Overcomers: Escaping Generational Poverty

Written on by Kathryn Lerro

Jean grew up poor; her parents were what today would be called “working poor.” They worked hard but only earned enough to get by. They were kind, generous people but did not encourage Jean to rise above their own meager means. Jean’s mother was killed in a car accident when Jean was only 15. Jean suffered from poor self-esteem, which seems to have caused her to fall prey to abusive men. When she married the first—within a year after her mother’s death—her siblings disapproved of her choice and cut off all contact with her. Jean’s father helped her as much as he could, but had suffered severe injuries in the accident that claimed his wife. He was killed in a subsequent auto accident when Jean was 19, and from that point on, Jean found herself with no support system.

Jean had her first child at age 16, then 8 more in the next 12 years; one born prematurely did not survive. Jean married twice. Her first husband was violently abusive and eventually left her. She divorced her second husband when she could no longer endure his emotional cruelty. The details of the traumas Jean lived through are the stuff of a Lifetime movie—from receiving beatings from a husband, to surviving cancer twice, to being separated from her first four children for a year and a half when they were abducted and taken by their father to Puerto Rico. (She couldn’t even communicate with them when she finally got them back, as they’d forgotten how to speak English.)

Jean first began receiving welfare after being abandoned by her first husband. Neither of her husbands provided for their families, so welfare became an unfortunate but necessary way of life for Jean and her children. This was not how she had planned to live her life, and she determined early on that her children would not follow in her footsteps.

When Jean broke free from her second husband, she moved her family to a town in Illinois where they had lived before. There were good schools there, the crime rate was low and she had a close friend there, so she believed it would be a good place for her children to grow up. Upon settling there, Jean’s first rule of business was to prevent her children from adopting a poverty-based, me-first mentality. She modeled generosity by regularly inviting those less fortunate to eat at her dinner table or sleep on her couch. (She was once honored by her community with an award for her generosity.) Her children’s friends were always welcome for a meal or to stay overnight. She cooked large amounts of food—often making huge pots of soup. She managed this by shopping and cooking wisely. She used her food stamps to buy high-value items like 50-pound bags of potatoes, huge bags of flour and sugar, whole chickens, day-old bread, and oatmeal instead of expensive cereals. She bought almost nothing pre-made, no convenience foods—not even cake mix. Jean taught her children arts and crafts; Christmas and birthdays were celebrated with homemade gifts—a tradition the family still enjoys today.

Jean believed she was more valuable at home, teaching and encouraging her children, than at a low-paying job. So she helped with homework, taught life skills and drummed into her children’s heads that they could do anything they wanted to—they just needed to want to.  She repeatedly told each of her children that they owed her a high school diploma—no ifs, ands or buts. When graduation day came, they either had to have plans in place for continuing education or she expected them to find jobs and move out.

Jean advised her daughters to choose better men than she had, saying, “You don’t want to live like this!” She encouraged her children to make friendships with quality people by telling them, “If you hang around with someone who’s going nowhere—you’re going nowhere.” And she made sure her children knew she believed in their potential. “I always encouraged them,” Jean says, “You need to be encouraged.”

When Jean’s youngest child was about 11, and Jean was no longer needed full-time at home, she went back to work. She found a job at General Motors—happily disenrolling from welfare—and worked there until that particular plant closed.

Jean said that although she knew she’d made some big mistakes, she always felt God’s presence with her, and she always prayed. She credits God with giving her the wisdom to stretch the little she had, and to teach her children to pursue a better life than her own.

Jean’s dream for her children was realized; none of them followed her into poverty. Her daughters married good men. Each of her children graduated from high school; most of them earned college degrees, taking advantage of all the financial aid they could get. Following is a list of what each has done with their lives—eldest to youngest.

Jean’s first child, a daughter, has a high school diploma and works in the offices of a large drug store chain. The second, a daughter, now deceased, completed an associate’s degree and built a successful custom drapery and upholstery business. The third, a daughter, is a nurse. The fourth, a daughter, now deceased, earned a bachelor’s degree and worked as an accountant. The fifth, a son, now deceased, completed an associate’s degree, worked a variety of jobs and was known by his family as a “Jack of all trades.” The sixth, a daughter, earned an associate’s degree and works in a medical lab. The seventh, a son, completed a ministerial degree and works full-time as a general contractor and part-time as a minister. The eighth, a daughter, earned a teaching degree and is an elementary school teacher.  Jean’s grandchildren are continuing the upward momentum—7 are in college; 11 have bachelor’s degrees; one is in grad school; and 3 have master’s degrees.

Jean still lives on very little—relying mostly on Social Security—but says she has what she needs and is content. She has a pretty apartment filled with second-hand treasures, including some lovely pieces of furniture her daughter reupholstered for her before she died of cancer. She has a vehicle that gets her where she needs to go. Her children and grandchildren love her dearly and are very generous with gifts and their time—she says the love they have for others is what she views as her greatest achievement. 

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