Is Poverty a Collective Trauma? A Joint Learning Process with Women Living in Poverty in the City of Haifa in Israel

Is Poverty a Collective Trauma? A Joint Learning Process with Women Living in Poverty in the City... Abstract This paper describes an exploratory joint learning process with long-term welfare clients aiming to understand their identification of poverty as collective trauma. The joint learning group included twelve women living in poverty. The process included three stages: (i) addressing and thematically analysing aspects of collective trauma in the participants’ life stories; (ii) comparing themes emerging from the stories with aspects of collective trauma; this led to the heuristic conceptualisation of poverty as a special type of collective trauma characterised by persistent and never-ending exposure of people living in poverty to traumatic adversities; (iii) analysing repetitive behaviour, thoughts and feelings, which are ‘trauma-based behaviour’, and exploring possible ‘resilience-based behaviours’. Implications of the process for participants and for theory of practice and policy are discussed. Poverty, collective trauma, joint learning, social workers Introduction The overarching goal of this joint study was to investigate whether poverty can be conceptualised as a collective trauma. The idea for the study was initiated by long-term women clients of a social services department in a major city in Israel. The initiative began as a joint attempt to explore a theoretical issue and developed into a process that the group members used as a source of support and empowerment. The process can be best described as joint learning for social workers and clients living in poverty, systematically analysed through qualitative research principles. The social context of the study The women who initiated the study were social activists participating in a joint project of the school of social work in one of the major cities in Israel, its municipal welfare department and clients living in poverty, called ‘Breaking the Chain of Poverty’. The women approached me with a request for a workshop regarding collective trauma, claiming that ‘all people living in poverty suffer from collective trauma’. From a theoretical perspective, this claim was surprising, since the literature on poverty indicates that people living in poverty are at high risk of exposure to various traumatic situations. To the best of our knowledge, however, no studies to date have integrated poverty and collective trauma. Thus, exploring poverty as a collective trauma might add a perspective to poverty theories. A study of this type was also an opportunity to extend the understanding of poverty in a direction initiated by people living in poverty, following a bottom–top approach as opposed to academic or professional standpoints. This change in approach has the potential to reduce the tendency, in poverty research, of othering the population under study and positioning the researcher at a distance (Krumer-Nevo, 2005; Krumer-Nevo and Benjamin, 2010). From a practical perspective, explaining poverty as a collective trauma might open up additional directions for intervention with this population. In accordance with the aforementioned change, we thought that an appropriate context to explore this topic would be a joint learning process. The women in poverty would contribute their experiences and I would contribute my academic knowledge on collective trauma and poverty. Notably, it is impossible to disconnect the joint learning process from its larger social context. The process started two months after a widespread social protest in Israel, and issues related to socio-economic gaps and injustice and socio-economic policy were still resonating in Israeli society. Literature review The study topic is located at the intersection of three bodies of knowledge: poverty, trauma and collective trauma. The intersection between poverty and exposure to traumatic events has been studied in recent decades (Klest, 2012; Mills, 2015). However, to the best of our knowledge, no studies whatsoever have addressed a possible meeting point of poverty and collective trauma. Poverty and exposure to traumatic events The literature describes poverty-related adversities but does not define poverty as a traumatic situation or as the result of ongoing traumatic events (Sharlin and Shamai, 2000; Berzin and De Marco, 2010; Transendfreud et al., 2016). However, some of the impacts attributed to the adversities of poverty are considered as outcomes of exposure to trauma, including depression, anxiety, restlessness and shame (APA, 2013; Chase and Bantebya-Kyomuhendo, 2015; Klest, 2012; Lister, 2004; Mills, 2015). Studies focusing directly on the association between poverty and trauma indicate that people living in poverty have higher probability of exposure to risk situations than people with higher socio-economic status (Erken, 2006; Flouri et al., 2015). These circumstances include living in unsafe neighbourhoods where they might experience direct and indirect exposure to potential traumatic events, such as violence (Collins et al., 2010). The constant restriction and limited choices that characterise poverty can lead to daily unexpected traumatic events, such as lack of food or disconnection from water or electricity supplies (Asselin, 2009; Lister, 2004; Mills, 2015; Sharlin and Shamai, 2000). These events often result in a sense of shame (Chase