Stress, Fear, and the Changing Face of Poverty


The worst thing about being poor is the fear. It’s the fear of not being able to afford a place to live. It’s the fear of not being able to feed the kids, or keep the beloved family pet. It’s the fear of not being able to go to the doctor, buy medicine, or put gas in the car so we can make it to work. It’s the fear of never being able to hold our heads up high again.

I see fear in the faces of people I know who look like they’ve aged twenty years in the last five. I see it in the face of the man who told me, “I don’t care about myself, but what about my kids? It breaks my heart when I think of all the things I can’t do for them.”

Hope and optimism, while not entirely gone, have changed. The poor don’t dream the American dream anymore. We don’t dream about a long list of things we want to buy. For the poor, the biggest dream of all is that one day we won’t have to worry about money. Maybe then we’ll finally be free from this instinct-fueled, fighting-for-survival fear that poverty brings crashing down on us.

The fear and stress of poverty result in depression and stress-related illness. Poverty results in substandard living conditions, a less nutritious diet, malnutrition and hunger. And according to a 2011 study published in the American Journal of Public Health, poverty can even kill you.

Sandro Galea, MD, DrPH, chair of Epidemiology at Columbia University, stated that overall, 4.5 percent of U.S. deaths were found to be attributable to poverty. “Social causes can be linked to death as readily as can pathophysiological and behavioral causes,” pointed out Dr. Galea. Using numbers from the year 2000, he went on to say, “If you say that 193,000 deaths are due to heart attack, then heart attack matters. If you say 300,000 deaths are due to obesity, then obesity matters. Well, if 291,000 deaths are due to poverty and income inequality, then those things matter too.”

At the other end of the spectrum, Oxfam International published an article in January, 2013 which states that, the annual income in 2012 of the richest 100 billionaires would be enough to end extreme poverty four times over. Oxfam warned that extreme wealth and income is not only unethical it is also economically inefficient, politically corrosive, socially divisive and environmentally destructive.

Jeremy Hobbs, executive director of Oxfam International, said:

“We can no longer pretend that the creation of wealth for a few will inevitably benefit the many — too often the reverse is true. Concentration of resources in the hands of the top one per cent depresses economic activity and makes life harder for everyone else — particularly those at the bottom of the economic ladder.”

There is overwhelming evidence that something needs to be done to help the poor and end income inequality. Yet some choose to come up with excuses for not helping the poor. Such was the case when Paul Ryan stated recently that government programs are offering people “a full stomach, but an empty soul.”

His statement is akin to accepting an invitation to eat dinner at someone’s house, only to have the host announce, “After you eat, your stomach will be full, but your soul will be empty.” That sounds like a terrifying horror movie, a work of fiction. The reality in America is quite different.

Caring for the poor and helping them to improve their situation does not create empty souls. On the contrary, it fills souls with gratitude and hope. Hope gives people courage and optimism. It makes people healthier, more energetic and more productive. Hope can go a long way towards healing this country and its citizens.

Another excuse against helping the poor was offered by House Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions when he said that it would be “immoral” to extend benefits to the long-term unemployed.

Helping the poor is one of the most beautiful and highly moral things we can do. Providing a government-funded safety net such as extending unemployment benefits so that people can continue to eat while they look for jobs is highly moral. Creating programs which help Americans further their skills and education so they can find better-paying jobs is highly moral. Funding a sweeping jobs program such as the WPA which helped millions get back to work during the Great Depression is highly moral. Putting millions to work in the way the government did during WWII is highly moral too. These last two programs are some of the main reasons we even developed an American middle class in the first place. And it is programs like these which can help save us today.

While we are on the subject of what is and is not moral, I don’t want to hear another person quoting Jesus out of context by saying, “For you always have the poor with you…” and then using that as an excuse to do nothing about poverty.

While I can’t speak for Jesus, I’m pretty sure that ‘doing nothing about the poor’ is not what he meant.

Poverty can happen to anyone and poverty matters to us all. Increased poverty and the tragic loss of a middle class will change the fabric of our country forever. It will change our very culture. It will change our future. The poor want help to get out of poverty. They want to be productive again. They want to make money again. They don’t want to stay poor or even die from poverty. That was never anybody’s dream.

And as far as that saying from Jesus goes, it reads as follows: “For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you wish, you can do good to them…”



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