Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Poverty and Stress

Years ago, an old woman who had lived for many years in a very depressed and neglected neighborhood shared something profound. Something I'll likely never forget.

As we discussed her life and the day-to-day stress of living in poverty, she said, "Larry, we carry our grief in buckets here. Everyone has lost something precious."

The stress of a life caught up in poverty, and all that goes along with that state of living, is something most of us cannot possibly understand.

An essay in The Economist ("I am just a poor boy though my story's seldom told," April 4, 2009) gets at the connection between stress and not just poverty, but the role of stress in the transference of poverty from generation to generation.

Here's how the important report begins:

How poverty passes from generation to generation is now becoming clearer. The answer lies in the effect of stress on two particular parts of the brain.

THAT the children of the poor underachieve in later life, and thus remain poor themselves, is one of the enduring problems of society. Sociologists have studied and described it. Socialists have tried to abolish it by dictatorship and central planning. Liberals have preferred democracy and opportunity. But nobody has truly understood what causes it. Until, perhaps, now.

Read more here.



Chad said...

Larry, I also saw this article in the Economist. Christi and I both went through a program at Mass General on healthy attitudes for dealling with illness and stress, and part of the course was learning the physiology of stress. It's astounding what happens to our brains. And when I think how difficult it has been for - living in relatively comfortable circumstances - to deal with the effects of stress...it only highlights the kinds of physical and social burdens the poor are carrying.

I'm wondering, too, do you know of any efforts to teach urban poor communities to meditate? Building a daily meditation practice was part of MGH's *medical* solution to the negative effects of stress. I'm kind of curious if that aspect of the science has made any inroads into urban communities.

Larry James said...

chad, thanks for this. I have known of a couple of efforts here in inner city East Dallas to teach meditation and Yoga. . .primarily in response to the large Buddhist population from SE Asia--especially a decade or more ago. Another movement that seems to be spreading is community gardening. The notion of embracing the discipline of meditation in the noisy, noisy world of our city is a fine one.

Steve said...

In a laboratory setting, the test results are striking. BUT when you also factor in that a child in an inner city school is dealing daily with the stresses that induced the reduced brain functions, the idea of an even playing field is even further from reality.

I wonder how many of the "Lazy" poor might be actually evidencing a very reasonable response to generations of failure/stress/failure/stress. When trying their hardest, these kids get outperformed. Why try?

Pass the crack pipe, man...this is depressing me!