The Cost of Poverty on the Human Spirit
Have you ever tried to get up after getting hit by a big wave?
The right timing and the wrong stance, and a wave can knock you down and keep you down.
Some primal part of you feels like you’re never going to breathe air again. The ocean itself is trying to fill you with brine, make you a part of its landscape.
Hurricane Katrina’s Effect on the Mental Landscape
One of the books I’ve read this year is Katrina by Gary Rivlin. The book follows a cast of New Orleans residents from different neighborhoods as they navigate the Hurricane Katrina recovery process for 10+ years.
It is brutal.
I knew Hurricane Katrina was a massive disaster, but I had only a vague idea of how preventable the disaster was—how it wasn’t the hurricane that broke people, but the process of trying to get back on your feet.
This passage from Chris Rose, a columnist for the Times-Picayune, paints a harrowing picture of how the Katrina recovery affected people mentally:
“Everybody’s got this thing, this affliction. This affinity for forgetfulness, absentmindedness, confusion, laughing in inappropriate circumstances, crying when the wrong song comes on the radio.”
Rivlin includes a witness account where they describe how neighbors would casually ask each other what antidepressants they were taking, like they were talking about brands of shampoo. Those were the people who had the money to rebuild their homes.
The suicide rate tripled after Katrina.
Later, I was reading The Power Broker by Robert Caro, and in one chapter he describes Depression-era New York in harrowing terms. Mothers digging for food in the trash, people scrounging on the ground after food carts were moved for the night—dark stuff.
One eyewitness account puts it this way:
“Everywhere there seemed to be a spreading listlessness, a whipped feeling…I find them all in the same shape—fear, fear…an overpowering terror of the future.”
One school nurse described the children she saw:
“When you go into a classroom you notice a different expression on [their] faces…There is a strained, anxious look not natural in children at all.”
I was struck by the similarities of the three passages—how the descriptions of people who survived a 2004 hurricane were nearly identical to the description of survivors of an economic disaster in 1929. I realized that it wasn’t “disaster recovery” these passages were describing—it was poverty. This is the effect of poverty.
Poverty Is Its Own Form of Affliction
I’ve known pastors who like to say that having more than two pairs of shoes makes you wealthier than most of the world.
But there’s a vital difference between having shoes and having the ability to afford shoes whenever you need them.
And not having stability can afflict your mind in a way that being barefoot doesn’t hold a candle to. A 1995 report notes that “psychosocial stress,” a by-product of low income and inequality, was linked to higher mortality rates over time. Psychosocial stress is a clinical term for worrying that the problems you’re facing outstrip your ability to solve them. Low-income individuals will literally worry themselves to an early grave.
It’s also important to realize that poverty is not just “lacking something.” It’s having less relative to your neighbors—less power, less influence, less ability to change your situation.
Researchers have tied poverty not only to “having less,” but to a host of co-occurring problems: physically demanding and depersonalizing work, lack of access to information about vital resources, and greater exposure to stressors (without the resources to cope with them constructively). It’s these factors that separate a minimalist—someone who chooses to have less—to a person in poverty.
Canadian studies from the 1980s and onward showed “noteworthy associations” between low income and psychiatric disorders, poor academic readiness, lack of social skills, and physical health disorders. For school-age children in particular, having a household where both parents worked or primary caregivers changed frequently led to underdeveloped social skills.
Those same issues compounded a slower cognitive and vocabulary development. Coupled with a poorer ability to cooperate, children from low-income households come to school at a sizable disadvantage to their well-fed, more socially-practiced peers.
Poverty Isn’t About Having Less
I’ve known people who scold others for complaining about how little they have by comparing their situation to an anonymous brown child in a developing country.
I’ve heard pastors urge their congregants to emulate the “happiness” of these people who have little. I’m all for critically analyzing our consumer impulses, but this isn’t that. This discourse glorifies and whitewashes the pain of non-American poverty while invalidating the Americans who experience crushing poverty on a daily basis–all while sitting alongside brothers and sisters who make six figures a year. While suburban congregations are well-off, these congregations include people who are barely a paycheck from total ruin.
Poverty is not having less—it includes lack of resources, lack of control over resources, poor education outcomes, and poor health.
It means having a hard time thinking beyond our immediate needs—making it difficult to dream, look ahead, and think bigger.
It means not having the security we take for granted, leaving us anxious and in a constant state of agitation until the day we die.
I am in awe of those who have risen from poverty, but that awe is coupled with the belief that it doesn’t have to be this hard.
The least we can do is understand the extent of poverty’s damage. There’s a reason the Bible talks about providing for the poor so often and stridently—poverty kills. Poverty erodes our spirits, grinds us down until we cope with drugs or retreat from the world until we have to get up and do it all over.
As households, as communities, we need to see that poverty is not one problem. It’s all of them—crime, healthcare, drug addiction, suicide, depression—crying out for relief. There’s no cost too high for tackling poverty. Our world is ill with a treatable sickness, and the means of healing ourselves is within our grasp.
But first, we have to look the problem in the face.