and Bantebya-Kyomuhendo, 2015) alongside ongoing stress potentially expressed through depression, anxiety and restlessness symptoms (Klest, 2012; Lister, 2004; Mills, 2015). As the knowledge of traumatology developed, some mental health symptoms highly associated with populations living in poverty were more precisely defined as outcomes of traumatic stress (Erken, 2006). Nonetheless, existing studies on poverty and trauma tend to focus on the exposure to specific events as the cause of traumatic stress, rather than perceiving the entire experience of poverty as a traumatic situation, as was indicated by clients in poverty who raised this question. Most poverty theories that have developed in the last three decades attribute the causes of poverty to social and political contexts, addressing mainly social structure, social power, social exclusion and oppression (Chase and Bantebya-Kyomuhendo, 2015; Giffords, 2014; Lister, 2004; O’Connor, 2001). Yet, when referring to the implications of poverty, most studies describe its effects on groups of individuals rather than a phenomenon that includes collective impacts (e.g. Asselin, 2009; Klest, 2012; Mills, 2015; Evans and Cassells, 2014; Flouri et al., 2015). Thus, it is not surprising that traumatic events, to which people in poverty are exposed, have been studied only as outcomes of individual trauma rather than traumatic events shared by the social group living in poverty. It is possible that the society’s perception of poverty as an outcome of social processes and structure (Krumer-Nevo and Benjamin, 2010; Lister, 2004; Mills, 2015; O’Connor, 2001) and its excluding attitude to people living in poverty have affected the approach adopted by researchers, who are an integral part of the society. Studies have focused on personality traits, which characterise the group as a whole (Small et al., 2010), including the concept of a ‘culture of poverty’ (Lewis, 1966). However, raising the question of whether poverty can be conceptualised as a collective trauma does not imply that people living in poverty are to be blamed for their situation. On the contrary, policy makers must take into account these social processes (namely collective trauma) when planning policy practice designed to change these processes. Collective trauma Various terms are used to describe collective trauma. They include mass trauma (Landau et al., 2008), which emphasises the traumatic impact of one specified event on a large group of people who experience it together; cultural trauma (Pastor, 2004), emphasising the shared exposure by a group of people with the sense of belonging to a collective; and historical trauma (Brave Heart, 2004), which is similar to cultural trauma but impacts across generations. Although emphasising different aspects of traumatic events, all these terms depict catastrophes shared by many people, which frequently remain as lacerations in the collective narrative of the victims and in their social identity as individuals (Brewer, 1991). In addition, whereas individual trauma is usually defined according to symptoms manifested in an individual, collective trauma can be experienced without the manifestation of specific traumatic symptoms but by belonging to a specific group that experienced a traumatic situation. Collective trauma does not imply homogeneity and a lack of diversity between individuals within a collective (Bonanno and Diminich, 2013), but refers to a shared experience that may be perceived and expressed in various ways according to individual differences. This can be clearly described by Brewer’s (1991) claim that identity includes two parts: the ‘I’ and the ‘we’. The ‘I’ characterises the individual’s uniqueness whereas the ‘we’ characterises the individual’s assimilation within the public or within a specific group that was exposed to the traumatic event. For the purpose of this study, an integrative definition that takes into account the characteristics of the different terms used to describe collective trauma has been used: Collective trauma develops in a process that starts with a catastrophic event, such as a natural disaster or mass trauma that causes physical and psychological losses, damage, and pain, which have an impact on the entire group and on individuals within the group. The impact creates emotional and psychological wounds that become keystones in the group’s narrative, set of beliefs, and identity, as well as of individuals within the group, across generations. The collective trauma … has an impact not only on the past, but also on the future identity of the group and its individuals. Even if the group is coping well with the physical and psychological damages caused by the trauma, if the events that developed into collective trauma continue to be a part of the group’s narrative, they continue to have an impact on the group (Shamai, 2016, p. 11). Thus, for a situation to be described as a collective trauma, it needs to include the following: (i) an event that can be defined by time, namely with a start point and an end point, to which a large number of people are directly or indirectly exposed; (ii) physical and/or psychological damage experienced by many people; (iii) direct or indirect exposure to the event that constructs identity, sets of beliefs, and a narrative of individuals and the entire group and (iv) a narrative that can pass down the generations, even if the event is over. As mentioned above, the question of