Careers for Poverty Aid: Lifting Up the Poor Through Jobs & Community Service

Poverty affects millions of people in the U.S. and across the world. Learn about career and volunteer opportunities where you can make a difference.

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Meet the Expert

Portrait of Robert L. Hawkins

Robert L. Hawkins

Robert L. Hawkins is the McSilver Associate Professor in Poverty Studies at the NYU Silver School of Social Work and is the Assistant Dean and Director of the undergraduate program. He received his PhD in social policy with an emphasis on low-income families and children from the Heller School of Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University in 2002. Dr. Hawkins has expertise in poverty and welfare, social capital use and development, race and social policy, community participatory research with mixed methodologies and social policy analysis.

There are many misconceptions about people living in poverty, particularly when it comes to how they became poor and why they stay poor. Many think the individuals are to blame, but the economic system makes it extremely difficult for some people to live above the poverty line. Fortunately, there are numerous career and volunteer opportunities for those who want to help others break free from the poverty trap. This guide addresses many of these opportunities while also exploring who is most affected by poverty and why it's vital they receive help.

Understanding the Poverty Trap

A series of interconnected factors tend to keep people in poverty. To escape poverty, people need capital and credit. However, people in poverty are seldom able to gain either, reinforcing a spiral known as the poverty trap


With fewer resources provided to underserved communities, families have a harder time making ends meet. For many children, this can mean going without meals, which results in lower concentration at school and inhibited brain development. In 2014, 14 percent of households were food insecure. Many schools offer free breakfast and lunch programs, but when impoverished students feel stigmatized by such programs — or don't trust their schools and classmates — they are less likely to take advantage of them.

Limited Education

Schools in poor communities receive less funding and fewer resources than schools in affluent communities. Furthermore, students living in poverty often underperform academically because of bad home environments. Poor health and nutrition, among other things, inhibit brain cell production, social skills and the ability to focus in class.

Poor Job Prospects

Limited education greatly hinders one's ability to gain employment. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 5.4 percent of people with only a high school diploma are unemployed, and 8 percent who have less than a high school diploma are unemployed. Compare this with the 2.8 percent and 1.5 percent unemployment rates of people with bachelor's and professional degrees, respectively.

Substance Abuse

While it may seem that substance abuse is the cause of unemployment, not the other way around, the causal relationship between poor job prospects and substance abuse often works both ways. A study published in 2013 by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis compared the changes in substance abuse and unemployment during the 2008-10 recession and revealed that many people turned to drugs and alcohol after losing their jobs.

Low Productivity

People who abuse drugs and alcohol are typically less productive than those who do not. Those struggling with addiction who are employed are unable to do their jobs as effectively and increase the likelihood of being fired. Unemployed substance abusers may not have the motivation to seek employment, and those in treatment programs may be unable to seek employment at all.


Individuals who aren't actively engaged in school or work may be more likely to commit crimes. Many of these crimes, like theft, may feel like a necessary means of getting by. Further, people living below the poverty line are more likely to be victims of crime, with poor people experiencing more than double the violent victimizations than those living above the poverty line.

Unstable Families

When a family member, particularly one who supplies any income or familial support, is incarcerated for a crime or seeking treatment, the household dynamic changes. Older siblings may have to drop out of school to work and take care of younger siblings, and parents face additional financial and mental stress. Some children might even have to move into foster care.

Underserved Communities

Additional stress caused by unstable home lives can mean that parents and children have less time and money to be involved with each other and in their communities. Children may think their families are uninterested in their activities and become less engaged with the world around them. In academics, lowered parent involvement can reduce child performance, which can actually lead to less school funding from the state. Students may also isolate themselves from their peers, resulting in unstable friendships and truancy.

Taking Action for Poverty: Career & Volunteer Paths

Many career and volunteer opportunities exist to help those facing poverty overcome different elements of the poverty trap. Applying personal interests and career goals in ways that make a difference to underserved individuals and communities can help them escape the cycle and decrease the poverty gap over time.

