Jeff Kottkamp: Breaking the cycle of generational poverty

On the opening day of the 2014 Session in the Florida House of Representatives, then Speaker of House Will Weatherford spoke at length about an issue that few leaders in government talk about — generational poverty. During his remarks, Speaker Weatherford noted “There will always be poverty — the kind that results from temporary setbacks: job loss, foreclosures, or unexpected challenges … but there’s a far greater and more dramatic problem for some of our Floridians. They’re stuck in generational poverty — the persistent, year after year oppression and hopelessness that starts with grandparents, is passed on to parents and continues to their children.”

Nearly 1 million children live at or below the poverty line in Florida — roughly defined as having an annual income of about $24,000 for a family of four. Research suggests that most families need about twice that amount simply to meet their basic needs. In just three counties in South Florida nearly 500,000 children live in low-income or impoverished homes (including an astonishing 48% of children in Miami-Dade County). According to the Urban Institute, one in six newborns in our country is born poor.

Poverty is a big enough problem — but as Speaker Weatherford noted the cycle of generational poverty is a deeper, more troubling problem. There are families in Florida that have never known life outside of poverty. It is within this deep dark hole of generational poverty that we see some of society’s biggest problems: teenage pregnancy, high school dropouts, dependency on drugs, unemployment, and incarceration. And each of these problems comes with a hefty price tag. Florida spends over $2 billion a year just on prisons.

There is an effective and cost-efficient way to break the cycle of generational poverty. In fact, that cycle is being broken every day in after-school programs like those operated by Florida’s Boys & Girls Clubs. Statewide, over 129,000 youth ages 6-18 attend Boys & Girls Clubs. Realizing that the great equalizer in society is education — the first thing Club kids do each day is their homework. Special attention is devoted to reading skills along with character development and financial literacy. Boys & Girls Clubs throughout Florida report high school graduation rates of 100%, teenage pregnancy rates of 0%, and reading at or above grade level rates of more than 80%.

The vast majority of the youth who attend after-school programs at Boys & Girls Clubs live in poverty — many grew up in the cycle of generational poverty. But those kids are being shown the path to success—starting with the importance of education—and the cycle is being broken.

It is no surprise that celebrities that grew up going to Boys & Girls Clubs now devote a significant amount of time and money helping clubs. Here in Florida, sports superstars like LeBron James and Alex Rodriguez have generously supported clubs. Nationally, Hollywood stars like Denzel Washington and Jennifer Lopez and many others now give back to Boys & Girls Clubs — because it was their participation in after-school programs in the clubs that helped them rise above their circumstances and get on the path to success in life.

Speaker Weatherford believed the ultimate answer for those in poverty “is a paycheck — not a government check.” But to get a good paying job requires skills — and the skills necessary for good paying jobs requires an education. Fortunately, with great after-school programs like those provided by the Boys & Girls Clubs — youth throughout Florida are embracing the importance of education, breaking the cycle of generational poverty, and starting down the path to success in life.

Jeff Kottkamp is president of Jeff Kottkamp, P.A. and served as Florida’s 17th lieutenant governor. He was Chair of Florida’s Children and Youth Cabinet and currently represents the Florida Alliance of Boys & Girls Clubs. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

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