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Does Poverty Cause People to Lose Hope?



Like everything else in life, there are different degrees and contexts to losing hope. It can range from general sadness or dissatisfaction to clinical depression. And although poverty is not the sole cause of any person’s dissatisfaction or depression, there is a connection. “People who live in poverty appear to be at higher risk for mental illnesses. They also report lower levels of happiness.” The NPR article continues, “And there's growing evidence that levels of depression are higher in poorer countries than in wealthier ones.” 


Why would poverty cause greater levels of sadness, dissatisfaction and depression? It generally comes down to their environment. This is twofold. The physical environment has a massive impact on mental health. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America explains, “poverty causes stressors such as insecurity in food, housing, income, and more. […] Low-income communities tend to have specific characterizations such as limited resources, poor houses, high crime and violence rates, and an inadequate school system, which are all associated with poor mental health outcomes.”


And the social environment often becomes a barrier to care, which only makes the mental health condition worse. Stigma tends to be the primary social barrier. This is why poverty can cause mental illness in some people. “People suffering from anxiety, depression and co-occurring disorders in such communities not only experience the stigma surrounding mental health, but also that of living in poverty which ultimately can lead to self-discrimination as well as lack of self-confidence.” (Anxiety and Depression Association of America) The combination of both the physical environment and social stigma often leaves people in poverty to feel that they cannot receive help, which can worsen their mental health. 


On the flip side, some severe mental illnesses are more likely to be a major cause of poverty, rather than an effect. Psychologist Crick Lund explained it this way to NPR, “Mental illness may, in some cases, lead people down a road to poverty, Lund says, because of disability, stigma or the need to spend extra money on health care. […] Some evidence suggesting that poverty more often leads to depression while disorders like schizophrenia more often lead to poverty.” 8.7% of people who live below the poverty level report severe psychological distress.


The science around poverty and sadness or depression is still new, so there are few absolute conclusions to pull from it, but here is what the current science has found.

Poverty and Sadness


Other researchers have come to similar conclusions that poverty causes depression or higher levels of sadness, though it doesn’t seem to always be a caused by poverty itself. It would seem that much of that sadness is based on inhibited brain functioning and self-imposed feelings of inadequacy. 


An article on Science entitled “Poverty Impedes Cognitive Function” explains, “The poor often behave in less capable ways, which can further perpetuate poverty. […] We examined the cognitive function of farmers over the planting cycle. We found that the same farmer shows diminished cognitive performance before harvest, when poor, as compared with after harvest, when rich. This cannot be explained by differences in time available, nutrition, or work effort. Nor can it be explained with stress: Although farmers do show more stress before harvest, that does not account for diminished cognitive performance. Instead, it appears that poverty itself reduces cognitive capacity. We suggest that this is because poverty-related concerns consume mental resources, leaving less for other tasks.” A limited cognitive function can cause poor decision making and impulsive behaviors, which can perpetuate poverty if these decisions result in financial loss. Reduced cognitive functioning can be distressing in and of itself. This kind of “mental burnout” can make escaping poverty extraordinarily difficult and can lead to a cycle of inadvisable decisions, unfortunate consequences, and distorted self-image. 


Sociologists Jonathan Cobb and Richard Sennett found that social pressures can also distort the self-image of people in poverty.  This New Republic article explains, “Put simply, inequality imposes upon the lower classes a comparison that can never be achieved, one that is growing more distant and disquieting by the day. But, rather than being jealous of the material excesses of the rich, poor people seem rather ready to identify their own shortcomings—real or imagined, fairly or unfairly acquired—as the source of their lesser control and dignity. No wonder lower-income people feel more sadness in all daily activities than their uptown counterparts; a problem that will only worsen as inequality grows.” 


When studying sadness verses happiness in relation to money, Kostadin Kushlev, Elizabeth W. Dunn, and Richard E. Lucas found that “higher income is associated with experiencing less daily sadness, but has no bearing on daily happiness. […] The present findings point to the possibility that money may be a more effective tool for reducing sadness than enhancing happiness.” So money can’t make you more happy, but it can be an effective tool to fight sadness, especially in the context of poverty.

Poverty and Depression


Although poverty is not a definite or sole cause of depression, we know it can have a major impact on mental health. NPR explains, “so far, the strongest evidence suggests that poverty can lead to mental illness, especially in cases of disorders like depression. Because scientists can't experimentally plunge people into poverty to see what happens to their mental health, natural experiments offer one kind of clue. When disasters or tough spells (like losing a job or enduring periods of drought for farmers) destroy financial circumstances, numerous studies show a rise in rates of depression, Haushofer says.” It would appear that one of the contributing reasons for this is how stressful living in poverty is. Poor neighborhoods also tend to have high rates of violence, which can “exacerbate depression, Lund adds, And studies have found connections between mental illness and poverty-associated conditions, such as not having enough to eat, not making enough money to live on and having a greater chance of developing risks for physical illnesses.” 


Research published on National Institute of Health’s website found similar results, “We found a strong relationship between hardships and depression. The most prominent hardships were problems paying bills and phone turned off. We also found that hardship helped mediate much, though not all, of the link between poverty and depression.”


But knowing all of this, it’s still unclear if “mental-health interventions can make a true dent in poverty rates or why some people remain resilient even in extremely challenging circumstances.” (NPR)

So does poverty cause people to lose hope? For many people, yes. 

Want to Help?

Community Action agencies address not only the physical needs of clients, but the psychological. You can help us bring hope to people in poverty by doing any of the following:

  • Donate | We use your money to help run our programs, and provide training that helps organizations and individuals make their way to self-sufficiency. You can donate on our web page or find an agencies local to you.

  • Volunteer | We can’t do this alone. Join us! Find one of our agencies in your county and check out their website for volunteer opportunities.

  • Become a Member | Did you know you can become a Community Action Member? Membership provides discounted tickets to our various events, an inside look into our organization and more. Membership fees start at only $25 a year for an individual, or $300 for an agency.

  • Partner with Us | We are humbled by the many non-profit and for-profit organizations that partner with us to bring services, educations and events to North Carolina. If your organization is looking for a non-profit to partner with, please consider us. Email us at info@nccaa.net. We would love to hear from you!

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