How You Can Help the Poor


Career Path
  • Become a Social and Community Service Manager
    Social and community service managers are embedded within nonprofit organizations that help those living in poverty. They develop programs targeted at particular demographic groups and oversee day-to-day operations in addition to hiring staff, making budgets and writing grant proposals.
Volunteer Path
  • Volunteer at Soup Kitchens & Food Banks
    Helping impoverished individuals get the nutrition they need can be as simple as making or serving food at a local food bank or soup kitchen.
  • Did you know?
    Food kitchens rely heavily on volunteer help. reports that among the 63,000 agencies in the Feeding America network, 11 percent of pantries, 41 percent of kitchen programs, and 66 percent of pantries are operated exclusively by volunteer staff.


Career Path
  • Become a Teacher or School Counselor
    Children and adolescents spend around 1,200 hours a year at school, which means teachers and school counselors can profoundly influence their students' lives. Low-income pupils need to have teachers who understand their unique needs and circumstances and are able to extend extra support to help them succeed academically.
  • Become an Instructional Coordinator
    Instructional coordinators can help on an administrative level by evaluating and adjusting school curricula to meet the needs of low-income students.
Volunteer Path

Job Opportunities

Career Path
  • Become an Entrepreneur
    People interested in running their own business while making a difference in the lives of underserved individuals can hire and train under-skilled people living in poverty. Not only will it help them earn a living and add structure to their lives, but the social and practical skills they learn can open up future job opportunities.
Volunteer Path
  • Become an Employment Mentor
    Volunteers at libraries and community centers can help the poor increase their employability by assisting them with resumes, conducting mock interviews or even teaching them practical skills.
  • Where to get involved:
    Contact your local library or community center about job-focused volunteer opportunities.

Substance Abuse

Career Path
  • Become a Counselor or Social Worker
    Substance abuse counselors, substance abuse social workers and mental health social workers address various factors that contribute to substance abuse, including poverty, employment status and home life, to help clients fight addiction and improve their lives and relationships.
Volunteer Path
  • Volunteer at Rehab Centers
    Rehabilitation centers sometimes use volunteers to help keep the center running smoothly and increase patient success. Tasks can range from handling administrative duties to landscaping to facilitating group activities.
  • Where to get involved:
    Volunteers of America


Career Path
  • Become a Landscape Architect
    Public spaces that people can freely enjoy encourage community engagement. Landscape architects, for instance, design parks and green spaces that serve as communal areas for its residents.
  • Did you know?
    Landscape architects can help improve the mental health of community members. Studies show living near green spaces reduces stress and depression.
Volunteer Path
  • Join Community Cleanups
    By putting on cleanup campaigns to maintain public spaces, people can participate in beautifying their neighborhoods, which not only makes them productive and engaged, but also gives a sense of pride and ownership to the community.
  • Where to get involved:
    Keep America Beautiful
    Rebuilding Together


Career Path
  • Become a Correctional Treatment Specialist
    These professionals develop rehabilitation programs for people after they get out of prison or finish parole to help them avoid crime in the future.
  • Become a Lawyer or Paralegal
    By practicing public interest law as either lawyers or paralegals, professionals can provide low-income community members with legal assistance and help them understand the law and avoid crime.
Volunteer Path

Family Stability

Career Path
  • Become a Family & Marriage Counselor
    With money a leading cause of stress in relationships, family and marriage counselors can help families strengthen their bonds and work through difficult times.
  • Become a Child & Family Social Worker
    Child and family social workers specialize in helping needy children and families find housing and other benefits. They also help reunite families that have been separated.
Volunteer Path

Community Revitalization

Career Path
  • Become an Urban Planner
    Urban planners develop community land, making sure to balance commercial and residential needs. They decide where to place public parks, community centers and affordable housing options.
  • Become an Economist
    Economists can assess where funds can best be used to help a community and where economic adjustments should be made to benefit the community and its people.
Volunteer Path

From the Expert: Interview With Robert L. Hawkins

Is it possible to eliminate the poverty trap? If so, how?

