Op/Ed

Living Together: Poverty causes trauma in children

JEANNE MONTROSS

Ninth in a series

I’ve been reading with appreciation the thoughtful, well written pieces that my colleagues have submitted to this series on homelessness. I would like to offer an additional perspective.

As we have seen, homelessness is a deep and complex issue, with many contributing factors — economics, addiction, mental health disorders and more. Another factor, interwoven with all of these, is childhood trauma.

Poverty, in and of itself, is traumatic. People in poverty have limited choices, limited personal agency. A parent working two or three low-wage jobs, with unpredictable schedules, is faced with terrible options. Leaving children alone versus with perhaps unsafe minders. The parent, always racing from job to job, is unable to help their child with homework, cook dinner for them, help them sort out the challenges of daily life, ensure they get to bed on time, and get up to go to school in the morning. When a child is ill, do they stay home to care for them, and risk losing a job? When they lose pay, what bills get skipped? Rent, the electric bill, the internet service that a child needs for schoolwork? What to feed the kids when grocery prices place healthy diet out of reach. What to say when a child wants to participate in activities that cost scarce dollars? 

In my decades of work with disadvantaged Vermonters, I have seen assistance programs come and go, and funding commitments rise and fall, dependent on the economy, political administrations, and government priorities. Welfare reform,  sequestration, increases in nutritional programs, stimulus payments, child tax credit payments, increases and then reductions in housing subsidies, the American Relief and Recovery Act, and so on. Recently, pandemic-era programs provided some real security for families — help with rent and mortgage payments, utility assistance, expanded unemployment and food benefits. Children in low-income families were able to have a couple of years of relative stability and safety. And now, once again, they will experience the uncertainty, deprivation and risk that come with poverty. 

Trauma has long-lasting effects, and it is particularly detrimental to young children, whose brains are still developing. Trauma, an extreme form of stress, has a physical impact on the body, and also on the brain, as stress hormones are released and neurotransmitters are altered. Enter key words into a search engine — trauma, poverty, homelessness, adverse childhood experience — and find hundreds of articles on how the stress of childhood trauma often leads to lifelong struggles and a higher risk of homelessness.  

Think about a traumatic experience in your past. How that impacted you at the time. Fear, confusion, inability to concentrate? Now imagine that happening over and over again. How would that impact a young child? Not enough food, lack of safety, being unable to sleep well. Continual worry and distraction. The knowledge that they might not even have a place to live tomorrow. Children who experience this cannot be expected to grow into self-sufficient adults, to be able to make sound decisions, to go from point A to point B to point C and to be able, in turn, to raise their own children in safety and stability. 

Abby Sessions’ piece a number of weeks ago mentioned a guy in a truck who, as he passed the group assembled on the Middlebury town green to call attention to homelessness, rolled down his window and shouted, “Get a job!” Well, some people can’t. We all know the old trope “pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” When you’ve known poverty and trauma since you were a small child, you may have no boots. 

Unless and until we make a sufficient and sustained commitment to families, to ensure that all children grow up safe, well-fed, secure and able to learn, unless and until we stop providing a little help and then pulling it back, retraumatizing kids in the process, we will never end the cycle of homelessness, poverty, and everything else that comes with it. 

The late Jack Craven, Middlebury College Economics professor and long-time HOPE board member, once said to me, “We could end poverty in this lifetime if we had the political will.”  

Only through a deep commitment, morally, socially, and politically, will the problem of homelessness ever be solved. I’m not holding my breath. 

In the meantime, let’s all keep doing what is in our power to do, to help, and to understand. Let’s not judge someone for being poor, for being homeless, for just doing what they have it in them to do to get by.  

Jeanne Montross has been head of the Addison County poverty-fighting organization HOPE, Helping Overcome Poverty’s Effects, since 2000.

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