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The crushing psychological weight of poverty and the need for hope

A few months ago, I met a family Buckner serves in Peñitas, Texas in the Rio Grande Valley. The six of them slept in a run down trailer, their belongings piled on top of each other. Their living situation created such stress that the oldest son wanted to run away, the 10-year-old son was struggling with anger issues and the mom was ready to walk away from it all.

As the mother shared their story, she broke down into tears. She was hopeless.

Their plight is typical of families living in poverty. The stress of poverty, which negatively impacts health in a multitude of ways, compounds all the other strains of life and weighs even on the youngest of hearts, according to new research from Cornell University.

Impoverished children, the study found, had higher rates of antisocial conduct such as aggression and bullying as well as feelings of helplessness than middle-class children. Vulnerable children also are more likely to have chronic physiological stress and short-term spatial memory issues.

“What this means is, if you’re born poor, you’re on a trajectory to have more of these kinds of psychological problems,” said Gary Evans, author of the study and professor of environmental and developmental psychology at Cornell.

“With poverty, you’re exposed to lots of stress. Everybody has stress, but low-income families, low-income children, have a lot more of it. And the parents are also under a lot of stress. So for kids, there is a cumulative risk exposure.”

Gary noted two implications of the study: Early intervention is key in the likelihood of reducing stress. Also, increasing a family’s income is the most efficient way to reduce a child’s exposure to poverty and reduce the risk of psychological problems.  

Gary’s conclusions underscore the importance of the holistic ministry of Buckner Family Hope Centers. In order to escape the wrath of poverty, families must be empowered with job skills, practical life skills and encouragement. But they also need help with immediate needs – physical, emotional and spiritual. 

In the case of the family I met, these needs were met through the parents taking classes to cope with life issues, become better parents and gain job skills. Their children also have gotten involved in classes to become better students, communicators and managers of their emotions. Two teams from Woman’s Missionary Union of Texas built them a new home, alleviating one of the primary stresses in the family’s life.

In one of the best days I’ve had in my three years at Buckner, I was able to revisit with the family a month later. It was like visiting with an entirely different group of people. Smiles and laughter filled the home. Parents and children alike showed off their rooms. They played in front of the home and inside it after the sun went down.

The weight had been lifted. They were soaring. 

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