Some of the latest thinking about this has been to focus on a two-generational model of poverty reduction, meaning that we cannot simply focus on children without also creating opportunities for employment, good health and better overall life chances to parents. We also need to be consistent. We cannot just say we want to improve our schools; we have to actually do it. That takes a great amount of investment at the local, state and federal levels, but it also means investments in neighborhoods. Almost ironically, it takes looking back at the old New Deal model that FDR developed, where the plan was to improve the economy at all levels, not just a specific segment.

What contributes most to poverty, and how do those factors play into the ability to escape poverty?

Some of the latest thinking about this has been to focus on a two-generational model of poverty reduction, meaning that we cannot simply focus on children without also creating opportunities for employment, good health and better overall life chances to parents. We also need to be consistent. We cannot just say we want to improve our schools; we have to actually do it. That takes a great amount of investment at the local, state and federal levels, but it also means investments in neighborhoods. Almost ironically, it takes looking back at the old New Deal model that FDR developed, where the plan was to improve the economy at all levels, not just a specific segment.

Why is poverty such an important issue that needs to be addressed?

Poverty in the U.S. affects around 16 percent of the population. Try taking a 16 percent pay cut or have something affect 16 percent of your body and see if that does not affect your day-to-day life. It is a significant number, and it tends to be consistent, give or take a few percentage points, across industrialized countries. In the United States, we have to not only consider those who fall under the federal definition of poverty, but also people who live on the economic margins and are near poverty, struggling to make ends meet. They, too, affect the overall economy of a community, which influences political and economic decision-making. In countries where poverty runs even deeper, we have to consider human rights issues and the long-term health of a country's population.

Why the Fight Against U.S. Poverty Is a Must-Win

For many people, the war on poverty is a humanitarian one. In a country where it is believed that hard work will lead to success, it is difficult to see people barely make it by despite intense effort.

There are also economic reasons to end the poverty trap and help people become self-sufficient. Poverty greatly inhibits social mobility, and if young people can't live better than their parents, the number of people who can't escape poverty increases with each generation. This means the gap between wealthy and poor will get wider, and the economy will destabilize as more people need assistance from programs that have fewer people able to fund them.

The result could be a poverty trap for the nation as a whole rather than for individuals and communities. The fight against poverty must be won before the problem becomes too great to handle.

alt 15% of Americans were considered impoverished in 2014. alt In 2014, 20.8 million people reported family income below one-half of the poverty threshold. They represented 7 percent of all Americans.
alt 14% of households were food insecure in 2014. alt For every 100 low-income families, only 57 low-income rental homes were available in 2013.

Sources: Talk Poverty; United States Census Bureau, 2014

Who Does Poverty Affect Most in America?

Poverty affects people of all ages, races and genders, but certain groups, particularly minority populations and children, are more susceptible to poverty than others. The tables below break down poverty by demographic.

Poverty Rate by Race
White 12.9%
White (not Hispanic) 10.0%
Black 25.2%
Asian 13.2%
Hispanic (any race) 24.7%
Native American 28.3%

Sources: Center for American Progress; U.S. Census Bureau, 2014

Poverty Rate by Age & Gender
Age Group Number (In Millions) Male Female
Under Age 18 15.5 21.2% 21.1%
18 to 64 26.5 11.6% 15.3%
65 & Older 4.6 7.4% 12.1%

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 2014

Ending Child & Youth Poverty in the U.S.

The poverty rate for children under 18 years old is disproportionately higher than other age groups. Helping these children is the best chance for ending the poverty trap. A good education and the support of peers and administrators can help impoverished students succeed in school, gain better job opportunities, increase self-confidence and improve their interactions with others.

Learning can be facilitated by also addressing children's health and nutritional needs. Considering that well-educated, confident and motivated students will be more likely to join the workforce and become self-sufficient adults, investing heavily in children now will lead to an increased rate of return on the economy over time.

alt Children make up 23% of the population but carry 33% of the burden of poverty alt More than ½ of U.S. students qualify for free or reduced-cost lunches at school
alt On average, low-income students have a 15% lower graduation rate than other students. alt 1 of every 200 children live in foster care

Check out the following national organizations that help end childhood
poverty, or get involved with a local organization.