whether the entire experience of poverty can be conceptualised as a collective trauma has not been studied. The present learning group attempted to explore whether these two apparently discrete areas can be integrated and whether poverty can be can be also conceptualised as a collective trauma. This question was approached by integrating real-life knowledge of women living in poverty with existing knowledge theories regarding poverty, trauma and collective trauma. Method The methodology used in attempting to explore whether poverty is a collective trauma resembles some aspects of action research. However, it cannot be defined as such, since the main goal of an action research is to solve a particular problem and to produce guidelines for best practice and change (Denscombe, 2014), whereas our original attempt focused on exploring a theoretical issue. This was done through a joint learning process between clients living in poverty and the researcher. Following the inductive method, the clients shared their experiences of poverty and their impact on their lives, including traumatic aspects, and the researcher shared her expertise in collective trauma. This was followed by a deductive section in which the characteristics of the women’s experiences were compared to the definition of collective trauma. The process of integrating inductive and deductive processes in a similar but not identical manner with Charmaz’s terminology of ‘abduction’ (Charmaz, 2006, pp. 103–4) allowed us to arrive at conceptualising poverty as collective trauma. Addressing possible implications for practice following conceptualisation of poverty as collective trauma was beyond the scope of this study group. This notwithstanding, the process outcome led to several practical implications on both macro and micro levels of intervention. Participants The group included twelve women. Their ages ranged from thirty-six to sixty (mean age of fifty). Four of the participants were married, one was widowed and all the rest were divorced, mainly as a result of intimate violence. All participants had (one to five) children. Ten participants were Jewish and two were Arab. Five of the participants had part-time jobs and received income supplement allowance, four received disability allowance due to health and mental health problems, and one received a bereavement allowance. The family income of the two married women was slightly above the poverty line. Ten participants were second-generation in poverty, mainly due to immigration. Two of the participants had become poor in the last ten years, following a divorce. Process The eighteen-month process included twenty-five meetings, which were all documented verbatim. In the first phase, the researcher posed a question to the group as to how to investigate the topic. Various suggestions were made and the decision that was accepted by all except one member was to start by sharing their experiences of poverty and analysing these experiences to discover whether they included elements of collective trauma. After clarifying the learning method, additional decisions were made regarding the place and time of meetings. The group decided on two-hour meetings at the community centre, every second week, and did not set a time limitation for the process. Following this, ethical issues of privacy and anonymity were clarified. Each group member undertook to maintain the other members’ privacy. In addition, they were asked for permission to document the meetings for research purposes. The women agreed, as they perceived this as an opportunity to inform other researchers and social workers about their experience of living in poverty. Some of the women insisted that their real name would appear if the study was published. However, others expressed concern that this would violate their own or their children’s privacy. Thus, the names of all the study participants were changed. Each participant signed an informed consent form stating that: (i) participation in the joint study was completely voluntary, (ii) they were entitled to end their participation at any stage, (iii) they would receive the report of the joint study and that requests to delete certain things from the documentation, which they had said during the study, would be respected and (iv) if painful material arose in the joint study process and they felt the need to work it through, they would be referred to appropriate help. The joint study group was part of the larger Breaking the Chain of Poverty project, which was approved by the ethics committee of the University of Haifa. The first phase included ten meetings and the experiences of the women regarding life in poverty were analysed based on Strauss and Corbin’s (1998) approach. In the second phase, which included five meetings, the findings of the thematic analysis were shared with the group to establish trustworthiness. Based on the findings, a joint attempt was then made to evaluate whether or not poverty can be perceived as a collective trauma, by comparing the findings of the first phase with the components of collective trauma. The third phase included ten meetings and resembled some parts of an action research, in which the group members tried to implicate the findings of the first two phases by identifying their ‘trauma-related behaviours’ and looking for ‘resilience-related behaviours’ as an alternative option. Findings First phase of the process Four main themes, which described