Toxic stress and poverty: Using data to change outcomes


People encounter stress in all types of situations. Positive stress occurs when we are exposed to new situations or challenges, perhaps a new job or attending a new school – this type of stress is typically short term and is a necessary factor in healthy development. Tolerable stress results from a longer term situation such as a serious illness, divorce or a natural disaster. Tolerable stress can be managed through supportive relationships that help a person handle and adapt to the situation.

Toxic stress, on the other hand, is described as the stress associated with long-term, frequent or prolonged adversity without support systems and protective relationships. Key issues like unemployment, homelessness, lack of food security, domestic violence, criminal history and addiction may all contribute to toxic stress.   The sustained level of stress can have a real impact on one’s ability to make decisions and cope with situations in a healthy and productive manner.


Perhaps most critically, toxic stress in a family environment can have a long-lasting and detrimental effect on children. Children in homes with toxic stress may be at higher risk of abuse or neglect. They may be more likely to demonstrate below average performance in school. Toxic stress may decrease the likelihood of completing high school and may increase the chances of teenage pregnancy. As a result, those children often become adults who struggle with many of the same challenges of poverty, homelessness, abusive relationships, and instability.

So how does the story change?

The recent National Association for Welfare Research and Statistics conference focused on Strengthening the Safety Net: Challenges and New Perspectives in Promoting Employment and Income Stability. The conference emphasized self-sufficiency and stability, with much of the discussion related to collaboration, sharing information, and how programs can work together to more effectively offer services and support to at-risk families.

Researchers and experts in the field spoke of the critical need to understand and engage parents to impact the futures of their children. They discussed the need to work collaboratively across government agencies and organizations to share more data about families - providing the ability to better understand the unique needs of the family as a whole as well as the individuals who are part of the family. Comprehensive information is necessary to improve the ability to rapidly assess and match needs to services, as well as ability to see recognize family changes that are occurring over time. And perhaps most importantly, integrated and comprehensive data is needed to understand and assess the long-term impact of program services and engagement models on the generational poverty that continues to plague our nation. The data is there, and we are committed to helping government find ways to use their data more effectively to support our most vulnerable families.

Children should all have the opportunity to live free of the toxic stress that impacts so many lives. One speaker concluded her talk with a reminder that our children will mirror the examples society sets for them – she showed the Children See, Children Do video to remind us of the importance of creating a society that nurtures, support and teaches our children so they can grow to be healthy, well-adjusted and self-sufficient adults.


About Author

Kay Meyer

Principal Industry Consultant

Kay Meyer is a Principal Industry Consultant working with SAS’ State and Local Government practice. She brings experience, best practices and strategies to help states establish Centers for Analytics for Government Advancement. Prior to joining SAS, Kay spent 18 years in state government and led the efforts in North Carolina to set the strategic vision, definition and implementation for the North Carolina Government Data Analytics Center. Kay also led the formation of NC’s first enterprise fraud, waste, and improper payment detection program, as well as the implementation of the state’s first integrated criminal justice system, CJLEADS, which supports over 27,000 criminal justice professionals statewide. Kay holds a Bachelor of Science in Management Information Systems from the University of Virginia and a Master of Business Administration from George Washington University.

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