‘No vacations from poverty’ for Philadelphia’s poor residents

A new report shows how financial insecurity can affect everything from education to health.

A local church distributes food and clothes to residents in need in the Kensington section in Philadelphia. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

A local church distributes food and clothes to residents in need in the Kensington section in Philadelphia. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

This story first appeared on NBCPhiladelphia.com.

Sherita Mouzon describes her younger self as suicidal, bitter and angry.

Like thousands of other Philadelphians, Mouzon lived in poverty for most of her life and attributes much of the trauma she experienced to her circumstances growing up. She can still remember the smell of mold and mildew in her mother’s house. She can still remember being molested as a child and her mother being physically abused. She still flinches when she hears loud noises or voices.

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“It doesn’t go away,” Mouzon said during a Facebook Live interview with NBC10.

The trauma associated with poverty is not new. But a new report released Wednesday by The Pew Charitable Trusts shines a light on the experiences of Philadelphia’s lowest-income residents and shows how financial insecurity can affect everything from education to health.

Researchers have studied this link for decades, determining that exposure to violent crime, inadequate schools and physical and emotional trauma make it difficult to climb the economic ladder.

In Philadelphia, that ladder is especially tall. Philly has long been ranked the poorest metropolitan area of the country’s biggest cities. The poverty rate hovers at a stubborn 26 percent. Pew’s latest study found that 41 percent of those living under the poverty line said their health was poor compared to just 18 percent of wealthier residents. More than half of respondents interviewed for the study said they grew up poor or near poverty.

“With poverty, you can never unwind,” Dr. Sandra L. Bloom, associate professor of health management and policy at Drexel University, said. “There are no days off. No weekends. No vacations from poverty.”

Still, a surprising number of Philadelphians who qualified as poor — defined as a single adult under the age of 65 living alone or with a roommate and with an income below $12,752 — did not describe themselves as such. Nearly half of respondents said they were better off as adults than they were as children.

“If people have clothes and a place to sleep, they may not consider themselves poor because they know there is always someone who is worse off than them,” Mariana Chilton, Drexel University professor of health management and policy, said.

For example, one respondent identified only as Lucy said that everyone in her North Philadelphia neighborhood has “to work for things.”

“But I don’t think anybody here is really poor,” she said. “We have water. We have food.”

That Mouzon can now feed herself and her child with relative ease feels like a success unthinkable six years ago when she still struggled with drug abuse. She now works at Witness to Hunger, where Mouzon dedicates her life to educating others about the trauma of poverty and how to more compassionately talk about those experiences.

The cycle appears undeniable.

In their report, Pew researchers also found that 38 percent of people who grew up poor said they had been cared for by someone with drug problems or depression and other forms of mental illness. More than one-third of those reported physical or sexual abuse during their lifetimes.

“To someone who was born into poverty like I was – no heat, no hot water, abandoned houses – it’s a trauma,” Mouzon said. “And then you add on seeing your mom being abused, that’s trauma. Being molested or sexually violated, that’s a trauma.”

This emotional cycle, an unseen consequence of poverty, frequently plays out in schools. In Philadelphia, 70 percent of low-income residents send their children to public schools compared to 46 percent of wealthier residents. Only 2 percent of poor students attend schools with high achievement ratings, according to the School District of Philadelphia.

Antonio Valdes, CEO of the Children’s Crisis Treatment Center, recalls hearing about a young boy who skipped school on a Monday and got into three different fights by lunch on Tuesday.

School officials were ready to expel or suspend him, but one counselor thought to ask the boy what happened recently in his life. His grandfather had died over the weekend, the boy told the counselor. The older man was the primary caregiver for the child and his mother, who was forced to return to work immediately after losing her father.

The boy acted out because he was grieving and didn’t know how to channel his pain.

“It changed everything by simply understanding what is happening in someone’s life,” Valdes said.

Applying that on a broader scale, he added, could go a long way towards ultimately changing the conversation about Philadelphia’s most disenfranchised citizens.

“When a family has experienced a trauma … they keep passing it on to the kids,” he said.

NBC10 is one of 19 news organizations producing BROKE in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.

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