Rasoul: The violence of poverty
By Sam Rasoul
Nearly every day a mass shooting or high profile sexual harassment story breaks the news. Gun violence is nothing new for Americans, and only recently has our society started to acknowledge how prevalent domestic violence and sexual harassment are, thanks to the courage of movements such as #MeToo. Looking deeper, one form of violence impacts more people in our country than any other, yet rarely makes the headlines: Poverty.
All forms of violence result in trauma — defined as a deeply distressing experience. Nearly all of us have had financial pressures of paying bills. However, when monetary stress transitions to unbearable distress on families forced to make ends meet, the physiological trauma is comparable to living in a war zone. Children living in poverty don’t know when the next shock will strike; my parents are fighting over money or I can’t go to school because I have no clean clothes. “People in poverty have the added burden of ever-present stress. They are constantly struggling… [and] that adds strain or even trauma to their daily lives,” writes Tara Mathewson in her article How Poverty Changes the Brain.
Recent science shows that children born into these desolate situations often have negative impacts on brain development, specifically involved in memory, decision-making, and self-control. The 22 percent of children living in poverty in the United States are living in a persistent traumatic state. In elementary school, I would run embarrassed through the cafeteria line; I didn’t want the other kids to see my “free lunch” card. I remember the painful moments that would occur on days when I forgot my weekly card. Clogging the lunch line, I was completely aware that my friends were wondering and judging my situation.
Some adverse life experiences catalyze growth, but the relentless onslaught from the cruelty of poverty can scar people for life. This reality, too real for one in six Americans, jolts us to our core. In Southwest Virginia, those unable to make ends meet jumps to 59 percent, according to the United Way. Begging the question; why isn’t poverty a top political issue? Probably because Americans most impacted by financial distress are less likely to vote and unable to make large campaign donations, leaving many with little political voice.
Beyond impacting one economic class, the violence of poverty threatens the ladder at the center of the American Dream. This prophesized “Dream” requires an individual to plan ahead, think through each decision with a certain level of intent. Instead, people “tend to get stuck in vicious cycles where stress leads to bad decision-making, compounding other problems,” states Elisabeth Babcok from EMPath which studies the brain science of poverty.
There isn’t such a thing as trauma that is only felt by a single person. Even in our culture of American individualism, no one is an island, and the effects of trauma on a single person sends ripples through our families and communities. Some of these effects manifest themselves in quieter ways, like the drug epidemic, or some in more violent and public tragedies: Tree of Life, Parkland, or Virginia Tech. There is no way to ignore the trauma inflicted on so much of our country. True, trauma can be relative, but the resulting violence is unignorable and felt by even the richest and most insulated of our community members.
Those struggling with economic hardship don’t need our pity, they need our voice. Scripture speaks of caring for “the least of these,” and we can do so by putting an end to the trauma. As we’ve stood up against the recurring shootings, and courageously called out sexual predators in the workplace, we must rise boldly against violence in all of its forms. We must end the persistent and damaging state of the violence of poverty.