Breaking the Generational Curse: How Education Impacts Poverty Levels Locally

*The Michigan Chronicle is discussing generational poverty in Detroit, and its history, in this four-part series during Black History Month. In this second story, we delve into how education can help be a part of the solution. Stay tuned for the third and final part to read about poverty’s impact on finances, business barriers, gentrification, and how we could move forward.



Finding solutions to poverty-related problems isn’t solved in silos by individual people. They say it “takes a village” and finding solutions needs to employ that same take.


One route to fixing the mammoth issue that is poverty in and around Black Detroit could be done through education and exposure, helping one generation get a leg up — along with providing a plethora of resources to bolster families in need, experts say. Providing a nurturing learning environment for school-age children and beyond is another key element that leads to success according to local.


Karen Thomas-Brown, a professor of Education at the College of Education, Health and Human Services, University of Michigan-Dearborn, focuses her teaching on multiculturalism and related areas of diversity, equity and inclusion.


She said that intergenerational poverty comes from the notion that “some people are born poor and come from several generational poverty cycles.”


Thomas-Brown added that at the same time the idea is that others become poor during their lifetime.


“One seeks to answer questions of whether poverty at birth makes it more challenging for one to work their way out of it,” Thomas-Brown commented. “If this is the case, should someone who is born poor be blamed for their existence?”


Thomas-Brown said that often intergenerational poverty is seen as the result of a breakdown in the nuclear family structure.


“However, this type of poverty extends beyond the simple explanation of being born poor as the home and family are not the only intergenerational poverty determinants.


Governance, policy and delivery failure increase the likelihood of chronic and intergenerational poverty,” she said, adding that some influencing factors on poverty include family structure, unemployment or underemployment, the number of children in the home, parenting quality and more.


Some societal factors many know could contribute to generational poverty are from lack of opportunities including high-quality education in facilities similar to what is offered in middle-class neighborhoods. Also, lack of education that teaches critical life skills like maintaining good credit, how to budget, how to save and more, she said.


Chardae Caine, Youth Workforce Development fellow at the University of Michigan is responsible for creating research products and data dashboards to help Detroit’s youth workforce development community identify gaps in the network, and plan for future initiatives. She also identifies best practices and guidance to Poverty Solutions.

Chardae Caine, Youth Workforce Development fellow, University of Michigan, is working on steps to reduce poverty in Michigan through her work. Photo provided by Chardae Caine

Caine said that her work with Poverty Solutions is geared toward ultimately breaking the barriers people are facing.


“In my role, I often reflect on the big picture. Meaning, what are the things that need to take place before we can even consider the actual step of getting out of poverty,” she said. Housing, food, transportation, child care, and more, are only some of the factors that can impact a person’s ability to get out of the system. “Past traumas and trauma-informed care is also a major consideration in the needs of Detroit residents”.


She said when considering how to break the cycle and what is needed, it’s crucial to start with the things that matter most, the basic needs. Like in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, physiological and safety needs need to be not only met but solidified before one can really take the (undefined) steps that follow.”


Caine said that educational institutions can offer support and understanding to help students who face poverty.


“At all levels of education, someone who can assist with those basic needs would be beneficial. Although it is often thought that education is the one and only way out of poverty, basic needs either hinder students from continuing on the education pathway or stop them before they reach graduation because the barriers take precedence over paying next semester’s tuition,” she said. “If students have to choose between supporting their families by getting a job or signing up for classes, family – the only thing they have known their whole life – will more than likely come first. Ensuring that the basic needs of students are being met is a necessity.”


Caine added that it’s an all-hands-on-deck situation for solving poverty and “it is our responsibility” as leaders, businesses, education institutions and organizations, to develop and execute the plan, and make adjustments based on data-driven impact.


“The next generation can have more opportunity, experiences and impact if we do the necessary work now,” she said.


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Executive Director Nicole McKinney of the non-profit organization Friends of the Children-Detroit, has similar ideas about the community working together as a whole to end poverty.

Nicole McKinney, executive director of Friends of the Children-Detroit, talks about poverty realities that everyday families face and how this organization is helping them overcome. Photo provided by Nicole McKinney

Portland-based Friends of the Children launched a Detroit chapter just last year. It took $1.5 million in seed money to start the organization here and it relies on the community’s help to sustain it, she said.


McKinney said that this unique nonprofit model has a specific focus to end generational poverty and the organization is complementary to other local nonprofits. And, ultimately, resources need to be pulled together to accomplish the overall goal: “A better future for our children.”


McKinney said that the organization is trying to increase community awareness about its role, which includes supporting families who are low income. Friends of the Children- Detroit supports Black clients a majority of whom are living in Detroit and Wayne County at large.

“All of our children have experienced some adverse childhood experience,” she said of the young clients dealing with homelessness, being in foster care, having an incarcerated or teen parent and more.


The organization serves four- to six-year-olds in cohorts of 32 children. Their first cohort was introduced last year; they plan to have a second this spring. They support not only children in various aspects of their lives but caregivers, too, with a “two-generation approach.”


“Typically, what happens is it has a residual effect on the entire community,” she said adding that their funding comes from grants, local foundations, and other contributions.

The organization is not an educational center but they do have an educational component, a long-term mentoring program.


“We match each child with a paid (college-educated) professional mentor,” she said, adding that the ultimate goal is to make sure by the time the children graduate high school they are on the path toward success. “The beauty of our model is every dollar someone invests here is a $7 return.”


This return comes in the form of saving society the cost of uprooting a child and placing them in juvenile detention or helping prevent teen pregnancy.


This model has been around for almost 30 years but is new to Detroit.


McKinney added that her organization can “put a face” to poverty and the children she encounters through the program are survivors and resilient.


“Children can become products of their environment. Unfortunately, some of our children, they struggle with housing, are in foster care bouncing from house to house — sometimes it is hard to stay focused in an environment like that. But if you have someone with you that can provide stability, guidance and structure, that can help the child have a better outcome,” McKinney said

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Read Part One here.


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