Living in poverty is hard – perhaps that’s why there are so many words related to hard that can be applied to a life of poverty – hard time, hardship, hardscrabble, hard luck, hard pressed, hard row to hoe, hard-hearted…it’s just hard. Most of us can deal with some hard in our lives – we get going when the going gets tough; we keep our chin up and maintain a stiff upper lip; we shoulder our burden. We retain hope. This is an excellent short term strategy. But over the long term living in poverty gets progressively more difficult.
The ills of poverty are varied and numerous. Some people begin life in poverty and never leave it. They are racially segregated and poorly educated. They work hard at menial labor in unsafe conditions, living from payday to payday at the best of times. They possess little in the way of material goods and live perpetually in debt. Their dwellings are poor and overcrowded. They may be malnourished and probably have physical ills that have never been treated. They might have fallen victim to crime or substance abuse. They reproduce and die young.
Strangely this description of life in the tenements of New York at the turn of the last century can be just as well applied to many Americans at the turn of this century. And with the Great Recession leaving scores of formerly middle class families homeless, without regular income, and without medical insurance, the likelihood is that this description will be aptly applied to even more people.
Poverty in the U.S. grew substantially more common during the last decade, with hardships increasing for millions of people and their families, especially with regard to food, medical care and housing. (Poverty, Hardship and Families: How Many People Are Poor, and What Does Being Poor in America Really Mean?)
Poverty has been associated with numerous physical, mental and social ills in any number of studies. People living in poverty today are more likely to be ‘food insecure’ or have to forego purchasing needed prescription medicines or visit doctors. Children in poverty are more like to suffer abuse. Depression abounds amongst the poor, so much so that studies have questioned which comes first – does depression cause one to fall into an impoverished lifestyle, or does being poor make one depressed?
I daresay some people, depressed to the point of being unable to maintain social ties and good work habits, descend with their depression into poverty. Yet I also believe that the constant ongoing stress of being financially insecure, on the verge of homelessness, and unable to find employment is a clear cause of depression. The strain and anxiety, the insomnia and irritability, the worry and shame, they all eat at one, dragging one down in an increasingly steep spiral, until it requires a near Herculean effort just to get up in the morning.
You might think having children would inoculate you against depression. It doesn’t. It gets you out of bed in the morning but if anything thinking about your children, the material and social advantages that you cannot give them, the insecurities and privations they endure, and your anxiety about their futures, the concern that you may be causing them incalculable harm, merely serves to contribute to your burden and diminish your sense of self-worth. When you are poor you feel very much alone.
Poverty, like smoking, accidents or obesity, has even been found to be a cause of death in America. In an article published in the American Journal of Public Health, researchers found that in the year 2000 poverty caused nearly 300,000 deaths (compared to about 120,000 deaths per year caused by accidents). I suspect that number will only increase.