painful and traumatic experiences, emerged from content analysis (Strauss and Corbin, 1998) of the women’s life stories: (i) the shortage of basic needs and the way this affects daily life and self-esteem, (ii) being a parent living in poverty, (iii) loneliness and (iv) anger directed towards social workers. Shortage of basic needs and the way this affects daily life and self-esteem Almost all the participants’ stories included descriptions of the lack of basic needs, such as food, clothing, housing and more. Hadass described how her mother always talked about the need to have food at home, and how this impacted her behaviour in the present: She [the mother] worked in a hospital kitchen and used to collect the leftovers … there was never enough food for me and my brothers … she used to say that if there is not enough food at home, it creates problems … so this craziness to have enough food is always with me … I spend a lot of money on food; money that I don’t have. The painful memories impacted not only the behaviour, as in Hadass’s description, but also the emotional way in which the participants told their stories. The richness of detail gave the impression that the past is still alive and is enacted in the present. The following excerpt from Miriam’s story is another example of this: I was six years old when I woke up one morning and went to the bathroom. On my way, I saw my parents still in bed and heard my mother asking my father for money. He said in an angry voice that he can’t give her money because he didn’t have any. Then she asked again, saying that she needed the money for food. He didn’t answer. Then she asked again . . . and suddenly I saw his hands around her neck; she was almost choking . . . . My father was not a violent person. He was just frustrated that he could not bring home enough money . . . and I learned not to ask for anything and not to bother my parents. . . . When I was 19, I met my husband and shortly after we met, I married him. … it was a big help to my parents since they had to feed only two children instead of three. My husband had a stable salary and it was tempting to improve my financial situation. . . . I didn’t pay attention to the fact that he was very controlling and had a short fuse . . . the traumatic experiences of poverty turned into traumatic experiences of being a victim of violence . . . I can afford to buy a cup of coffee in a café, but … I’ll feel guilty and irresponsible … . It is a waste of money. I heard someone say that you can take a person out of poverty but you can’t take poverty out of a person. The lack of basic needs was not described as a mere reference to memories. Most of the stories focused on the present and pointed to the constant stress in which the participants were living. Naomi’s story is illustrative: I can’t sleep .... Thoughts trouble me. How will I pay the electricity and water bills? Where will I get the money to pay the municipal tax? I received a bill that includes a fine that doubled the amount of money, but the girls have grown and I need to buy them new clothes. Maybe I will postpone the electricity payment, but what will happen if they disconnect the electricity … I am like an acrobat … what I’ll pay now, what I’ll postpone … You know, these kinds of thoughts can just come, without any warning—in the middle of the day, during discussions with friends. …  We all share these obsessive thoughts … I heard it’s a typical characteristic of trauma. Besides the content analysis of the meetings, it is important to add a researcher’s observations: the first refers to the women’s tendency to respond immediately to the descriptions regarding the shortage of basic needs. They then usually added their own description, even though it had been decided to let each woman present her entire story before reflecting on it. It seemed that shortage of basic needs was their collective experience. Being a parent living in poverty This theme describes the deep sadness, shame and frustration of being unable to give their children more than their basic needs, and sometimes even less. Many of the experiences referred to confrontations by the children, who compared their financial situation to that of their friends. This can be illustrated by Fadoa’s and Naomi’s stories: … it is an important holiday for us [Muslims], and it is traditional to buy new clothes and new shoes, but I couldn’t. I was ashamed and so were my children … My son asks me to give him money to buy a sandwich at the cafeteria. That’s much more expensive than making it at home, but he doesn’t want to bring a sandwich from home. He says that all his friends buy at the cafeteria. So sometimes he refuses to go to school . … My eldest son goes to college … he wants to be a teacher, so he can have a stable salary. It costs a lot of money and I can’t help him (Fadoa). Naomi’s daughter goes to high school in an affluent neighbourhood. In her story, she described her response when the students in the computer class were asked to bring their own laptops, and she could not afford to buy one: I came to school and started yelling at the principal. How can you do such a thing to my daughter? She was humiliated in front of her friends … well, they solved the problem and found her a laptop, but this did not help to remove her sense of humiliation … when she came home, I wanted to cheer her up so I went to buy her clothes that she needed … and I spent more money than I planned. I