The psychological impact of suburban poverty could be big

By Saybrook

Suburban home When we think of suburban areas of the United States, we think of white picket fences, generous green lawns and kids playing hopscotch. The suburbs aren’t always the richest areas of the country, but they’re the most elite:  inhabited by the people who rose above traditional neighborhoods and landed in communities of choice.

It’s an outdated notion, if it was ever true.  During the Great Recession things are quite different for many suburban families. “Suburban Poverty” is now a phenomenon commented upon in newspapers and magazines.  Food and clothing shelters have come to suburbs that never had them before, and existing ones serving suburban areas have seen exponential growth in places like the suburbs of Cleveland, Baltimore, Chicago, Detroit, and Atlanta.

In some ways, Suburban poverty is very different from what we still think of as “regular” poverty:  most suburbs aren’t walkable and don’t have effective public transportation, meaning the suburban poor must still have cars.  The schools are often more genteel.  But in other ways “suburban poverty” is just “poverty” with an adjective.

The question no one has the answer to:  will suburban poverty have the same psychological impact on children and adults that urban poverty does?

Erik Erikson, well known for his developmental stage theorem, spoke to the eight stages of life. In his renowned book, Childhood and Society, Erikson emphasized the encounter a person has with the social world cross culturally in the context of development.  Either we go mature from one stage to the next, or we get stuck along the way – unable to resolve the stage we’re in and access the stage that comes after it.

Erickson’s Stage Theorem

1)    Basic Trust versus Mistrust: represents the encounter between a child’s developing ego and their external environment.

2)    Autonomy versus Shame and Doubt: represents the biological maturation of the internal autonomy in a child by fostering the child’s ability to do things without their parent. Conversely, shame and doubt come about by way of the social expectations, pressures and realities of the external world.

3)    Initiative versus Guilt: represents the forward movement of development, especially as it applies to planning and goal making; thus the development of the superego.

4)    Industry versus Inferiority: the most decisive stage of ego development where a child is said to develop cognitive and social skills.

5)    Identity versus Role Confusion: involves the confusing development of new social conflicts and demands; including innate instinctual drives.

6)    Intimacy versus Isolation: involves the development of intimacy, self-knowledge, and mutuality in the context of a romantic relationship. Failure of these things results in the feeling of isolation.

7)    Generativity versus Isolation: descriptive of the developmental milestones that occur in a intimate relationship inclusive of child-bearing and the production of things and ideals through work. Failure in these realms results in isolation.

8)     Integrity versus Despair: representative of an elder’s inner difficulties regarding utility and existential meaning in one’s past life experiences.

Erickson emphasizes that identity is mostly an unconscious process. Because of this, it’s easy to get “stuck” without knowing it, which makes it difficult to make lasting commitments; many times this results in a “psychological moratorium”—where decisions regarding careers, intimate relationships, and school are often delayed.

That’s a common phenomenon among both the urban and suburban poor – poverty creates uncertainty, which causes major decisions to be postponed, which in turn creates more uncertainty.  A recent Time Magazine cover story showed that statistically, the poor are least likely to get married for just this reason:  they lack financial certainty.  That’s as much a psychological affect as it is an economic one.

Possibly, instead of looking at poverty through the lens of economics, we need to look at it through the lens of lifespan development. Likely, if we did this, we would see that children and adults who experience poverty go through many “psychological moratoriums” as a result of unfinished developmental business. This would mean their ability actualize as persons is greatly hindered.

We just don’t know what kind of impact that will have, but it’s something we can take steps to minimize.  To do that, however, the traditional suburban self-image will have to change.


— Liz Schreiber