The Relationship Between Chronic Stress and Poverty

Crystal Leonard's picture

Muscles tense, the heart races, and thoughts blur. These are just a few of the physical reactions involved in an extremely common response mechanism: stress. According to Hans Seyle stress is the “non-specific response of the body to any demand for change” (Stress). Stress is necessary to survival, and can motivate individuals to complete tasks. However, after a certain point stress becomes unhealthy and can cause feelings of strain or tension. The scientific community has established that chronic stress, stress that is frequent or long-lasting, can affect various parts of the body and can contribute to physical health problems. However, new research demonstrates that chronic stress can also affect one’s psychological processes and behavior by changing one’s brain chemistry. Everybody experiences acute stress, but certain groups of people are more prone to experience chronic stress than others. As an individual who identifies as being of moderately low socioeconomic status (SES), I know first-hand that poverty leads to increased amounts of stress in a person’s life. The chronic stress associated with poverty affects low SES individual’s nervous systems in ways that may prevent the majority from bettering their situations, thus perpetuating the cycle of poverty.  

            Poverty is stressful. The constant shortage of money, dangerous or unhealthy living situations, the perception of inferiority to those of higher SES, and the overall feeling of not being in control of one’s life all contribute to the higher chronic stress levels in low SES adults. Young children of low SES most likely are not aware of the money troubles plaguing their parents and older siblings. However, they will sense the tension in the household, which will in turn make them apprehensive and tense. Also, low SES children experience less mental stimulation through books, toys, and academic outings than other children because of the cost of these things. These children also often may be emotionally neglected because their parents are so concerned about work and money (Farah 14). The tension and neglect can cause stress responses in these children. Thus, all low SES individuals can suffer from chronic stress due to their socioeconomic status.

            Numerous studies demonstrate that low SES individuals have increased stress levels. In addition, it is well known that poverty increases one’s risk for chronic health problems (Delgado), such as severe depression and other mental illnesses, which hinder success in academics or work. These disorders make it much more difficult for low SES individuals to improve their situation through any form of economic advancement. While it is possible to fulfill the “American dream” and make a better life for oneself, that is not the case for most low SES individuals, especially after they leave school and start supporting a family.

 In addition to the disadvantages that low SES adults face due to poverty-related health problems, several studies have shown that low SES children demonstrate less cognitive development in several areas in comparison to other children (Farah 3). Martha Farah and her associates at the University of Pennsylvania conducted a study that tested key neurocognitive systems in low and middle SES children. They found that low SES children scored significantly lower than middle SES children on tests related to the left perisylvian/language system, the medial temporal/memory system, and the prefrontal/executive system, including the lateral prefrontal/working memory and anterior cingulate/cognitive control subsystems of the prefrontal/executive system (Farah 9).

Due to the different behaviors and skills governed by these underdeveloped cognitive systems, low SES children tend to have underdeveloped language skills, have difficulty forming memories from single exposures to a stimulus, are less able to hold and change information during some interval of time, and are less likely to “resist the immediate pull of an attractive stimulus in order to maximize more long-term gains” (Farah 6). All of these neurocognitive systems affect adult intelligence and problem-solving skills, so low SES children are at a disadvantage from an early age. With less developed cognitive systems they are more likely to not pursue or receive secondary education, making it much harder for them to increase their SES.

These studies demonstrate that people of low SES in general exhibit neurological deficiencies that make it more likely for them to remain in poverty. The question is then whether chronic stress is able to cause of these deficiencies. In order to answer this question one must understand how the stress response works and how it can affect the body. When a person perceives a threat (physical, emotional, etc) the sympathetic nervous system initiates a cascade of signals which leads to the immediate release of adrenaline from the adrenal glands. This increases blood glucose and fatty acid levels, which increases the amount of energy available for use by the muscles (The Human Brain). Breathing, hearth rate, and blood pressure increase so that the muscles receive as much oxygen and nutrients as possible to allow the individual to fight or flee from the stressor. At the same time other hormones slow down or stop growth, reproduction, the immune system, blood flow to the skin, and other non-essential metabolic activities.

After a while, if the stressor has not been removed, the adrenal glands secrete cortisol. Stress hormones such as cortisol are intended for use in short-term stressful situations, such as fleeing from a dangerous animal. When a person suffers from chronic stress, such as the stress of poverty, the long-term presence of cortisol can damage brain cells. The hippocampus, which is involved in learning and memory, is particularly sensitive to cortisol levels and suffers the most damage. “Too much cortisol can prevent the brain from laying down a new memory, or from accessing already existing memories” (The Human Brain). Also, children are greatly affected by the long-term presence of cortisol because cortisol can hinder hippocampal development (Farah 20).This might explain why low SES children have comparatively poor functioning of their medial temporal/memory and lateral prefrontal/working memory neurocognitive systems.

