Intergenerational Poverty! Why is it a disability?

Old destitute beggar

So what is poverty really? A quick definition of poverty states, “Poverty is the scarcity or the lack of a certain (variant) amount of material possessions or money.” However poverty really goes beyond that. The follow on effects of “a lack of certain amounts of material possessions or money” results in diminished participation or marginalisation from society as a whole. This leads to the loss of dignity for the individuals concerned, which makes the whole cycle a downward spiral, something which is extremely hard to break. When this cycle is perpetuated from one generation to another, it becomes Intergenerational Poverty (IGP). Research shows if you are born into poverty, you are more likely to remain within that vicious cycle unbeknown of ways to break out of it (Krishna, 2012). The reasons for becoming trapped in this cycle are many, as per Krishna, 2012, but they have been surmised as ‘everyday adverse events’, as being the causative feature of remaining in this poverty trap.

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To frame this in the New Zealand context, it firstly needs to be noted that we don’t have any formal poverty statistics or measures available in the public domain at this time. Whether this is by accident, or by design, is unknown. However there is strong evidence, that there exists a wealth gap as per measures provided by the Gini co-efficient which implies the existence of relative poverty. IGP has been noted to be prevalent in families that display a dependence on social security in New Zealand as per a Ministry of Social Development report on significant ‘pockets of poverty’. This report also highlights the different types of poverty on the poverty continuum and highlights the various causes and solutions to the problem. The focus of this article however is IGP, for which the poverty continuum states comprehensive ‘wrap around services’ as a solution to this problem.

Let us momentarily shift our focus to what a disability is. One common definition might be “a disadvantage or handicap, especially one imposed or recognized by the law”. We might have a case to argue that IGP is every bit a disability. IGP is a form of socio-economic disability which as mentioned before leads to a loss of dignity and participation for the individual and family concerned. It is an economic handicap caused and passed on as a result of several factors such as bankruptcy, ill health, loss off credit worthiness, crippling sub prime debt, a criminal record, poor mental or physical health etc. This list is by no means exhaustive. A strong case needs to be made for a provision in the law to look at the nature of IGP as a disability. Why, might you ask, is this necessary then? It becomes necessary when we find ourselves wondering how might we address the problem of IGP and who the relevant stakeholders should be? As mentioned earlier in this article, comprehensive wrap around services are required to address IGP in the report prepared by the MSD. In my view, the MSD has fallen one step short of recognising IGP as a disability. Had it done so it would have more clarity on who the stakeholders might be and what those wrap around services might look like. 

We might have a case to argue that Inter-Generational Poverty is every bit a disability.


Let’s say a person with a disability approaches the health system for assistance. They are assessed for a raft of support that is available from the organisation inline with disability rights. For example, someone with a long term disability might be visited by an occupational therapist to assess their needs. Subsequently they may be provided with tools to assist with day to day functioning which leads to an optimal level of independence. The treatment of IGP can be viewed through a similar lens and the lead support person ought to be a social worker; they are in the best position to assess the nature of the IGP and to recommend the best tools to assist the person in need. Social workers are trained in the art of assessment of a person’s family and socio-economic needs, as well as holding relevant knowledge on the appropriate health and community services available to a particular person and their family. Due to the multifaceted nature of IGP, social workers hold the appropriate training, registrations and knowledge to direct people in IGP towards the correct services. Thus aiding them in taking appropriate steps to break the cycle of IGP by addressing the areas of dysfunction in their life and that of their family. They are trained to engage with people from a range of challenging backgrounds within society. Such engagement would then result in referrals and reports to MSD case workers who would then evaluate the currency of benefits for the people in question.

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However the current structure of social services is rather discombobulated as people are moved from one type of benefit to another by their case workers depending on changes in their circumstances. These case workers might not have the appropriate training to interpret their clients’ needs or situation. Thus there is a great variance in the judgement being exercised by case workers. For example, someone on the Sole Parent Support benefit might be moved to a Job Seekers benefit type because they are deemed fit to work. An assessment of this nature needs to be made with careful consideration with the circumstances of the person involved, especially for those in the IGP trap. Also the person making this assessment should ideally be a Social Worker, to determine if they are in the IGP trap or not. Their needs must be assessed, and any gaps in skills, which might prevent them from being gainfully employed, addressed. As the system currently stands, these decisions are being made by Case Managers under strict guidelines issued by the MSD, leaving very little room for compassionate grounds or the like, to be factored in decision making. The affected people are then assigned to a Work Broker, who is trying to encourage people into the work force. The system may be well meaning, however the results are mixed. 

“In writing this article, we as a society need to aspire to arrive at a point where there is no requirement for charity.”


With poverty statistics only getting worse, this is evidence that the current approach is flawed. The problem needs to be re-framed and viewed differently as a disability for those affected by IGP. This will be a landmark change, should it ever be introduced into our system. In recent times, the incumbent labour government wishes to take a more compassionate approach to economic growth; recognising IGP as a disability would certainly be a step in the right direction, as it would give those affected the same rights as a disabled person and the conundrum of violation of human rights, with such a framework in place, would be solved!

In writing this article, we as a society need to aspire to arrive at a point where there is no requirement for charity. It is at this point we can proudly state that we have addressed the issue of IGP and other forms of poverty, thereby achieving the United Nations number one Sustainable Development Goal for 2030 – “No Poverty”. But we are not quite there yet, are we?