The Stress of Poverty

By McCall Torpey (COL ’15)

As Georgetown students, it is pretty obvious that most of us experience stress on a daily basis. The pressure to perform well and exceed academically, socially, and financially is relentless. Recently, more and more research has been starting to focus on the fundamental origins of the “stress” that troubles our society. Interestingly enough, new findings indicate that stress and its effects tell us an awful lot about the state of American society.

Evidently, stress can have adverse effects on our health. New studies have shown that chronic stress increases your risk of contracting heart disease. In fact, just having the impression that you are experiencing an unhealthy level of stress increases blood pressure and heart rate, and may also lead to a higher likelihood of smoking and drinking (Bakalar). Furthermore, stress, as well as the negative emotions that usually accompany it, compromises the immune system, increases inflammation, and even intensifies one’s perception of physical pain (“How to manage stress”). Ironically, academic stress and the desire to perform well in school actually inhibit our capacity to handle daily educational rigors successfully (Shapiro).

You might be only slightly surprised to learn that a healthy amount of stress can be a good thing. It can put you “in the zone,” so to speak, and inspire us, in some instances, to reach that optimum performance level. When the body is put under pressure to perform well or take on an important task, the sympathetic nervous system, as well as the hypothalamus and the pituitary and adrenal glands, increase the levels of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline into the bloodstream, and the blood vessels dilate. Muscles tense and heart rate increases. This physiological response is desirable. It’s the “pumped up” feeling you might get right before participating in a sports game. The body reacts very differently, however, when placed under harmful stress. Blood vessels constrict and there is a big jump in blood pressure. Individuals under this type of pressure often experience lapses in judgment and reasoning abilities. They have lost their ability to re-engage their parasympathetic nervous systems, which are responsible for controlling the body’s everyday functions, like sleeping and digestion. This is an undesirable physiological response. It’s this type of body response to chronic stress that leads to insomnia, disease, and a shortened life span (Shellenbarger). Experts recommend that physical activity and mediation might be some effective ways to alleviate negative stress (Bakalar). Additionally, some techniques, such as biofeedback, in which patients learn to reduce anxiety levels and gain greater control over their own bodily functions, might also be valuable ways to reduce stress and anxiety. It is also believed that some treatments, for instance cognitive behavioral therapy, which is becoming increasingly popular, might be even more effective in combating the stress present in our daily lives since this remedy forces patients to confront the negative thoughts that are often the original source of feelings of stress and pressure (“How to manage stress”). While it is true that stress plays both a positive and a negative role in our daily lives, and we are preoccupied with finding ways to reduce our cortisol levels, recent investigations suggest that stress is a greater cultural problem than most people realize (NPR staff). Studying stress levels amongst the population gives us greater insight into the socioeconomic inequalities that exist within our society (Velasquez-Manoff).

Scientists now concur that the more powerless one feels when beset with a particular stressor, the more harmful are the effects of that stressor. This crippling feeling of helplessness and lack of control over one’s fate is much more prevalent amongst the less fortunate. Individuals at the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum are more than three times likely to die prematurely compared to members of the affluent class. The stress impoverished children face has significant ramifications later in life and it is becoming more and more apparent that early-life hardships make one more susceptible to disease and illness in adulthood. In fact, a child’s nervous system and the strength of her immune system are highly influenced by the kind of environment in which she grows up. If her parents are members of the lower social class and do not receive a sustainable income, she will also soon begin to experience the stresses that afflict poorer individuals. The stress can be so acute that ultimately, a child who has been raised in impoverished conditions will be more vulnerable to degenerative diseases and infections later in life.  Inflammation due to early life stresses increases one’s chance of contracting heart disease as well as diabetes. Stress levels considerably affect the brain, too. Chronic stress has been related to a decreased volume of the hippocampus, a region of the brain that is crucial for both memory and learning. There are also differences in the pre-frontal cortex, which plays an important role in planning and self-control, amongst children who deal with the onus of poverty in early life. Thus, children stricken by poverty during their early formative years are also more inclined to have difficulty attaining educational achievements and won’t develop a healthy stress response. In reality, three-year old children from wealthier families have greater than twice the vocabulary skills of children whose families receive support from welfare. Scientists have discovered, quite recently, that the telomeres, or the ends, of chromosomes are significantly shorter in people who have experienced more adversity during early childhood. Having shortened telomeres critically hastens the aging process and is extremely difficult to reverse. Prosperous individuals simply have greater access to healthy resources, namely exercise and nourishing food. This phenomenon has been coined the “status syndrome.” There is a strong correlation between heath and socioeconomic status, and as the differences in income increase, class mobility also stalls (Velasquez-Manoff).

What’s needed to give disadvantaged children a better chance for future success is a reduction in the stress that they experience, greater access to education, and more sources of support for families in need. Not surprisingly, research into the nature of stress also offers some explanations for the differences in life spans amongst individuals belonging to different racial groups. In the Unites States alone, the life span of an African-American is on average five years shorter than the average white person. How can this be explained? Again, social and demographic circumstances are responsible. Once again, it was reported that income was one of the major sources of anxiety. Additionally, the stress inherent in the experience of racism, which some members of the African-American population still have to contend with, is also responsible for negative health effects. Discrimination is associated with fat accumulation amongst women. In males, there are reported increases in both blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. And while racism might be a contributing factor to these feelings of stress, it is the tendency that some African-American children are raised under money-tight conditions that is the real underlying cause for the discrepancy in life span between whites and African-Americans (Velasquez-Manoff).

Understanding how the actual stress of poverty perpetuates economic and social inequality in our society is key in recognizing that we must start to treat childhood poverty itself as a public health issue. I think that the information gathered from studies measuring stress among the American population gives fighting childhood poverty a new meaning. By reducing the number of children who grow up in stressful environments due to a lack of financial resources, we can prevent poor health in adulthood. This would actually save more money and save more lives. As a matter of fact, James Heckman, an economist at the University of Chicago reckons that investing in poor children could provide a 7 to 10 percent yearly return to society (Velasquez-Manoff). Culturally, we are very obsessed with finding ways to “fight” stress, when in reality, our conception of stress only serves to conceal the greater social and economic problems prevalent in American society (NPR staff).


 Works Cited

Bakalar, Nicholas. “Feeling stressed? It’s probably harming your health.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 1 July 2013. Web. 21 Mar. 2014. <>.

“How to manage stress.” Wall Street Journal. Wall Street Journal, 6 Aug. 2009. Web. 21 Mar. 2014. <>.

NPR staff. ‘One Nation Under Stress’, With To-Do Lists and Yoga for All. NPR. NPR, 11 Mar. 2013. Web. 21 Mar. 2014. <>.

Shapiro, Margaret. “Stressed-out teens, with school a main cause.” The Washington Post. The Washington Post, 17 Feb. 2014. Web. 21 Mar. 2014. <>.

Shellenbarger, Sue. “When stress is good for you.” The Wall Street Journal. The Wall Street Journal, 24 Jan. 2012. Web. 21 Mar. 2014. <>.

Velasquez-Manoff, Moises. “Status and Stress.” The New York Times [New York] 28 July 2013, Opinion: SR1+. The New York Times. Web. 21 Mar. 2014. <>.


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