How Jiu-Jitsu can Break the Poverty Cycle

This article does not refer to only the homeless or destitute, but those who live in the broader definition of poverty. This article is also not meant to address how an individual might overcome the cost barrier associated with Jiu-Jitsu in order to gain the benefits that come from it. Such an article may come at a later date.

Jiu-Jitsu can be a vehicle for people to escape the negative effects and overcome the bad habits that poverty has placed on them. Poverty is a condition that influences people throughout their lives from birth to death. Scientists believe that DNA is only responsible for between 30-50% of our behaviors which leaves 50-70% of our behaviors being decided by our environment.

However, the nine months spent in the womb begin to account for a large portion of our behaviors as well, going so far as to switching portions of our genetics “on” or “off” before we are even born. This means poverty can negatively affect people before they have even seen the world due to the experiences their parents are suffering through.

Children are only born with six emotions: anger, joy, surprise, disgust, sadness, and fear; the rest of the emotional spectrum must be taught. Eric Jensen asserts in Teaching with Poverty in Mind that in order to learn the remainder of the emotions, children need ” . . . a strong, reliable primary caregiver who provides consistent and unconditional love, guidance, and support… safe, predictable, stable environments, 10-20 hours per week of harmonious, reciprocal interactions.”

Photo by Franco Folini
Photo by Franco Folini

Jensen also states that individuals raised in poverty are less likely to develop to a full emotional maturity. They grow up in homes where their primary caregivers are often poorly educated as well as “overworked, overstressed, and authoritarian . . . often lack[ing] warmth and sensitivity and fail to form solid, healthy relationships.”

Jensen goes on to claim that because of these factors, children in poverty are “more likely to display ‘acting-out’ behaviors, impatience and impulsivity, …a more limited range of behavioral responses, [and] less empathy for others’ misfortunes.”

This often comes about because children and adults living in poverty are faced with chronic stresses such as a lack of money, hunger, inadequate health care, excessive relocation, job-loss, and the development of poor emotional relationships with others. These chronic stresses are usually not overcome effectively, if at all. This lack of successfully overcoming challenges can lead up to what is often referred to in academic circles as “learned helplessness”.

Learned helplessness is the habitual behavior of giving up every time a challenge arises. This occurs because of an impoverished person’s inability to overcome the daily financial, emotional, and even physical challenges that poverty brings. Because the effect of outside stressors is cumulative (1, 2), individuals in poverty will often feel hopeless. These feelings of hopelessness inevitably lead to depression and/or anxiety, which further exacerbates the problems that poverty brings.

In the book, Brain Based Learning, Eric Jensen lays out some methods for helping people overcome the chronic condition of learned helplessness. He states that people who have experienced learned helplessness can benefit from “…enhancing personal skills, engaging in physical immersion events, …taking part in active hobbies, 13906927_10208089328724567_6607174851399827023_n…[and] enjoying sports.”

This is where Jiu-Jitsu comes into play. Every time an impoverished person learns a new technique on the mats, they are enhancing their personal skills. This visible, measurable growth can be the first confidence booster for many who grew up under the influence of poverty. These first steps as a white belt can be some of the most important experiences of a person’s life.

The physical challenges they face within the sport and within the martial art are something that they can surmount in a controlled, safe environment. It gives back a sense of control to the man living in poverty. It grants the destitute child a sense of accomplishment that they haven’t felt before. It provides the impoverished woman with opportunities to recognize her ability to overcome.

Jiu-Jitsu can be the lifeline that so many people in poverty need. The small doses of confidence they gain on the mats can give them their life back. Studies have shown that people believing they have control, even when they do not actually have it, can boost their confidence and ability to problem solve in difficult situations. This is how learned helplessness can be unlearned.

The confidence built in a BJJ class will carry over into every other aspect of a person’s life. Jiu-Jitsu is a method of life-improvement for those born in poverty. Without the chances for self-improvement that our sport can provide, the chances of escaping poverty diminish significantly. This sport helps destroy the cyclical and generational poverty that so many experience. The more accessible it is, the better off we all are as a society.


  1. This is a very interesting overview of what BJJ can do to an impoverished community. I does seem completely logical given than other physical activities and sports provide similar benefits to people in this unfortunate condition.
    My question would be, how diferent would it be for a group of people in poverty to benefit themselves through Jiu-Jitsu in comparison with other sports?


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