Systems of Poverty

Several years ago, I participated in the AdvancingCities Initiative run by JP Morgan Chase – cities and/or regional groups were to propose projects that addressed one or more of several key ‘focus areas’ for the initiative, all generally based around improving the major cities within the region. As I am based in St. Louis, I got involved there.

E2E: Education to Employment

My particular proposal was the development of an ISA-financed “Education to Employment” pathway where various stakeholders (i.e. government, employers, schools and non-profits) would coordinate their activities to provide educational and other support services needed to help folks from low-income backgrounds get living-wage jobs. These investments would be financed by an ISA, where the student would start paying back a percentage of their income once they started earning over a threshold amount. The proceeds from this payment would then be divided across the various organizations within the ecosystem according to an agreed upon formula.

It was my hope that this would provide an economically sustainable way to continually reinvest in our communities.

Mapping the System

My proposal wasn’t chosen and we ended up going in a different direction. But in the course of those discussions I learned a lot about the causes of poverty and the feedback loops that often make it very difficult both to escape individually and/or address systemically.

When faced with complex problems like this, one of the things I like to do for my own sake is to develop what I call “causal maps”: basically simple digrams that map out the cause-effect dynamics at play.

The way to read the maps are simple – it’s mainly [Cause] –> [Effect]. I find that doing this often helps me distill a lot of complexity down into something that I can understand, while also highlighting the interconnected nature of the problem.

Draft effect map of poverty
Draft Cause-effect map of poverty

Above is an example of a simple one I created to understand the dynamics of poverty. Now I certainly don’t claim that this is complete or that I am any type of expert. I am mainly sharing in case others find it interesting and to encourage trying this mapping approach and see if it works for them.

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