the classroom, to give extra support when needed. If after a specified amount of time the child benefits from the intervention and performs at a similar level to his or her classmates then screening and assessment is avoided. If however, the child continues to perform at lower levels than others of the same age then a screening and possibly an assessment are completed.

Case History

Before formal assessments are administered, a detailed case history should be collected in order to understand the child’s background as it relates to his or her success in school. The case history should include parent interviews, teacher interviews, previous assessment records, and pertinent medical records.
In addition to the usual case history information, when working with people from generational poverty consider variables such as family living patterns and language use in the home. Questions such as Is there a history of homelessness or frequently moving? and Are languages other than English spoken at home? and Do the adults in the home use a formal or casual register? might be considered.

Related Areas for Evaluation

As in all cases, areas that might be related to language learning and/or academic success should be considered. Check the child’s records for hearing and vision evaluations. If there is no history, these should be addressed.

Standardized Assessments

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (2004) specifically states that professionals must use unbiased test materials and administer them in a nondiscriminatory manner. Because many standardized tests have been shown to discriminate against those from poverty, tests can be altered to assess underlying language ability instead of knowledge base. For a description of how standardized tests can be biased against those from non-middle class, mainstream culture and therefore need to be modified, please see the Assessment page of this website under Clinical Aspects of Bilingualism and Multiculturalism.

Listed below are some suggestions for using standardized tests with children who live in an environment of generational poverty.

1. Give the child extra time to answer.
2. Explain the directions thoroughly, especially for confusing items.
3. Allow the child to complete extra practice items and examples.
4. Change items that students are likely to miss based on experience (e.g., if a child has never been to the zoo then any item that involves a zoo should be omitted or changed)
3. Continue administering the test even if the ceiling has been reached. Children who have changed schools several times might have “pockets of knowledge” that appear later on the test.
6. Administer the test over several sessions so the child becomes familiar with the examiner.
7. Use motivators to encourage a child to do his or her best.
8. Begin with the easiest tasks so the child can experience success.
9. Be personable with the child.

Informal and Alternative Measures

Although evaluating children from generational poverty interacting with adults is important, it is more important to assess how they interact with peers from similar backgrounds. The goal is to assess the students' semantic and pragmatic skills to determine if they can effectively communicate in their daily environments. Even if a student uses a casual register rather than Standard American English, observations can be made that can help determine whether the child has a language impairment or not.

Below suggestions are listed for informal evaluation.

1. Does the child use gestures or other nonverbal communication when it would be more appropriate to speak?
2. Do peers understand the student?
3. Can the student easily communicate basic needs?
4. Does the child respond when peers initiate interactions?
5. Does the student verbally initiate interaction with peers?
6. Does the student respond appropriately to questions?
7. Can the student convey thoughts sequentially and maintain a topic?
8. Does the child take turns?
9. Does the student need to have basic information repeated in order to understand it?

For more information on informal assessment measures such as why it is important and different ways to administer informal measures,please see the Assessment page of this website under the topic Clinical Aspects of Bilingualism and Multiculturalism.

Another option for assessment is to use dynamic assessment. Static assessments measure a student's knowledge at the time of testing. However, dynamic assessment evaluates a child's ability to respond to teaching instruction and support. When using dynamic assessment with a child from generational poverty, the professional evaluates how much the child modified his or her skills based on the instruction and how much support was required by the professional. For information on using dynamic assessment, please see the Assessment page of this website under Clinical Aspects of Bilingualism and Multiculturalism.


When working with people who come from a background of generational poverty, it is important to be aware of differences that might exist between the clinician and the client and at the same time it is crucial to not stereotype or judge people and behaviors. Research shows that some people who come from generational poverty might feel shamed or humiliated particularly regarding their appearance, family members' appearances, jobs, and money. Others do not. Clinicians should use this information along with the suggestions listed in the sections above and below to form meaningful, personal relationships with clients and to help them succeed.


References and Resources