was so ashamed for her and for myself. Many of the stories included experiences of the children fighting against their identification as poor. Most of the group members received a package of food from the social services, either weekly or monthly. When Sivan’s daughter found out that her mother was receiving this welfare assistance, she ‘freaked out, and yelled for an hour that we are not poor. She told me not to accept it, but I can’t afford to refuse’. All participants mentioned the inability to give the children something more than their basic needs. The common response of the other group members to stories about this frustration differed completely from their responses to other stories. In relation to other issues, the women sometimes severely criticised each other. However, when they shared frustrating and sad experiences relating to their inability to provide the children’s needs, the group showed empathy and strong support: ‘… but you give many other things to your son/daughter … I saw you doing … [something that they knew about the participant’s motherhood].’ Notably, the most important goal of most of the women was to provide a better future for their children. In most of the stories, participants commented on how they had experienced their own parents as children and young adults. The majority of the participants’ stories regarding the relationships with their parents involved anger and unresolved issues. Hadass’s story illustrates this attitude: Both of my parents worked many hours because our financial situation was hard … I didn’t want to stay home alone or with my brothers. So I stayed with my friends almost every day and for many hours. When I came home, my mother used to be angry at me and blame me for many things … today, I understand that she came home from work and was very tired and had to take care of the household chores … but as a child, it was very hurtful. Like Hadass, many of the participants made a connection between the way their parents had treated them and poverty. Only two participants described close, warm relationships with their parents despite the conditions of poverty in which they were raised. The sense of loneliness Most of the participants described the sense of loneliness in their attempts to cope with life’s challenges. Some were disconnected from their extended families because of unresolved conflicts in the past or the extended family’s unwillingness to help, either financially or in other ways, and often just because of their indifference to the participants’ desperation. The group members lived in neighbourhoods populated by people living in poverty and, despite the good relationships with their neighbours, they hardly discussed financial difficulties, as expressed by Naomi: ‘This is a secret—an open secret, but a secret.’ This loneliness was felt the whole year round, but its intensity increased during the holidays. Keren’s story is illustrative: My sister, who is very rich, invited us [her and her two sons] to celebrate the seder [Passover meal] with them, but she didn’t offer to collect us or for us to stay overnight at their place. I’ll be able to get there by public transportation, but after the seder, I’ll have to take a cab … it will cost me a fortune, which I can’t afford … so we will stay at home, just the three of us, sad, like on every holiday. Another painful topic that characterised the loneliness was having kept childhood sexual abuse a secret for many years. Seven women had been sexually abused in early adolescence by family members or neighbours and another three had experienced abuse in young adulthood. The sense of loneliness is known to be a common experience of sexual abuse victims. It was interesting to reveal the connections made between sexual abuse and poverty by the women who experienced abuse in early adolescence: My parents used to work long hours and I stayed at home alone. My aunt and uncle lived next door. One afternoon, my uncle came to me and sexually abused me … it happened several times … and then I decided to tell my mother and she didn’t believe me. She told her sister and both of them accused me of seducing my uncle … I guess my mother felt guilty about leaving me alone for so many hours. I can understand that she needed to work. I also work until 6pm. But I can’t forgive her for not believing me. So I was alone with the story (Sivan). I was also sexually abused and have never told anyone. I was about 10 years old and my mother was at work. My brother took a shower and left the door unlocked. I needed to go to the bathroom and didn’t know he was in there. When I went in, he caught hold of me and forced me to suck his … I refused and he wouldn’t let me go. He said that if I tell anyone, he will say that I am lying and will hit me … and this is my secret all these years. … despite my financial situation, I work only mornings. I won’t leave my daughter alone with my son (Hadass). Of all the women who had been sexually abused, Sivan was the only one who had previously tried to deal with the subject. This attempt created additional trauma because of her parents’ disbelief and accusations. All the other women who had been sexually abused had kept the abuse as a secret, which added to their sense of loneliness. The women said that talking about the secret reduced their shame related to the abuse. They learned that it had happened to other women and that the abuse was not their fault, as they used to think. This, in