What Does It Mean To Break The Cycle Of Poverty?

By Adolfo Yarhi, Executive Director

The cycle of poverty is a self-perpetuating phenomenon where individuals or families remain trapped in poverty across generations, involving a combination of economic, social, and environmental factors that reinforce each other, making it difficult for individuals to break free from poverty. It begins with limited access to education and employment opportunities, leading to low income and financial insecurity. As a result, individuals may struggle to afford basic needs such as food, housing, healthcare, and education for their children. This lack of resources can perpetuate poor living conditions, limited access to quality healthcare and education, and a reliance on low-paying jobs or government assistance programs. According to a study by the National Center for Children in Poverty at Columbia University, children who grow up poor are more likely to experience poverty as adults. 

The World Bank estimates that over 55% of the population in Guatemala lives in poverty, in a country where the informal economy represents 49% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Although Guatemala is the largest economy in Central America and has experienced stable growth of an average of 3.5% for a decade, this has not translated into a reduction of poverty, with a wage of $2.15 per day. Guatemala ranks in one of the worst positions among Latin American countries in the Human Development Index. The inequality rate in the country is very high, in a nation where less than 1% of the population controls half of the country’s wealth and with a Gini Coefficient of 48.3. The Gini coefficient “measures the extent to which the distribution of income within a country deviates from a perfectly equal distribution. A coefficient of 0 expresses perfect equality where everyone has the same income, while a coefficient of 100 expresses full inequality where only one person has all the income”.


In Guatemala, one in every two children suffers from chronic malnutrition: The country has the 6th-highest rate of chronic child malnutrition in the world—at 47%. 46.7% of children under five years of age suffer from stunting. Up to 4.6 million Guatemalan people suffered food shortages over the past year, and the prevalence of underweight among children under five years is 13%. Living in an impoverished household can create a toxic stress response, impacting a child’s brain development, which can result in permanent changes to brain structure and function, which manifest as increased anxiety, impaired memory, and mood control, making it harder to learn, solve problems, follow rules and control impulses. All this is reflected in the poor levels of education in Guatemala, where 65% of 10-year-olds can hardly read and only understand simple text, 86% of graduating high school students fail the Mathematics evaluations, and  69% of graduating high school students fail the Reading evaluations.

Niños de Guatemala, a nonprofit organization established in 2007, was created as a conscious effort to help break the cycle of poverty in the Ciudad Vieja community in the department of Sacatepéquez, in Guatemala, with a population of approximately 33,000 people and 8,000 school-age children. Although it is only 5 kilometers away from Antigua Guatemala, and 42 kilometers away from Guatemala City, Ciudad Vieja has a very high poverty rate, alongside high rates of alcoholism and family violence.

Ensuring children receive an education is one of the most significant factors in eradicating poverty. Education holds the key to unlocking opportunities for children, granting access to futures otherwise inaccessible. Those deprived of schooling face heightened vulnerability to exploitation and premature marriage, paving the way for substantially reduced income prospects in adulthood, which perpetuates the cycle of poverty across generations, constraining the prospects of future offspring. Girls who stay in school are less likely to marry before turning 18 and can better teach their children, changing a paradigm for an entire generation. At Niños de Guatemala, girls represent a little over 53% of its student population.

 Niños de Guatemala empowers children to escape poverty by prioritizing education and fostering socio-emotional growth. Across its three schools, 540 students receive comprehensive education from pre-k until they graduate from high school. Collaborative efforts between the Social Work and Psychology departments support emotional wellbeing, nurture resilience, and instill aspirations. By encouraging open dialogue on emotions, children learn to overcome adversities in their home environments, enabling them to flourish and dream big.

Proper nutrition and a healthy diet are important aspects of breaking the cycle of poverty. At Niños de Guatemala, all students receive a daily nutritious morning meal with a fortified beverage to get their brains ready to learn. They don’t go hungry throughout the school day, which helps them focus on learning. 

Children with proper nutrition build a better immune system and are less prone to disease, growing healthier and more robust. Additionally, Niños de Guatemala has partnered with the local health center, so students receive health checkups, deworming, and vaccinations as needed, with the proper parental authorization. Parents and students acquire skills about essential health and hygiene and other knowledge that improves the family’s well-being.

With over 1,000 individual students and over 800 families served throughout 17 years, Niños de Guatemala’s results show it is effectively breaking the cycle of poverty. 30% of its graduates have continued with university or technical studies, and 45% have continued with its one-year Hospitality Certification program, which has been instrumental in preparing graduated students to obtain formal jobs in the tourism industry, responsible for 80% of the jobs in Antigua Guatemala, a 10-minute drive from Ciudad Vieja. This program develops cultural consciousness, reinforces their English skills, and introduces them to entry-level jobs while furthering the development of their language and communication skills. Graduated students go through a 9-month internship in highly reputable hotels and restaurants, where they develop work ethics and are offered jobs where they intern. There are three aspects that hinder the possibility of young people from obtaining jobs in the formal economy: 1) living in red (dangerous) areas, 2) lack of job experience, and 3) lack of verifiable references. Through the Niños de Guatemala Hospitality Certification Program, they obtain actual job experience and verifiable references, thus allowing them to break the cycle of poverty. 

Please watch this short 3-minute video to see Niños de Guatemala in action: 

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