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Pearl #14: Breaking Out of Poverty is Extremely Hard

Throughout the year, our blog series “Pearls: 30 Lessons Learned on Our 30 Year Journey” will be featuring lessons we’ve learned as an organization throughout the past three decades. These “pearls,” as we call them, illuminate how we’ve survived and thrived for 30 years.

Breaking Out of Poverty is Extremely Hard

Living in poverty is stressful. This might sound logical, but I often think those of us who are not living in poverty are unaware of the impact the stresses of poverty have on those who are. Research shows that when experiencing the stress of poverty, one can only think of one or two things at a time. Even then, thinking and planning is only short term, focused on meeting immediate needs. Judgment and the ability to make decisions and to learn are also affected, along with one’s memory and behavior. In short, the skills people need to get out of poverty are exactly the ones that are lost by being in it. 

Adding to these challenges is that the stress of poverty causes problems with focus and attention as people get caught in a cycle of worry. Years ago, in one of my past career lives, I taught stress management classes. One of the theories I learned about why we worry is that our brains are afraid we might forget the problem. Thus, we worry to ensure that we don’t forget. As an antidote, I taught a technique that involved writing down one’s worries on a piece a paper and then putting that paper away in a safe place. The idea was that it was a way to trick the brain into believing that worrying was unnecessary. Since the worries were written down, of course you couldn’t forget! 

The problem with the worrying that occurs due to the stressors of poverty is that it is not possible to forget the stress because there are constant reminders. Instead, people living in poverty end up feeling trapped by the constant stressors, unable to create a plan or strategy for one’s life. Everything we might take for granted if we don’t live in poverty, including the availability of social support, financial resources to solve problems and personal safety are scarce or nonexistent for those living in poverty.  

Also an issue, but often overlooked, are the well-documented effects of scarcity on the brain. Experiencing scarcity affects our ability to make well-considered decisions by preventing us from being able to fully consider the pros and cons in any decision. As a result, a person experiencing poverty might make a short term choice that seems beneficial, but has long-term implications; for example, deciding to get a free cellphone, but committing to an expensive, multi-year data plan contract. Those without the same stressors might see these behaviors and become frustrated with the women’s poor choices.  

But understanding the brain’s response to poverty and scarcity is our job at the Bean Project. Nearly all the women we serve at Women’s Bean Project live at 200% or below the Federal Poverty Level. Understanding how hard it is to break out of poverty informs our program approach. We work to relieve some of the stress by paying the women a wage for all the time they are at the Bean Project, whether they are working on the production line or working in programming. We hope this regular income and the additional support we offer through coaching and connecting women with resources in the community alleviates some stress of living.  We also create space through our program for women to make changes in their lives that will have positive long-term implications. We do this by having time during the day to work with coaches and case managers that can help connect women to resources they are looking for. Finally, we provide coaching to help improve decision-making skills that have been affected by scarcity. The goal is for women to learn how to take actions that will allow them to create better lives for themselves and break the cycle of poverty. During the six to nine months the women work at the Bean Project, we will help them create and navigate a plan and practice the skills that are negatively impacted by the stresses of poverty. 

When we think about our approach with the women and the best way to help them build skills to get and keep employment and live productive lives, we must remember that the stresses of poverty can impede progress. But if we can, through our program structure and paid work, provide some space and tools for breaking out of poverty, we will have accomplished a lot.  

Written by Tamra Ryan, CEO 

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