Jumping Generations in the Land of Opportunity: West Virginia

Reversing the cycle of generational poverty is the grand challenge of our time here in West Virginia. Generational poverty ensues when two consecutive generations of a family have been born into poverty – thus creating a culture of pervasive poverty. This type of poverty contrasts with situational poverty – which is poverty that results from a temporary crisis or sudden loss (like a lay-off).


A key to understanding why generational poverty is so challenging to solve is the role that capital plays in this vicious cycle. According to Moore (2005), capital can be grouped into 3 categories: 1) financial capital (cash, land, real estate, and other types of assets), 2) human capital (education, knowledge, skills, health, and coping and survival strategies such as resourcefulness and adaptability), and 3) social capital (traditions, norms, positions in the community, and access to key decision makers and organizations).


A family faced with situational poverty may incur a sudden loss of financial capital and social capital, but they are able to use their human capital to get back on track. However, a family faced with generational poverty not only suffers from a dearth of financial capital and social capital, but also a dearth of human capital which prevents them from course correcting.


The examples above tell us three important things about capital. First, generational poverty is not only the degeneration of financial capital and social capital, but also the degeneration of human capital as well. Second, unlike the other two forms of capital, human capital is internal to a person, making it the most fundamental of the three forms of capital. And third, although capital can be degenerative, it can also be generative – meaning that one form of capital can generate another form of capital. If you have human capital, you can generate financial capital, which in turn can then generate social capital, which in turn can then generate more human capital – starting the process anew, creating a positive feedback loop, and growing the pie of capital. In other words, the three groups of capital aren’t only categories of capital – they can also be a sequence of how capital can be generated, redeployed, sustained, and grown.


So how might we reverse the cycle of generational poverty that impacts so many lives here in WV?


I’m not sure I have a definitive answer to that challenging question, but I look to my parents and learn from their story.


My parents were born in a poor village in China afflicted with generational poverty. A couple of the families in the village, including my grandparents, pooled together what little money they had and used it to send a group of their scrappiest adolescent children, including my dad, to a land of opportunity. The village families wanted to send the young teens to the United States, but at the time, Canada was easier to immigrate into, so Canada was chosen. So off on a boat my dad went, leaving behind his parents (i.e., my grandparents) and the life that he had previously known. He and the teens had no education, no ability to speak English, and no money. All they had were the shirts on their backs, the village’s belief, hopes, and dreams, and their own determination that, one day, they could create better lives for themselves.


In 1969, my dad worked as a cook at a restaurant in Toronto when opportunity struck. The then mayor of Huntington, WV, Harold Frankel, happened to eat at the restaurant, was impressed by his cooking, and offered him a job to be the head chef of his new restaurant in Huntington called the Ma-KiKi Club, a Polynesian themed restaurant. With the help of Mayor Frankel and local attorney Richard Tyson, my parents immigrated to the United States and the Ma-Kiki Club became one of the most popular eateries in Huntington. A few years later, my sister and I were born and my dad and mom started their own Chinese restaurant named Ming’s Restaurant, which became a staple that Huntingtonians loyally supported for decades until my parent’s retirement in 2009.


Customers would often ask my dad if I would take over Ming’s Restaurant one day when he retired. His answer was always the same, “I love the restaurant, but I work at the restaurant because I have no choice. I have no education to do anything else. He has education. He can do anything. He can have a better life than me.”


I, like my parents before me, and like my grandparents before them, believe that the development of human capital in the next generation that succeeds us is the key to jumping generations. That education, knowledge, determination, scrappiness, adaptability, and resourcefulness can generate financial capital, which can then generate social capital – thus reversing the cycle of generational poverty forever and creating better lives for our future generations.


And I, like my parents before me, and like my grandparents before them, believe that the best place to jump generations is here. We live in the land of opportunity: West Virginia. Let’s make a commitment to our future - to human capital, to education, to the entrepreneurial mindset - and in doing so, capitalize on the amazing opportunities that reside in our state for generations to come.


Work Cited

Moore, K. (2005) Thinking about youth poverty through the lenses of chronic poverty, life-course poverty and intergenerational poverty. CPRC Working Paper 57. Manchester: Chronic Poverty Research Centre.


Photo credit: HD Media, LLC


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