Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

"Beating the Odds" versus "Changing the Odds": Poverty, Resilience, and Family Policy

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

"Beating the Odds" versus "Changing the Odds": Poverty, Resilience, and Family Policy

Article excerpt

Mixed in with national data on declining poverty rates are other signs that poverty, economic hardship, and inequality continue unabated. This essay examines: (a) the scope of poverty and the growing disparity in income and wealth; (b) the consequences of poverty of adults and children; and (c) strategies for improving their resilience. It is suggested that resiliency will be enhanced more by keen attention to national economic policies than by focusing upon individual personality characteristics, family attributes, or even unique community features. Drawing on a public health analogy, a focus on prevention (through sound economic redistribution policies) could significantly strengthen families and improve their well-- being.

Key Words: families, family policy, poverty, resilience.

The U.S. Census Bureau has reported seemingly good news: median income in the United States is up, and poverty rates among families, single adults, and children are down. Every racial and ethnic group experienced a drop in the number of poor and the percent in poverty, as did children, the elderly, and people ages 25-44 (U.S. Census Bureau Public Information Office, 2001c).

Amid this good news is a second, contrasting story. Despite a robust economy during the 1990s, income inequality has steadily increased and the gap between rich and poor is the largest in recent history. Many employed individuals remain financially vulnerable; the purchasing power among those in poverty has been steadily eroded; families leaving welfare for work earn wages of only $6.50 per hour with few medical benefits attached to their jobs-far below what is needed to lift them out of poverty; the percentage of individuals living in extreme poverty (i.e., less than 50% of the poverty line) has remained stable at nearly 40% of the poor; and the percentage of poor children who are food insecure (i.e., have difficult obtaining enough food, have reduced quality of diets, report anxiety about their food supply, or experience moderate to severe hunger) has increased (Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics [FIFCFS], 2000; General Accounting Office, 1999; U.S. Census Bureau, 2000b). Finally, the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001 has steered the U.S. towards a recession-even more people may feel the sting of poverty and economic insecurity.

Poor families, defined as a family of three with an income under $13,874 or $17,463 for a family of four, face serious and debilitating problems (U.S. Census Bureau, 2001). They are more likely to experience violence, hunger, poor health, stress, and abuse. Poor children are more likely to live in unsafe neighborhoods, to go without recommended vaccinations, to have difficulty in school and eventually drop out, and to become teen parents. Poverty makes living conditions difficult and jeopardizes future well-being (Children's Defense Fund, 1998).

Yet despite the toll that poverty can take, some adults and children overcome this adversity and lead successful, well-adjusted, and competent lives. In the face of poverty's many obstacles, they have overcome most or all of them. Many poor couples have high levels of marital quality, do not divorce, and do not express their stress in violent ways. Many children living in poor households have excellent health, are successful in school, are socially well-adjusted and do not engage in deviant activities, and do not reproduce their parents' poverty.

These individuals are resilient. Resilience is a multifaceted phenomenon that produces the ability to thrive despite adversity. The term is derived from Latin roots meaning, "to jump (or bounce) back" (Silliman, 1994). It can be defined as the capacity to rebound from adversity, misfortune, trauma, or other transitional crises strengthened and more resourceful (McCubbin, McCubbin, Thompson, Han & Allen, 1997; Walsh, 1998).

It is an active process of endurance, self-righting, and growth in response to crisis and challenge. …

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