Poverty and Stress


We have written about the relevance of Dr. Nadine Burke Harris’ work a number of times on Rumur. She’s the San Francisco-based doctor who realized that a good deal of the time, she was treating the symptoms of stress in her high poverty patients. When she began to practice with an understanding that her patients’ stress was a causative factor in their symptoms of asthma, diabetes, and pain ailments, she had much better results. It’s important for us that her work be included in our film.

Today on NPR, a reporter followed a woman from the Bronx who was stressed out from poverty. This woman, Lauren Boria, suffered from what a psychologist, Eldar Shafir, called “bandwidth poverty”. He pointed out that because she had to think about money so much of the time, she used up most of her cognitive energy focusing on the details of surviving day to day. This left her stressed out and less capable of thinking ahead to the future. Her situation was made much worse by the hoops that she had to jump through in order to get government assistance after she lost her job. In order to get $290 per month in welfare benefits she was required to show up from 9 to 5 every day at a government jobs office where she was supposed to both prepare for, and interview for jobs. It was pointed out by Shafir that this kind of job training program was part of an effort to put roadblocks in place to weed out people who weren’t really trying to find a job. Instead of helping her prepare to work, this program stressed her out to such a degree that it made it harder to find jobs.

Near the end of the story the reporter points out that Boria was so stressed that she often got migraine headaches that were so severe that she ended up in the emergency room. The connection between stress and illness could not be more clear. We’d like to see a chart that details the rise in the costs associated with chronic pain, and the increase in the wealth gap. In fact, last night when we watched a very rough version of the beginning of our film, “All the Rage,” two people suggested a study looking at this link directly. Perhaps it will be as powerful an indicator as the study cited in “Freakonomics” that connects the reduction in crime with the legalization of abortion. It might also be interesting to track the increase of health problems for African Americans in relation to the war on drugs and mass incarceration. The increasing criminalization of poverty also must be related.

Shafir details the effects of stress in terms of bandwidth available to deal with both present and future difficulties. However, an aspect of the relationship between stress and poverty that it doesn’t hit on is stigma. Lower status in one’s job, school situation, or any other relationship creates stress that has a negative effect on one’s health. Stigma, status, and stress are clearly linked. In a democracy, public policy is shaped, in part, by public opinion. As more people make these connections, it will hopefully have an effect on public policy. We wonder what effect diminishing the schools-to-prison pipeline, using taxation and monetary policy to decrease the wealth gap, and recognizing the importance of our emotions in terms of our health, will have on society over then next 20 years.

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