Approaching Poverty Systemically

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As we face the stark reality that one in seven Americans are projected to have resources below the poverty level in 2021, the world demands systemic solutions. No problem as widespread as poverty in America and across the world can be blamed entirely on the individuals and families that poverty affects — though some would certainly argue this point.

Approaching poverty systemically may be the only way we can make progress at any significant rate. From minimum wage to criminal justice reform, systemic changes have the potential to make a real impact on poverty at a national level. Adopted at scale, systemic solutions can help end the global travesty that is poverty.

But understanding potential fixes requires first assessing the causes of poverty. With a systemic approach, we can broaden the picture and give context to the millions of families struggling with a lack of resources. In turn, working solutions can become much clearer.

Assessing the Causes of Poverty

A host of factors contribute to the problem of poverty. From geographical locations where access to jobs and opportunities is scarce to faulty education systems that add to the problem of generation poverty, the causes of inequality on a massive scale are far-ranging and nebulous. While a world without any poverty may be difficult to imagine, addressing the root causes behind the millions without access to resources — even in countries as wealthy as America — can help give us the tools to make systemic changes.

Here are three of the most prominent causes of widespread poverty:

Wage Inequality

Often, the poverty problem goes hand-in-hand with a lack of access to jobs that pay a living wage. Either these are leaving cities in the post-industrial economic shift, or the jobs that remain simply do not pay enough. In fact, the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) found that as many as 11.4% of full-time, year-round American workers were not being paid enough to break past poverty thresholds. For CEOs, however, the situation is much different. From 1978 to 2019, CEO pay increased by 1,167%. For typical workers, wages grew only 13.7% in the same period.

Social Injustice

The problem of wage inequality is only compounded by the social injustice still commonly experienced by women and minorities in the sectors of the economy they more often occupy. The EPI found that female workers were paid poverty wages at a greater rate than men (13.5% compared to 9.6% of men). Meanwhile, destructive austerity policies like those employed in the UK disproportionately impact women, children, and minorities, pushing vulnerable families into greater levels of poverty. Social injustice keeps certain groups from getting ahead, a problem caused by poor governmental representation, underpayment in sectors of the economy like service, and limited access to other necessary resources like childcare.

Lack of Resources

Finally, the limits of resources and their even geographical spread equate to greater levels of poverty. For example, UNESCO has found that if all students in low-income countries were given the education to acquire elementary reading skills, as many as 171 million people could be lifted out of poverty. Limited access to education, clean water, food, and healthcare all contribute to poverty around the world. Now, climate change threatens access to food and water in various regions, meaning the problem will only get worse without systemic solutions.

Applying Systemic Changes

Applying solutions on a scale large enough to make a real difference requires understanding the causes of poverty and combating them at their source. With that achieved, we can propose informed solutions at a systemic level that may play a role in elevating families out of poverty and establishing greater levels of equality throughout the world. From federal minimum wages to education systems, this is much more possible than you might imagine.

Addressing Pay Disparities and Social Injustice

First, we can address the problem of wage inequality. This can start with a minimum wage increase, which has the power to impact the lives of 32 million workers. The Raise the Wage Act of 2021, for example, is projected to make a huge difference in the lives of workers relegated to low-wage work, which are disproportionately people of color. In fact, by lifting the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2025, the 23% of the workforce made up of Black women and Latinas would experience an annual income boost between $3,500 and $3,700 per individual.

Additionally, we can create legislation that ties CEO pay to that of their workforce. There is no conscionable reason that CEOs should be making hundreds of times more a year than their employees. Shareholders often do not even understand the pay packages they offer CEOs, and higher rates of pay have been associated with poorer market performance. With tax incentives for more equitable pay ratios, we can better combat inequality on a systemic level.

Building Better Resources

Then, we can better address the resource discrepancies on a global scale. From education to criminal justice systems, resources are needed to mitigate the damages of poverty and curb the cycles of poverty born by system problems. Social workers are needed to empower and advocate for communities all over the world, educating them about the resources available to them and providing even more. Schools must support their students with programs designed to elevate them based on specific needs, while criminal justice reform must support re-entry.

All these resources can help a family survive unexpected financial hardships, especially after COVID. In the era of mass global financial instability, giving communities across the world the means to succeed will help eradicate poverty. Through education, opportunity, and equity, we can ensure that talent and ability aren’t lost to the shackles of social injustice that hold too many individuals back. But we must ensure that systemic solutions are built with and for the families they target.

By advocating for systemic change, you can support a richer, better world. Start now by exploring the needs of your community and supporting legislation that improves pay and resource accessibility.

Beau Peters is a freelance writer based out of Portland, OR. He has a particular interest in covering workers' rights, social justice, and workplace issues and solutions. Read other articles by Beau.