Economic Inequality and Toxic Stress

As a community engagement organization focused on community well-being, SCOPE is generating a local conversation about economic equality / inequality and how it relates to the well-being of everybody.   One aspect I'm interested in exploring is how economic inequality relates to toxic stress, and how we might respond to both.  What is economic inequality?

Economic inequality is the concept that it's not simply the stress of having less money that compromises well-being (health and mental health, learning, social relations, etc.) -- it's how big a difference there is between the economic realities of the people with the most money in the community and the people with the least money.  Lots of research is showing that it's the size of this difference that relates to well-being:   the bigger the difference, the more everybody's well-being is reduced.    When there's a big difference between the experience of the people with the most money and the people with the least money, this is like "social smog," affecting everybody. 

What is toxic stress?

In an article published in Tuesday's Herald-Tribune titled, "Hugs Help Fight Poverty," New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof raises the issue of "toxic stress."  He explains that toxic stress is not defined simply as exposure to hardships -- it is about experiencing hardships in a hostile or indifferent environment.  It is about experiencing threats with no sense that there are others to turn to when coping with the hardships. 

He goes on to say that when babies experience high levels of toxic stress before they are born and in the first few years of life, this early experience increases the odds of health, learning and social difficulties over the course of a lifetime.  In other words, toxic stress compromises well-being.  And it's not just babies -- anybody at any age experiencing toxic stress is at greater risk of difficulties. 

So how does economic inequality relate to toxic stress?

My sense is that when we live in a community where there's a big difference between the economic realities of the families with the most money and the families with the least money, and we see evidence of this difference day in and day out, and we don't see sufficient clues that it is changing for the better over time, it is human nature to interpret this is a sign that we're living in "an indifferent environment."  We get the feeling that as a whole community we're acting as if everything's okay when everybody can see clearly that it's not. 

My sense is that over time, living in a community with economic inequality creates a collective unconscious awareness that ours is a community that is generally indifferent.  And this awareness of indifference then contributes to transforming the hardships we experience into toxic stress. 

So How Might We Respond? 

There are some efforts underway here in Sarasota County to become more attuned, responsive and nurturing as a community - to resist collective indifference in the face of hardship and economic inequality.  For a couple of local examples check out my next blog post here...

And if you see some other examples throughout our community, please share them with us on the SCOPE Blog!