Sources: Southern Education Foundation; Talk Poverty; U.S. Census Bureau, 2014; U.S. Census Bureau, Quick Facts

Youth Below the Poverty Line: Day in the Life of a High School Student

For many impoverished youth, life is lived one day at a time. Between lack of trust of school authority figures and fear of stigmatization, high school students living in poverty often go without helpful resources and live very different lives from their thriving counterparts. Here's a snapshot of one student's day living below the poverty line.

8 a.m.

Arrives just in time for class but not early enough to get free breakfast at the cafeteria — the bus doesn't get to school before the cafeteria closes.


Grabs a snack from the vending machine and hurries to the library to finish an assignment that requires Internet research.

4 p.m.

Helps siblings with their homework, pulls dinner together and waits for mom to get home from work.

8 p.m.

Gets siblings ready for bed and helps mom clean up.


Works on homework, but skips math because the calculator was too expensive.

Where Poverty Strikes Hardest

The following table shows which U.S. states experience the most poverty. More than half of the states with the highest poverty rates use the federal minimum wage.

10 Most Impoverished States
State Poverty Rate Living Wage Poverty Wage Minimum Wage
Mississippi 21.5% $9.95 $5.00 $7.25
New Mexico 21.3% $10.13 $5.00 $7.50
Louisiana 19.8% $10.47 $5.00 $7.25
Alabama 19.3% $10.17 $5.00 $7.25
Kentucky 19.1% $9.71 $5.00 $7.25
Arkansas 18.9% $9.56 $5.00 $7.25
West Virginia 18.3% $9.90 $5.00 $7.25
Georgia 18.3% $10.69 $5.00 $7.25
Tennessee 18.3% $10.26 $5.00 $7.25
Arizona 18.2% $10.47 $5.00 $8.05

Sources: Living Wage Calculator; Talk Poverty; U.S. Department of Labor, 2016

International Poverty

The inability to break the poverty cycle internationally is caused by many of the same factors as in the U.S., including the unavailability of capital and credit. However, developing countries have different challenges to contend with that make poverty even worse. War, famine, limited access to clean water, illiteracy, government corruption and disease can all keep people in poverty. Fortunately, many organizations exist solely to fight global poverty.

  • CARE
    CARE's mission is simple: serve individuals and families in the poorest communities in the world. The organization provides hunger and disaster relief, puts on education and women's empowerment programs, and coordinates economic development efforts.
  • International Monetary Fund
    The IMF helps governments gain financial stability. Volunteers can participate in rebuilding projects, feeding programs, fundraising parties and mentorship programs to help fight various types of poverty.
  • Partners in Health
    Partners in Health's mission is to provide healthcare options for the world's impoverished individuals and communities.
  • Peace Corps
    Peace Corps volunteers serve in countries all over the world and provide a variety of aid depending on volunteers' backgrounds. Education and infrastructure development are two common focus areas.
    UNICEF aims to end global poverty among young children. They provide vaccines and other health services, while also working with governments to craft policies on education, nutrition, child protection and social inclusion.

Resources & Organizations for Poverty Aid

Along with the resources referenced throughout this guide, the following websites provide valuable information for those wanting to learn more about domestic and global poverty.

Poverty USA

This charity publishes podcasts, videos, articles and other educational resources to help people learn about poverty in the U.S.

Talk Poverty

This site, developed by the Center for American Progress, provides basic poverty statistics as well as state-by-state numbers on childhood poverty, food insecurity and unemployment. The site also produces articles and podcasts.

The Borgen Project

This nonprofit works to end poverty and hunger. Its website offers a variety of information on poverty and ways to help, including firsthand accounts and blogs.

U.S. Census Bureau

The U.S. Census is a great source for up-to-date statistics on poverty in America.

World Bank

The World Bank has tons of information on global poverty, much of it supplied by its research team.

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