itself, reduced the sense of loneliness and resembled a therapeutic impact in a research context (Shamai, 2003). The participants perceived the sexual abuse as one of the outcomes of poverty, as their parents had to work long hours. The sexual abuse was a part of their collective experience and, like their financial situation, was kept secret, adding to the sense of loneliness. Anger towards the social workers All the participants’ stories included endless anger and complaints directed towards social workers. These stories could be defined as a ‘historical accusation list’, with detailed descriptions of all the situations in which they had been disappointed, frustrated or angry at their social workers, even if this had happened ten or twenty years before. The amount of detail provided about these frustrating experiences gave the impression that they were happening in the present. The women appeared to perceive the social workers as responsible for all their difficulties, or at least for their inability to solve them. The social workers represent the government, their extended family that ignored them, and all the significant others whom they had met in their lives and who had frustrated or hurt them. It was surprising that, even in stories in which the social worker was described as playing a helpful role, she was portrayed in negative terms within the overall context of the story. It was interesting to observe the group members’ dialogue regarding their relationships with social workers. Kamil criticised ‘the repeated complaints about the social workers’ and Naomi responded: ‘This is characteristic of trauma. The memories are repeated again and again.’ Thus, it can be concluded that social workers are significant figures in the life stories of people in poverty, but their significance is experienced as part of the suffering. Second phase of the process This phase started by presenting the thematic analysis to the women, who reflected on the results and added information that helped clarify and validate the analysis. This was followed by an attempt to answer the question of whether, based on these stories and the analysis, poverty can be conceptualised as a collective trauma. The uniform response that poverty is definitely a collective trauma was accounted for by the following observations: (i) all the women had traumatic experiences related to poverty; (ii) the memories of these experiences invaded their present lives, especially when facing a situation that even slightly resembled a past experience; (iii) in these situations, they became anxious and nervous, and adopted a defensive position (which they called ‘the protective mask’), and was often expressed by aggressive behaviour; (iv) many of the women avoided participating in activities in which their poverty might be exposed; and (v) many of the group members described themselves as anxious, depressed and suffering from sleeping difficulties. However, they described themselves as being in a constant inner struggle not to perceive the world as a negative place and not to lose hope. According to their explanations, it was clear that they had a definite knowledge of the characteristics of individual trauma and traumatic stress. Following these explanations, the definition of collective trauma was presented by the researcher and compared to the women’s experiences: (i) in collective trauma and in poverty, there are losses, physical and psychological damage and pain, which have an impact on the entire group and on individuals within it; (ii) the impact of the loss and damages creates emotional and psychological wounds, which become keystones in the group’s narrative, set of beliefs and identity, as well as of individuals within the group, across generations; (iii) even if the group is coping well with the physical and psychological damage caused by collective trauma and poverty, these events continue to be a part of the group’s narrative, and have an impact on the group; and (iv) collective trauma and poverty are socially constructed processes and have an impact not only on the past, but also on the future identity of the group and its individuals. Notwithstanding all of the above, one element of collective trauma does not fit the characteristics of poverty. Whereas collective trauma is usually triggered by a specific catastrophic event, such as a natural disaster or a war, which can be framed in time and space, in poverty, traumatic events continue to accumulate and, in most cases, do not end. In addition, people living in poverty are among the excluded groups in society mainly due to theories, in which poverty is perceived as an outcome of individual or group characteristics of which they should be ashamed. Although many of these theories have been updated, they are often used by politicians to justify socio-economic policies. Thus, as seen in this joint learning study, the loneliness described by the participants refers also to their sense of shame for being blamed for their poverty by different agents in society. Third phase of the process The third phase of the process was more like an action research attempting to develop practical implications of the findings of the joint learning. Behaviours based on collective traumatic experiences, referred to by participants as ‘trauma-related behaviour’, were identified by the group. The women described behaviours related to their daily struggle and analysed how their traumatic