Op/Ed By Dr. Leonard Brock, RMAPI executive director, and Melanie Funchess, director of community engagement for the Mental Health Association –
Anyone who has ever lived in poverty knows the overwhelming stress that comes from daily life.
Working multiple jobs just to make enough money to scratch by, living in neighborhoods with high rates of crime and violence, worry about the safety of children and loved ones—it accumulates to create poverty-induced trauma that impacts cognitive function and builds significant barriers to escaping poverty.
But anyone who has lived in poverty or worked with those affected by trauma also knows the strength, resilience and determination they show in life every day. It is a group primed to succeed with the proper tools and conditions—something that the Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative (RMAPI) has been working to create across the community.
In early 2015, RMAPI formed work groups to identify the major roadblocks standing in the way of people moving out of poverty and into self-sufficiency, and found that the impact of poverty-induced trauma is one of the major barriers. In a report the following year, RMAPI identified the need to address trauma as one of the guiding principles of our community-wide effort to reduce poverty by 50 percent in the next 15 years. The other two guiding principles—addressing structural racism and building communities—share important overlap with addressing trauma.
For those living in poverty, trauma is experienced in a number of ways, from being unable to meet basic needs, to neighborhood violence, to children growing up in unstable households. For African-Americans and Latinos living in poverty, the effects of poverty-induced trauma are compounded by the significant constraints of structural racism, creating an exponential impact that makes the barriers to escaping poverty even greater.
We know that trauma has damaging physiological effects, primarily on brain development. Trauma is particularly harmful to the portion of the brain dedicated to decision-making and emotional regulation. Multiple studies of both adults and children living in poverty suggest that cognitive function and executive functioning skills are impacted by the continuous stress that comes from threats to well-being.
The Stanford Social Innovation Review noted that these stresses create a “bandwidth tax” that decreases decision-making abilities. The pressures of meeting the obligations of daily life impacted by poverty also make it more challenging for individuals to attend to their own health. When so much energy needs to be invested in just getting by, health and nutritional needs often fall by the wayside and chronic conditions can worsen.
There is significant overlap between the goal of addressing trauma and building communities. Dr. Carl Bell, an expert in mental wellness and traumatic stress caused by violence, noted the importance of creating a sense of community and connectedness for those affected by trauma.
Dr. Bell noted the need to “rebuild the village” by bringing together churches, schools and families to create networks working together to provide support, safety and security for those affected by trauma. Creating a sense of connectedness will address feelings of alienation and increase self-esteem.
Though the effects of trauma can be difficult to see and even more challenging to treat, the collective effort of RMAPI has taken some important steps to address them. The initial report identifying trauma as a major barrier to escaping poverty listed several recommendations for the community to take action, and we have seen many of those come to fruition.
One of the most important steps came earlier this summer when the state of New York announced $4.75 million to support the expansion of RMAPI-endorsed early childhood initiatives. This funding allowed for the expansion of home visitation and parent support programs, which give critical skills to young mothers to help raise their children in healthy and safe environments.
The funding also expands child care subsidies for the working poor, removing the stress of having to find a safe and affordable child care option and allowing the parents to work free of worry and interruptions. Summer learning programs are also expanded through the state’s funding, providing a safe place for children to learn and avoid the summer learning loss that can impact their studies.
We have also seen other significant efforts to address trauma in our community. The Rochester Area Community Foundation partnered with the Wilson Foundation on a collaborative model for trauma-informed care. The agencies released a request for proposals that recommended the RMAPI guiding principles and made collaborative funding decisions for trauma-informed capacity building at eight human services agencies that together serve more than 150,000 individuals.
These are all critical steps in giving those impacted by poverty the tools to address its effects, allowing them to harness their strength and resiliency to find sustainable success. While these steps are encouraging, there is still much work to be done and it will take the entire community’s support to fully understand trauma and support the efforts to address its effect on poverty. We encourage everyone to visit www.endingpovertynow.org and sign the pledge at the bottom of the page supporting the RMAPI guiding principles, then encourage others to do the same.
RMAPI also partnered with local artist Amen Ptah to create a video project that illustrates the effects of trauma through interviews with local experts, RMAPI stakeholders and members of our community. We encourage everyone to visit the RMAPI site, watch this video and share it with friends and colleagues to help raise awareness of the effects of poverty-induced trauma.
We can make a difference in addressing trauma and the factors that cause it, but the effort will require the support of the entire community. Are you with us?