Poverty is present all over the world. The United States is not immune to poverty — more than one in 10 Americans have an income below the poverty level. Although there is no consensus as to the cause of poverty, there are certain variables that are associated with it. For instance, a recent study published through Johns Hopkins University found that children born into poverty are more likely to live in poverty as adults. That is, poverty seems to perpetuate poverty.
One disadvantage to growing up in poverty is a lack of access to valuable skills. For instance, children who are raised in higher income families benefit from the economic knowledge of their parents. These children generally grow up in an environment that teaches them how to be economically successful, including information on how to obtain education, prepare resumes and interview for higher-paying jobs. Children raised in lower-income families are often unaware of opportunities and skills necessary to obtain a high salary position.
Despite these disadvantages, a child’s destiny is not determined solely by the child's circumstances. A child born in poverty is not destined to stay in poverty (nor are wealthy families guaranteed to produce wealthy children). In an effort to help those in poverty, the United States has provided programs to help individuals obtain valuable work skills and job placement (e.g. Employment Training Administration). While some of these programs are useful for adults, other strategies focus on better preparing young people for the workforce.
A growing consensus in the literature has highlighted mentoring as a strategy for helping disadvantaged children escape the long shadow of familial poverty. Mentoring puts children in contact with positive role models with strong economic skills. Consequently, students can interact with people who are economically successful and learn from their examples. This can be particularly useful during high school years as students prepare to enter the workforce or higher education.
Mentoring has additional benefits. Children born in poverty are less likely to perform well in school and are more likely to go through the criminal justice system — partly because they have less access to good defence attorneys. Through mentoring, young adults interact with strong role models who demonstrate the importance of performing well in school and respecting others.
There are many mentoring organizations in existence in the United States. Many of these programs operate on a volunteer basis or are organized through nonprofit organizations. Thanks in large part to the efforts of these nonprofit organizations an estimated 4.5 million students have a structured mentoring relationship. Studies indicate that the majority of mentoring programs have positive impacts on those mentored.
The flexibility of non-government organizations (including for-profit businesses) makes them key players in promoting social change. For instance, the National Mentoring Partnership has stepped in to promote the creation and support of mentoring programs throughout the United States. Its efforts have led to a strong network of mentoring programs that connect mentors with mentoring programs, provide individuals with tools to begin mentoring programs and research the latest and most effective mentoring techniques. Through the successful collaboration of many non-governmental organizations, many students are being provided with valuable skills through mentoring relationships.
There are many resources available to schools, churches and community groups that would like to create mentoring programs. The National Mentoring Partnership provides detailed instructions and free resources to both individuals and organizations — it has never been easier to start a mentoring program.
Each child is born with a wealth of potential. Unfortunately, many are unable to fulfill their potential due to circumstances beyond their full control. Mentoring provides young people with the tools they need to succeed both personally and professionally. With the assistance of many organizations, mentoring in the United States is helping individuals break what are for some the perpetual chains of poverty.
John Hoffmire is director of the Impact Bond Fund at Saïd Business School at Oxford University and directs the Center on Business and Poverty at the Wisconsin School of Business at UW-Madison. He runs Progress Through Business, a nonprofit group promoting economic development. Richard Payne, Hoffmire’s colleague at Progress Through Business, did the research for this article.