Poverty: Applying a Trauma Informed Lens

March 1, 2023

Poverty is debilitating and complex and has deep roots throughout society, culturally and historically and presents itself in multiple ways. The living reality of poverty means that when you don’t have enough money for basics such as food and heating, it is the first thing you think about when you open your eyes and the last thing you think about before you close them again and try and sleep. It is deeply stress inducing and can be all consuming. This can bring a variety of challenges, which can result in negative, repetitive cycles where it can feel impossible to play a full part in society creating a cycle and a spiral of despair and isolation.

So what is poverty? There is no universally accepted definition of poverty but there are four levels of poverty to consider; Relative Income Poverty, Absolute Income Poverty, Material Deprivation and Destitution.

  • Relative Income Poverty is where households earn less than 60% of the contemporary median income.
  • Absolute Income Poverty is where households earn less than 60% of the median income. 
  • Material Deprivation is when a household cannot afford particular items and activities deemed essential in modern-day living.
  • Destitution is where a household cannot afford the basics such as heating, shelter and clothing.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) offers a basic definition which is “when your resources are well below your minimum needs.”

How do households end up in poverty? There are a number of systemic causes of poverty in UK society that are evident. These elements are:

Unemployment and low-paid jobs - This creates a lack future prospects and job security, alongside the potential mental health and well-being challenges of increased anxiety stemming from insecurity, uncertainty and hopelessness which can then also make accessing other workplace positions more difficult.

Ineffective & punitive benefits system - The level of welfare benefits just isn’t enough to avoid poverty, especially when combined with our current increasing costs, currently labelled ‘the cost of living crisis.’ In addition to this, the system itself is often difficult to engage with which can cause errors, delays and consequent breaks in income/financial aid. The Trussell Trust have found that 90% of low-income households receiving Universal Credit are going without at least one essential like food, a warm home or toiletries. The latest figures show that about 40% of people on Universal Credit are in work and that 57% of claimants are women. 

High costs - As is prevalent in 2023, with the effects of the pandemic and the war on Ukraine, everyday costs are increasing at a level we’ve not experienced before. Bills such as electricity, gas and petrol seem to be continuously on the rise which is affecting all households as well as businesses, which in turn are increasing costs once more for consumers.

In addition, there are other aspects to consider where individuals are impacted through various factors. These are:

Poor access to education - Schools with the most disadvantaged pupils have suffered the largest cuts in their funding which has implications upon staffing, relational support and resurces.

Interpersonal Relationships - Early childhood development opportunities, reduced access to available high quality relationships, growing up in financial poverty (which can add pressure to family relationships), growing up with relational poverty, can arguably contribute to a higher risk of poverty later on in life as the impact takes centre stage in education, as well as social and emotional experiences. 

Abuse and trauma - Neglectful or abusive childhoods have been shown to encourage poverty as the impact on mental health can have detrimental effects on education, relationships and prospects across the life course. These factors are often a catalyst for unemployment or low-paid jobs, and even homelessness and substance abuse, amongst others. There is also evidence that poverty and child abuse and neglect are connected which can create in turn further vulnerabilities to poverty inter-generationally. 

Discrimination and Inequity- We live in an unfair and unequal society that privileges some people over others. Whether class, gender, ethnicity, disability, age, or religion, discrimination and marginalisation can be experienced by those trying to gain access to services and/or education.

The consequences of poverty are plentiful. Solving poverty in the UK needs buy-in from everybody, including the government, national policy-makers, businesses and employers, communities, housing landlords and of course, those facing poverty themselves. There is no one solution and there are many factors to consider, amend, adjust and create. 

The Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) offer their solutions to poverty as does the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) which argues that we need to:

  • Boost incomes and reduce costs
  • Deliver an effective benefit system
  • Improve education standards and raise skills
  • Strengthen families and communities
  • Promote long-term economic growth benefiting everyone.

A trauma informed lens invites us to approach the complexities of poverty through the prism of the principles of safety, trust and transparency, peer support, collaboration, voice, choice and empowerment and cultural humility. Yet there are no easy answers. The greatest buffer and protective factor that we can have are relationships and community. With that in mind we can be left pondering how we thrive when living with poverty and the resounding conclusion is to focus on prevention through strengthening families and communities. 

We can think about systemic change that increases interpersonal capacity that enhances the individuals capabilities and use the Trauma Informed Principles as a guide. For example: 

Systemic Protective Factors

  • Community spaces (peer support, voice, choice and empowerment)
  • A sense of belonging in the community demonstrated through membership and influence (collaboration, peer support, trust & transparency, cultural humility)
  • Access to support services (safety, trust & transparency)
  • A shift in culture so that the individualisation of poverty causes shifts to a better understanding of systemic factors which would enhance compassion and connection in the community as a whole (cultural humility)

Interpersonal Protective Factors

  • Relationships with peers cultivated by services, community spaces and settings (safety, peer support
  • Opportunities to increase the ability to communicate effectively (voice, choice and empowerment)
  • Support that enhances parent/carer-child relationships that are secure in their foundation (safety, collaboration, trust & transparency)
  • Opportunities to increase the ability and confidence to seek and engage with social institutions i.e. schools, community groups, hobbies (cultural humility, collaboration, peer support)

Systemic and Interpersonal Protective Factors Support the growth of Personal Protective Factors which might show up as: 

  • Coping mechanisms for stress 
  • Relational wealth 
  • Problem-solving skills
  • Parenting strengths and capabilities

The importance of being trauma-informed in a society where poverty is prevalent is more significant than ever. Poverty is everyone’s business as it impacts every aspect of life and impacts generations to come. We must all work towards making a difference for the adults around the children who will then become the adults themselves. 

We hope this article has been helpful and if you’re looking for any training or consultancy in your setting on anything mentioned in this article, please do contact Lyndsay, our Working Together Lead, on hello@ticservicesltd.com and she will help to support you on your journey.

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