You Can't Understand The Full Impact Of Poverty Until You've Living It

by Wendy Wisner
Originally Published: 
Scary Mommy and Photo by Sharon McCutcheon/Unsplash

My family spent one year living below the poverty line and I will never forget it.

It was during the recession of the early 2010s. My husband had been laid off from the job he’d had for the previous ten years, I was pregnant with our second child, and we had a young child who wasn’t in school yet. We both took part-time work to make ends meet while my husband looked for a new job. He collected unemployment during this time, and we were on SNAP benefits and Medicaid.

It was one of the single most stressful times in my life. I have an anxiety disorder that had been previously well managed. Soon after my husband got notice at his job, I began having daily panic attacks. During my pregnancy, I experienced prenatal depression and anxiety. My mind would race with terrifying thoughts of my baby dying. I was riddled with the fear that I wasn’t going to be a good mother to this child, bringing him into our broken life.

I didn’t know it at the time, but my husband was struggling too. He developed a touch of paternal postpartum depression after our son was born, and when he finally did get a new job—a teaching job at a tough inner city school—his depression and anxiety lingered, to the point that he began to experience panic attacks for the first time in his life, ever.

I am happy to say that our family is in a much better place right now. The economy is doing better, obviously (knock on wood). My husband has a job he loves. Now that our children are grown and in school, we both work and I am able to bring in a full-time living. We aren’t rich, but we live comfortably and have everything we need.

I know that we are lucky—privileged in many ways—and I don’t forget that. But I will never forget the year that we struggled financially, because I was able to understand for the first time the profound ways that poverty affects people. I don’t think you can really understand unless you’ve been there yourself.

Besides the obvious effects—like poor living conditions, hunger, and lack of essentials resources—poverty can have strong and lasting effects on your mental health. And we aren’t talking about that nearly enough.

I recently came across a study reported on in NPR. It’s about the effects of minimum wage and unemployment on suicide rates. The study found a clear relationship between low earnings and employment and suicide.


The study, published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, concluded that if the minimum wage in every state in America had been raised by $1 between the years 1990-2015, 27,000 suicides could have been prevented; raising it by $2 could have saved 57,000 lives.

How did they come to these conclusions? The researchers looked at suicide rates and factors like minimum wage and unemployment on a state by state basis, between 1990-2015.

NPR explains: “They ran the numbers through a mathematical model which showed, on average, that for every $1 increase in the minimum wage, the suicide rate lowered by somewhere from 3.5% to 6%. When they added unemployment rates into the model, they found that the effect of each $1 increase appeared to be greater when more people were out of work.”

Unemployment was a major factor here, as people who are out of work are much more likely to contemplate suicide, said the researchers. It’s important to note that the study focused on less educated adults—those with a high school degree or less—because, as the researchers note, this group is more significantly affected by things like low wages and unemployment.

The researchers did not discuss the reasons behind the correlation between low wages and suicides, but I think we can all imagine the desperation and fear that comes with not knowing how you are going to keep a roof over your head or feed your family. For many folks who have lived in poverty their whole lives, it can feel that there is no way out and suicide may feel like the only option.

While there certainly needs to be more research into the matter of exactly how poverty and unemployment leads to mental health issues, there is some additional research out there beyond this most recent report.

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For example, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration of the U.S. government, 9.8 million adults in America live with “serious mental illness” (SMI). Of these, 2.5 million live below the poverty line–and living below the poverty line makes you more vulnerable to mental illness.

“Adults aged 26 or older living below the poverty line were more likely to experience SMI [serious mental illness] than those living at and above the poverty line,” writes the SAMHSA.

“The relationship between mental illness and poverty is complicated,” they add. “Poverty may intensify the experience of mental illness. Poverty may also increase the likelihood of the onset of mental illness. At the same time, experiencing mental illness may also increase the chances of living below the poverty line.”

I think we can all agree that we need to take the mental health of people living in poverty or struggling financially seriously—very seriously.

Mental health should not be something we keep on the back burner. We need to talk about it—and we need to normalize talking about it. We need to share our stories. We need to help one another. We need to understand how things like institutional poverty, class, racism, and sexism all come into play here. And we need to fix them, desperately.

Maybe most importantly, there need to be more mental health services available for folks of all economic levels. Free and accessible clinics and counselors. Programs in schools, unemployment offices and other social service programs that address the mental health crises that poverty can trigger or exacerbate.

We need to do this now, before more lives are destroyed and before more precious lives are lost.

If you, or someone you know, is having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741. For additional mental health resources, click here.

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