Correlating Socioeconomic Status to Stress Levels

Today's post is authored by Social Construct Project Group Member Jack Palmer.

Stress is an everyday part of life. Despite appearing paradoxical, stress can be healthy while also teaching us how to handle life’s challenges. However, chronic high-levels of stress can become very harmful to nearly every aspect of a person’s life. Growing political debate and concern around the world regarding wealth disparity and healthcare reform, should prompt us to investigate how chronic socioeconomic related stress is affecting children who live in poverty.

“The future of any society depends on its ability to foster the healthy development of the next generation. Extensive research on the biology of stress now shows that healthy development can be derailed by excessive or prolonged activation of stress response systems in the body and the brain, with damaging effects on learning, behavior and health across the lifespan. Yet policies that affect young children do not address or even reflect awareness of the degree to which very early exposure to stressful experiences and environments can affect the architecture of the brain, the body’s stress response systems, and a host of outcomes later in life.” (National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2014)

A 2005 study by the University of Michigan showed that people of lower socioeconomic status experienced higher rates of chronic stress. But how does this affect children?

“In the United States, 22% of children (16 million) live in families whose income is below the national poverty line…. 45% of children live in families who are considered low-income families.” (National Center for Children in Poverty, 2014.

Check out this study that finds increased levels of cortisol stress hormone in people of lower SES.

Check out this study that finds increased levels of cortisol stress hormone in people of lower SES.

 Our brains are constantly developing well into our 20’s. Children under the age of 18, however, are extremely susceptible to the risks of chronic stress due to the developmental status of their brains. Children in poverty have many factors that increase their susceptibility to stress. These include weak relationships with caregivers, constant financial turmoil, poor housing and neighborhoods (exposure to toxins and safety/security concerns), lack of healthcare, low education attainability, and a higher probability of experiencing negative lifetime events. It is clear that children who live in poverty are at extremely high risk for experiencing high levels of stress, and the attendant negative effects on their health and well beings. So what effects on the developing brain does chronic stress have?

 According to McEwen (2011) and Bergland (2014), chronic stress can prevent the proper development of the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex controls executive functions such as decision making, personality expression, moderating social behavior and others. The hippocampus, which is the seat of memory in the brain has also been shown to be affected by chronic stress. The hippocampus can be shrunk permanently by chronic stress. This stress has also been shown to lead to earlier substance abuse and sexual activity. Bergland further states that chronic stress has been shown to make a person more susceptible to future stressors, which causes a vicious cycle.

 The extent of society’s lack of investment in the health and well-being of people who live in poverty has been recently made more widely known to the world with news coverage of the Flint water crisis, and the deterioration and toxicity of the Detroit Public Schools. Locally we also know of the toxic air quality of the area surrounding the Rouge plant in southwest Detroit, and the housing/neighborhood conditions of many Detroit residents. All of these events, conditions, and experiences are fueling the vicious cycle that has ensnared many Detroit residents and families in the web of chronic stress and its life-altering effects.


1.     Bergland, Christopher. Chronic Stress Can Damage Brain Structure and Connectivity. N.p.: Psychology Today, 2014. N. pag. Web. 6 Feb. 2016. <>.

2.     Lantz, Paula M., Hames S. House, Richard P. Mero, and David R. Williams. Stress, Life Events,and Socioeconomic Disparities in Health: Results from the Americans' Changing Lives Study*. Vol. 46. N.p.: Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 2005. 274-88. Web. 6 Feb. 2016. <>.

3.     McEwen, PhD, Bruce S. Effects of Stress on the Developing Brain. N.p.: The Dana Foundation, 2011. Web. 6 Feb. 2016. <>.

4.     National Center for Children in Poverty. Child Poverty. N.p.: National Center for Children in Poverty, 2014. N. pag. Web. 6 Feb. 2016. <>.

5.     National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. (2005/2014). Excessive Stress Disrupts the Architecture of the Developing Brains: Working Paper 3. Updated Edition.

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