How to Heal From the Stress of Poverty

Posted on April 18, 2017

The chronic stress and trauma associated with poverty are toxic to children and can result in long-term health ramifications long into adulthood. We recently discussed the toxicity of poverty and trauma as it relates to both emotional and physical health. The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study unearths a disheartening connection between the number of adverse childhood experiences and various health problems in adulthood. The more emotional trauma a child experiences, the more at-risk they are for health problems – both risk factors and diseases – as adults. The study reveals both the power and the commonality of these abusive and dysfunctional childhood experiences – including physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, exposure to substance abuse, mental illness, violence against the mother, and criminal behavior. Environments and communities struck by poverty experience higher occurrences of these and other stressful, traumatic experiences.

Chronic stress has become a primary mechanism for the impact of poverty.

In identifying and amplifying the most effective community-based solutions to poverty, Stand Together Foundation is working to fight issues like chronic stress in low-income communities. What can we do to mitigate the strong correlation between emotional trauma experienced during childhood and an increase in both health risk factors and diseases?

What Interventions Work

The ACE Study identifies three main strategies to bring awareness to the strong linkages between childhood trauma and adult health:

  • Prevention of ACEs.
  • Prevention of the adoption of health risk factors in response to ACEs.
  • Changing health risk factors and treating diseases among those whose health issues may be a result of multiple ACEs.


Unfortunately, all three tiers of the proposed strategy prove difficult to accomplish.

It is not without sweeping societal change to improve family environments and decrease the occurrence of ACEs, that we will be able to effectively prevent adverse experiences. The same is needed for an increased awareness of the prevalence and long-term effects of ACEs. This awareness is needed both in communities at large and in the medical and community helping professions. After all, it’s easier to treat a presenting disease than embark on the troubling journey of uncovering the roots, possibly decades earlier. Dr. Vincent Felitti, author of the ACE Study speaks to this issue:

“Most physicians would far rather deal with traditional organic disease…Our attention is comfortably focused on tertiary consequences far downstream. The diagnosis shows that the primary issues are well protected by social convention and taboo and points out that we have limited ourselves to the smallest part of the problem: the part where we are comfortable as mere prescribers of medication.”

The Shriver Report suggests treating children and parents together as a single unit and empowering parents or caregivers with the tools and resources necessary to help buffer the effects of stress. Targeting the body’s biological response to stress – hormonal dysfunction, chronic inflammation, brain development – is also key. Addressing the hormonal distress caused by poverty requires a multifaceted approach, including a healthy diet and exercise.

The American Psychological Association (APA) makes similar suggestions – to equip parents with resources and help children learn how to cope. Improving the family environment and helping families adopt coping strategies has proven beneficial.

The most effective and critical interventions are ones that empower individuals in their journey to healing from trauma. In tandem with programs that sharpen hard skills and provide concrete opportunities, the difficult, intangible work of healing trauma is at the root of sustainable solutions to poverty.

What Stand Together Foundation Catalysts are Doing

Stand Together Foundation Catalysts are working in low-income communities to help equip and empower families to fight the chronic stress of poverty. In these community-based organizations, actual change begins with active listening and authentic relationship.

Attack Poverty serves under-resourced communities through spiritual growth, education, revitalization, and basic needs. They take a holistic approach to strengthening communities that helps alleviate the stress and trauma of poverty. By focusing on development and dignity, they work to promote healthy families and sustainability.

Jeremiah Program takes a two-generation approach to moving families from poverty to prosperity. They support the education of single mothers, provide early childhood education and safe affordable housing, teach empowerment and life skills, and foster a supportive community. By supporting a single mother’s pursuit of a career-track, college education while providing a healthy, safe, supportive community, Jeremiah Program helps families find a clear path out of poverty.

New City Kids works with at-risk teens to mitigate the deleterious effects of poverty. Empowering teens with leadership and work opportunities, New City Kids helps teens build self-confidence, realize their potential, and imagine a better future.

Roots & Wings serves youth who are aging out of the foster care system. With 24-hour wrap-around support, Roots & Wings builds the supportive, safe, healthy environment young adults need to become self-sufficient and independent. Roots & Wings works to help youth secure safe housing, achieve educational goals, and address the trauma so prevalent in children coming from broken homes and the foster care system.

Springboard To Opportunities (STO) works with families in affordable housing communities to build pathways out of poverty. With a resident-driven model, STO listens to the specific needs of a community and helps families solve their most pressing problems. Programs focus on community, learning, and success, all undergirded by a commitment to help families through hands-on, authentic relationship.

Urban Ventures operates social enterprises and community programs focused on empowering families to break the cycle of poverty. They work to close the gaps that perpetuate poverty – gaps often are exacerbated by adverse childhood experiences. Youth, family, and food and nutrition programs provide resources and services that address all aspects of poverty with a multi-faceted approach.

These Catalysts and more are listening to the needs of their communities and engaging in the tenuous work of healing. Each organization takes a unique approach to addressing the roots of poverty and alleviating chronic stress.

To learn more about these Stand Together Foundation Catalysts, visit our Catalyst Network page.