The aim of our study is to investigate the dynamics of poverty in Switzerland and its implications for social policy and social work. Its focus is directed at poverty trajectories. Recent longitudinal studies suggest that poverty is a dynamic phenomenon characterized by frequent movements in and out of poverty and highly individualized trajectories. Our hypothesis, however, is that a few specific and contrasting patterns of poverty trajectories can be identified which are rather constant over time and directly related to social inequalities.
Data are from the first 10 waves of the Swiss Household Panel (1999-2008), a nationwide longitudinal survey of the general population. Poverty was measured by means of a deprivation index which combines a series of items collectively valued as necessary for a decent life in Switzerland. By means of growth mixture modeling (GMM), we analyze whether individual trajectories merge to patterns, e.g. of increase or decrease of poverty over time, and how these patterns are associated with indicators of social inequalities and life events.
Four latent classes of poverty trajectories have been identified: 1) persistent poverty – relative deprivation over the whole observation period; 2) precarisation – increasing deprivation over time, 3) poverty alleviation – decreasing deprivation over time and 4) continuous non-poverty – no deprivation over the observation period. Latent class membership was found to depend on sex, age, education, employment status, and particular life events, namely separation, divorce and job loss.
Thus, the thesis of poverty as a highly oscillating and individualized phenomenon should be questioned. First, in a medium-term perspective, a few clear-cut poverty patterns can be distinguished to characterize individual trajectories of poverty. Second, these patterns reflect unequal poverty risks across population subgroups.
Our study provides new evidence that poverty is rooted in both old and new social inequalities. Implications for social policy and social work are discussed. How can they strengthen existing programs to effectively combat persistent poverty? And how can they contribute to prevent precarisation trajectories? Current approaches in social policy and social work to alleviate poverty of individuals and families are indispensable, since they help bridging short- and medium-term poverty episodes, but they fail to consider the dynamics of poverty in a long-term perspective. Diversification and differentiation of existing measures are necessary to enhance access to employment of disadvantaged groups and their full participation in society.