The Trauma of Poverty

Date: June 8, 2017

by Annie Lord, CitySquare Chief Programs Officer

Many would insist that entrenched poverty is caused by unwillingness to work hard, but I’ve witnessed something different. From what I’ve seen, the common barrier to leaving poverty is pain.

In 12 years of serving low-income residents, I have heard countless stories of childhood hardship, abuse and neglect. It isn’t hard to see how those traumatic experiences have negative psychological effects. But health research shows that early-age trauma – known as adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) – can also have biological effects that impede a person’s ability to lead a successful life.

ACEs are types of trauma, including poverty, the loss of a parent, neglect, abuse and racial discrimination. Of the 14.5 million kids living in poverty, 35 percent have two or more ACEs. This disturbing fact has disturbing consequences. The risk of chronic illness and substance abuse in adulthood increases dramatically the more ACEs someone has. Individuals with four or more ACEs are 2.5 times more likely to suffer from pulmonary disease, seven times more likely to suffer from alcoholism and 12 times more likely to be suicidal.

While these illnesses can certainly compound the risk of living in poverty, there is another risk factor. ACEs can damage the brain. Research shows that childhood trauma can produce toxic levels of stress hormones. This toxic stress permanently impairs neurons that are responsible for important life skills like attention, emotional regulation and self-control. The impact this can have later in life is profound. For instance, a 2011 study shows that self-control is the skill in children most closely correlated with adult wealth. Even children with minimal self-control are 40 percent less likely to be convicted of a crime as an adult than their more impulsive peers. Finally, self-control predicts fewer adult health problems and dramatically less substance abuse.

Dissecting that for a second, we can think about self-control like we do self-discipline or personal responsibility. This skill helps us to study hard for a big test or prepare for an important presentation, to resist peer pressure to use drugs or to fight someone who upsets us. We all struggle with things like these sometimes. Now imagine that your biological ability to do so is impaired. Everyone has to work to make good decisions in life. For some people, making good choices is just harder.

Fortunately, ACEs aren’t impossible to overcome. Mental health specialists know that another skill, resilience, supports the skill of self-control, and can even prevent ACEs from having a permanent neurological effect. Resilience, scientists are learning, is cultivated through supportive, trusting relationships. When these relationships are present, ACEs result intolerable, not toxic, stress.

Our ability to provide supportive relationships to those overcoming trauma is threatened by budget cuts to the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The CDBG program funds services like financial coaching, workforce development, homeless outreach and afterschool programs for adults and children living in poverty. These services and others offer not only training but also important relationships. Far from creating dependence, they help low-income individuals build resilience, overcome ACEs and leave poverty behind. I’m reminded of these individuals’ determination every week when job fairs held at my office at the CitySquare Opportunity Center cause a traffic jam.

At CitySquare, the proposed cuts threaten our Neighbor Support Services (NSS) program. NSS provides trauma-informed care to neighbors with ACEs throughout our organization. Now more than ever, we must protect these services. They are essential to ending the cycle of poverty.

Please donate today to support NSS and the trauma-informed care they provide to neighbors seeking a better life after experiencing ACEs. Thank you for your support.