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The Three Faces of Poverty-Related Stress

How financial hardship traps mental health in a cycle of despair.

Key points

  • Poverty-related stress happens when struggles to meet basic needs cause ongoing mental and emotional strain.
  • Poverty-related stress stems from 3 key triggers: noise disturbance, home dysfunction, and financial distress.
  • The convergence of these stressors negatively impacts mental health, fueling anxiety, depression, and despair.
  • Lifting families out of poverty requires multilayered efforts addressing this complex web of stressors.

Over 37.9 million Americans currently live below the poverty line. With more than 11 percent of the American population struggling to afford basic necessities like food, housing, and healthcare, it is not surprising that living in poverty causes severe stress.

This stress significantly increases the probability of developing severe mental health problems for the individual and can emotionally cripple families for generations. Living in poverty can fuel a toxic brew of physical, emotional, and financial strain that arises from prolonged exposure to unsafe living conditions or experiencing severe financial hardships. These daily strains converge into an oppressive phenomenon researchers call “poverty-related stress.”

What is Poverty-Related Stress?

Poverty-related stress happens when ongoing struggles to meet basic physiological (e.g. food, housing) and security needs (e.g. healthcare, safe community) pile up, resulting in a great deal of mental and emotional strain. This nonstop pressure to make ends meet and to manage the problems caused by not having enough money often fuels anxiety, depression, and despair over time. Poverty-related stress is thus like a toxic weight dragging down mental health and making it very hard for people to feel hopeful and flourish.

According to a recent study, poverty-related stress is a contextually driven type of debilitating stress stemming from prolonged exposure to physical, emotional, and psychological strain due to experiencing severe financial hardships. This strain or “stress” is brought on by a dynamic interaction between three key triggers:

  1. Noise disturbance. This means feeling constantly stressed out and worn down by loud noises you can't escape that make it hard to sleep, rest, recover, or focus. For example, the stress of noisy crowded homes includes crying babies, loud music from neighbors, construction noise outside, or heavy traffic noise. This environmental roar disrupts sleep and the ability to concentrate, causing irritability and exhaustion.
  2. Home dysfunction. This means feeling stressed from not having a decent, stable place to live, inadequate housing resources, poor social relationships within the family, and threats to physical safety. Substandard living conditions tend to breed personal distress and fuel conflicts within families. This also refers to the stress caused by threats of eviction, food insecurity, unsafe buildings, and fears of homelessness. Further, overcrowding within the household and community can make privacy impossible or spread illness. The basic necessities for healthy living are missing, leaving people disconnected and desperate.
  3. Financial distress. This means feeling anxious and overwhelmed from always struggling to pay bills. Lacking money filters into every aspect of life. Dreams and goals often get sacrificed for survival needs. Fears of job loss, accidents, and illness loom large, as any crisis could spur a downward spiral into abject poverty. For example, stress from choosing between buying food or medicine, fear of losing your job, and worrying about accidents or illnesses that you can't afford. Also, stress from not being able to reach goals like education because of money problems.

The nonstop noise, home dysfunction, and financial instability fuel stress which negatively affects mental health and increases anxiety, depression, and despair. This toxic trio of stressors can converge to form an insidious trap that snares generations of people in poverty and dims hopes of outward mobility or escape.

Implications of Poverty-Related Stress

Research shows that the stress stemming from poverty not only negatively affects the individual and his/her/their family unit, but also costs governments billions of dollars yearly in lost productivity, healthcare expenses, and social support programs. Without solutions to alleviate key poverty-related stressors, these costs will continue to exponentially grow and make it more difficult to help those in poverty-stricken areas to escape.

However, research also shows that targeted interventions to reduce these specific stressors can improve well-being for those living in poverty. Noise reduction initiatives, housing adequacy policies, financial relief programs, and treatment increasing coping skills all show promise to relieve poverty’s toxic pressures.

Implementing multilayered initiatives to address the complex web of poverty-related stressors is thus critical as the social and economic costs of inaction are steep. Alleviating the distinct strains trapping families in cycles of hardship and mental health decline will require commitment across sectors. But the generational payoff for individuals and communities makes this investment imperative. Lifting families out of poverty likely requires multilayered efforts targeting its complex web of stressors. No single band-aid solution exists when the daily constraints of financial hardship shackle mental health and dreams so tightly.

We have the power to loosen poverty’s oppressive grip on mental health. But do we have the will to find and enact potential solutions?

Thank you to Prof. Dr. Jeff Klibert for commenting on and contributing to earlier versions of this article.


Allen, B., Klibert, J. J., & van Zyl, L. E. (2023). The Poverty-Related Stress Scale: Development and Validation of a Multidimensional Measure Assessing Poverty-Related Stressors. Depression and Anxiety, 20(6659030), 1-25.

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