An Overlooked Reason Poor People Stay Poor: Sudden Life Shocks

Science finds that things like health problems, layoffs, and arrests happen more often to poor people–and help keep them poor.

Since 2012, Columbia University’s Population Research Center and the Robin Hood Foundation have been surveying 2,000 New York City households of all income levels about the conditions that are associated with poverty. Unlike most surveys, which take an annual “snapshot” based on income and other data, these interviews with the same families four times a year are providing a deeper look at the complex relationship between poverty based purely on income and many other related factors, from housing to health.


With its latest data, the Poverty Tracker survey looks at an often overlooked aspect of why it’s so hard to climb out of poverty–unexpected “shocks,” such as divorce, a layoff, a health condition, a robbery, or an arrest. They’re hard to deal with when you’re rich–and are far worse when you don’t have resources to fall back on.

The researchers found a strong relationship between poverty and shock events. For example, 86% of people who had suffered persistent hardship also suffered multiple financial shocks, whereas only 39% who had no hardship did. In addition, 23% of those suffering from persistent poverty experienced multiple criminal shocks, while only 13% of those who never experienced poverty suffered from similar shocks.

This isn’t really surprising but it poses an interesting question: Are more shocks happening to people stuck in poverty because they are stuck in poverty, or are they the cause of the poverty in the first place? There’s no way to really test this directly, because it’s unethical to conduct experiments on humans that would expose them to shocks or disadvantage, but the authors of the report tried to tease this answer out statistically. They found, unsurprisingly, that the relationship goes both ways: Shocks come from persistent hardships and deepen them, too.

“Protecting families in part from repeated exposure to multiple shocks may help prevent them from experiencing repeated severe and persistent hardship,” says Robin Hood chief program officer Michael Weinstein, in a statement.

Overall, the tracker shows that the statistics of well-being are grim in New York City. Nearly half of New Yorkers (47%) experienced at least one “spell” of poverty over three years, and 1 in 20, or 5%, experienced persistent poverty over three years. Women were much more likely to experience poverty spells than men; and Hispanics were the most likely ethnic group to experience them. What’s more, a “numbing” 73% of people experienced some serious deprivation over the three-year period, either related to income, severe material hardship (like hunger or eviction), or poor health.

To explore this data and much more, visit the visualization here.


About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire.