The High Cost of Stress for the Poor and the Powerless

Income inequality and stress are trending this week.  “President Says Income Gap is Fraying U.S. Social Fabric” was the headline from Galesburg, Illinois.  Declaring the economy stronger than four years ago, Obama, apparently, has been getting an earful from the citizenry, many of whom are seeing relief, but remain anxious about their future. Meanwhile, science writer Moises Velasquez-Manoff held forth on health disparities in “Status and Stress,” a piece with the chilling subhead: “The poor and powerless are at greater risk of early death.”


And who are among the growing number of the poor and the powerless in our advanced economy?

I waded through Velasquez-Manoff’s deconstruction of stress according to social status, bolstered by citations from the work of British epidemiologist Michael Marmot.  The stress that kills—big surprise—is not that of a CEO agonizing over his four-year-old’s enrollment in an elite preschool, but rather is characterized by “ a lack of a sense of control over one’s fate,” which results in something that psychologists who study animals call “learned helplessness.”

Finally, I got to the nitty gritty: the impact of stress on life achievement.  Here, Velasquez-Manoff referred to an “oft-cited study” by Betty Hart and Todd Risley, who quantified early cognitive differences in their research on the sizeable language gaps between low-income children and their better-off peers in professional households.  Then, he turned to the wisdom of Martha Farah, who heads up the Center for Neuroscience and Society at the University of Pennsylvania and whose forte is socio-economic status and the brain, and the aspects of early childhood experience that inform cognitive development:

You don’t need a neuroscientist to tell you that less stress, more education, more support of all types for young families are needed.  But seeing an image of the brain with specific regions highlighted where financial disadvantage results in less growth reframes the problems of childhood poverty as a public health issue, not just an equal opportunity issue.

A neuroscientist after my own heart. But from where I stand, this journalist buried the lead.  Here’s his final paragraph:

Some now argue that addressing health disparities and their causes is not just a moral imperative, but an economic one.  It will save money in the long run.  The University of Chicago economist James Heckman estimates that investing in poor children yields a yearly return of 7 to 10 percent thereafter to society. Early-life stress and poverty aren’t a problem of only the poor.  They cost everyone.

Indeed.  To the tune of $500 billion, according to a recent report, Poverty and Education: Finding the Way Forward.  Since the mid-1990s, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser Permanente’s Health Appraisal Clinic in San Diego have been tracking the incidence of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE).  The findings illuminate the link between childhood trauma and long-term chronic diseases and social-emotional problems.   They also demonstrate that childhood trauma—including abuse, neglect, and family dysfunction—knows no bounds: it’s common even among the more gainfully employed and well-educated members of the populace. You knew that, of course.  The bottom line, however, remains the same:  among the poor and the powerless—nearly a quarter of American children—the stress is high and toxic.


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