Fear of poverty
I’m not sure I can say I’ve lived in poverty, but I have lived in fear of it. For many years, my parents lived on one salary while they raised five children. They were always stretched financially, and my dad carefully watched every penny as he had a real fear of us ‘going under’. He continued this habit his whole life, even when circumstances improved.
Like many of their generation, my mum and dad lived through the harsh years of the second world war, when money was tight, and food and other everyday items were in short supply. Both their fathers were away for long periods of time. There was no ‘internet banking’ then to ensure money arrived promptly to the dependent families so I can only imagine this must have been a source of real anxiety.
Balancing a very limited budget, whether in or out of work, takes a great deal of emotional, psychological and physical energy. It creates high levels of anxiety based on not having enough money for daily living essentials such as food, lighting, heating, water, housing costs, clothing, shoes, travel, and that’s without any extras such as a TV, a phone, the internet, and birthdays.
How a fear of poverty made me ‘stupid’
My worst experience of this was as a single parent coming out of an abusive relationship. My ex-partner did every conceivable thing possible to avoid paying to help support our young child. Despite being chased by the Child Support Agency (CSA), he found multiple ways to dodge, delay and evade payment.
I worried all the time about becoming homeless, receiving unexpected bills, imagining I had miscalculated my budget – everything really. I didn’t understand the benefits I was receiving. I was fearful 24/7 and in a state of constant panic and shame because I didn’t have the means to support myself.
I waited anxiously every month to see whether the maintenance cheque would arrive. I often couldn’t think about much else. I was distracted, stressed, depressed and often irrational.
I thought people would be judging me if I bought something for myself. I worried about how I would get a present for my son to take to a birthday party; the school trip he so wanted to go on; torn school trousers; and outgrowing things so fast?
It was the ‘fear of’ that nearly killed me. I seriously contemplated suicide on several occasions as I became ill with depression. Even though I was in a much better position than many, the unremitting fear of being in debt and not being able to provide for my son was overwhelming at times.
Eventually, my brother and sister-in-law took us in to live with them. Somehow, they coped with the arrival of a three-year-old, two dogs and a highly anxious woman! I had a brief period of respite but once they moved I was back to a state of fear trying to manage rent and living costs and financial unpredictability alone.
The TED Talk by Rutger Bregman sums up my state so well, the fear of poverty saw me at my least intelligent, most irrational and least effective!
What happens to a child living with a ‘fear of poverty?’
I was fortunate, as it was just myself and my son. I can’t imagine what daily life must be like with several children and no money, living in an area where street violence is common, and jobs are scarce. How does anyone come through that?
I’m sure that living in a constant state of fear impacted my child; in fact, I know it did. Fear of poverty affects children’s bodies and brains as they absorb the adult’s stress and are stressed by disconnection from adult distraction. Children can biologically become set to expect the ‘worst’ to happen.
Children feel what we feel. Fear – anxiety – despair.
Children sense our distraction. Disconnection – preoccupation – distance.
Children learn from us. Money – safety/stress – need.
The impact on a developing child – is it an ACE?
The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study show that living ‘in fear of’ can alter a child’s stress biology so it does not seem a great leap to think that a ‘fear of poverty’ can also be an ACE.
- Did a parent or other adult in the household often or very often… Swear at you, insult you, put you down, or humiliate you? or Act in a way that made you afraid that you might be physically hurt?
No___If Yes, enter 1 __
When children live with our despair and fear, their brains and bodies will hold tension and anxiety. They may be on high alert and struggle to concentrate, or even to care enough to learn. They may be jumpy, irritable, rush about like whirlwinds or withdrawn, quiet and not seem to enjoy much of daily life.
Especially for children, all of this makes getting along with others, being curious enough to learn, and experiencing joy, extremely difficult. At the same time, these interactions and experiences are the foundations for healthy development.
What can we do?
Having a close connection with a caring adult helps a child learn about their value, how to relate to others and how to access safety within relationships. It sets them free for:
- Curiosity which is what drives a child to experiment and learn
- Forming and enjoying friendships
- Experiencing joy – flying through the air on a swing, running down a hill, or stroking a puppy which helps a child switch off from the ‘adult world’ and just ‘be’ which is what childhood should be about
I work with many people who live hand to mouth and in fear of poverty. They need our support and compassion. And if we are fortunate enough to care for their children, we need to recognise that:
Poverty = fear = anxiety
If we can offer children feelings-based support, compassion and an opportunity to connect with us, we can help them experience healthy development and reduce their feelings of anxiety.