In addition to the role of cortisol chronic stress can damage the brain in other ways. During a stressful event blood is diverted to the muscles and away from non-essential systems in order to maximize the fight or flight response. This means that blood is diverted away from the hippocampus and other parts of the brain not involved in basic survival. These tissues then lack the energy to carry out their roles and faculties such as memory formation, higher level language development, and planning for the future are hindered. In addition, stress leads to changes in the levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the prefrontal cortex, thus impairing its function (The Human Brain). The prefrontal cortex is involved in higher level planning and decision making, so its impairment could lead to making poor choices which prevent one’s success in school or work. Finally, stress decreases the blood-brain barrier’s ability to prevent various toxins, viruses, etc from reaching neurons (The Human Brain). This puts low SES individuals who experience chronic stress at higher risk for various types of brain damage due to environmental toxins and diseases, which would then hinder success in academics and work.

Stress is a natural phenomenon. However, those who experience chronic stress are at risk for cognitive developmental deficits and damage to various parts of the brain because of the way that high levels of stress hormones interact with the brain. People of low SES experience a much greater level of stress on a daily basis than the average person, so it is to be expected that their brains would be affected by the stress. The damage or developmental hindrance potentially experienced by low SES individuals affects their behavior in ways that would make them more likely to continue to be poor. Thus, in trying to answer question of why poverty is passed from generation to generation perhaps society should consider the effects of stress as a piece of the puzzle. The research being done on this topic is new and not anywhere near finished, so we still do not have the whole picture. Years from now, perhaps, society will better understand stress’s role in the continuing cycle of poverty. When society has a better grasp on the topic then ethical questions raised by the research can be addressed. These questions include what duty, if any, society would have in reducing the stress levels of low SES children in order to ensure they reach their full cognitive potential, and how we can decrease the risk of low SES adults developing chronic disorders related to stress.


Works Cited

Delgado, Mauricio. "A Neural Correlate for Social Class". Scientific American. 19 February 2008. 1

            February 2009 <


Farah, Martha J., Kimberly G. Noble, and William Hurt. “Poverty, Privilege, and Brain Development:

Empirical Findings and Ethical Implications”. University of Pennsylvania. 26 January 2009


Stress, Definition of Stress, Stressor, What is Stress?, Eustress?. The American Institute of Stress. 26

January 2009 <>.

The Human Brain: Renew – Stress on the Brain. The Franklin Institute. 5 February 2009 <



Radioajo's picture

And psychopathology...

I can see you did the reasearch, you have very interesting references back there.

I am myself writing a paper on this topic, though I am including psychopathology in the puzzle. Just as you are asking wether stress causes poverty or it's the other way around, I did with psychopathology. As well as stress, psychopathology is correlated with low SES. I found two hypothesis: social causation and social selection. Your conclusion about the brain impairing effects as factors leading to poor academic development, and from there to low SES, are an example of a social selection view. Actually, lower academic level is correlated to low SES, and also, psychopathology during teenage was pointed out as a predictor of academic failure. The study was done by Miech, it's "Low Socioeconomic Status and Mental Disorders: A Longitudinal Study of Selection and Causation During Young Adulthood.

I think you will enjoy that one.

Keep in touch,


Paul Grobstein's picture

poverty, stress, and the brain

People often think of low socio-economic status as disadvantaging in terms of breadth of experiences, but this provides a useful additional perspective: that is also has indirect effects through higher stress levels.  That makes a lot of sense and should indeed be taken seriously in any social policy context.  In still broader terms, it helps to bridge some of the gaps between thinking about brain function and thinking about social issues generally.  Yes, how people "feel" can/does affect not only their present behavior but their future directions and possibilities.
jwiltsee's picture

I did a lot of research

I did a lot of research with a professor on this topic from an econometric point of view.  From many of the recent studies, there is the question of endogeneity where low SES leads to depression and stress or is it depression and stress that lead to low SES.  Either way, then as you said, I believe society should step in to stop this cycle.  

Using regression models though, it is not always statistically significant that stress factors lead to poverty.  Though it was shown that these stress factors lead to lower education levels as you pointed out.  Then you can try to make the link from low education levels lead to lower income, thus low SES.  

Also, one of the large problems with this issue you wrote about is what exactly is poverty.  How does one measure it?  There are many definitions, the structural and scientific, and many measurements, the US uses one thats been adjusted by the CPI from about 60 years ago.  What do you see as the definition of poverty and how should a community or country measure it??? 

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