experiences of poverty shaped these behaviours, making them a significant part of their interactions with different people. Outcomes of this trauma-related behaviour had negative emotional impact on the women. Thus, other behaviour options, referred to as ‘resilience-related behaviour’, were suggested, among them, not to be ashamed to ask for help, and replacing aggressive with assertive behaviour. In addition, participants shared the findings of the process with the staff of the social services departments in Haifa. The social workers noted that conceptualising poverty as a collective trauma led them to reconsider some of their interventions with populations living in poverty. Discussion The findings of this joint learning process showed that poverty can be conceptualised as a special type of collective trauma. It includes all the elements of collective trauma but, rather than being triggered by a single catastrophic event, it consists of an ongoing cumulative process of traumatic experiences. However, since this joint learning process was a first attempt to explore poverty as a collective trauma and needs further empirical support in future work, our preference is to describe it as a heuristic concept, based on the limited data available. The study findings raise two main questions: (i) What is the importance of conceptualising poverty as a collective trauma? (ii) What is unique about the methodology of a joint learning in researching collective trauma and poverty? Conceptualising poverty as a collective trauma Many studies have indicated that people who live in poverty have a higher probability of exposure to traumatic events (Collins et al., 2010; Klest, 2012; Lister, 2004; Mills, 2015). However, none of these studies conceptualises poverty, in itself, as a collective trauma, which impacts both individual and collective identity. The findings of this study indicate that the reality of people living in poverty involves ongoing exposure to traumatic situations, even without experiencing a specific individual trauma. One of the most severe outcomes of poverty is the development of life narratives, which, as in other cases of collective trauma, become an inter-generational keystone of the collective set of beliefs and identity. This finding can explain the mistrust in social institutions, the constant need to take a defensive position when facing even a small sign of threat to their precarious physical and psychological existence, the low self-esteem and the shame of being poor. Conceptualising poverty as a collective trauma can change the pathological perspective that often typifies people living in poverty (e.g. mental health problems, culture of poverty) to a non-pathological perspective that perceives these difficulties as normal in situations of collective trauma (Mills, 2015). Since poverty is a continuous and cumulative traumatic event, these types of ‘pathological’ emotions and behaviour are understandable and some of them are used as a necessary defence mechanism that helps them live in the traumatic situation. Furthermore, since collective trauma is an outcome of external causes, it is not considered as a result of personal or social/cultural characteristics of a specific group. This non-pathological perspective has special importance in the theoretical dialogues between the two counter perceptions of poverty: conservative versus structural–contextual perception (Krumer-Nevo and Benjamin, 2010). It supports the contextual perception of the explanation of poverty, which points to the social context and social policies as its major contributors, rather than blaming the poor populations for creating the poverty by personal or cultural characteristics. In addition, the findings of the present study challenge collective trauma theories. They call to expand the view of collective trauma through researching beyond a single catastrophic event to examine ongoing and cumulative events that add to a reality perceived by those experiencing it as an ongoing catastrophe. Joint learning process as methodology for research of collective trauma and poverty The methodology used in this joint learning group requires researchers to pay special attention when studying both traumatised populations and populations living in poverty. Researchers tend to study these populations from an external and distanced position. This type of research positioning was defined as ‘othering’ (Krumer-Nevo, 2005), referring to social processes that differentiate and demarcate social groups or individuals based on social values (Lister, 2004). Thus, researchers who focus on outcomes of traumatic events might perceive those with PTSD or other traumatic stress symptoms as different because of their impaired mental health and might perceive people living in poverty as ‘others’ due to their ‘inability’ to cope with standard socio-economic requirements. This can be corrected by studying traumatised populations and/or populations living in poverty from an insider position. It can be achieved by encouraging these populations to initiate topics that they consider relevant for study and to join researchers in the process of the study, as in the present case. This type of methodology might lead to new and innovative knowledge, which is unique to people experiencing poverty. Limitations The findings of this study must be read with caution, as the joint learning process was exploratory in nature. Furthermore, one should recall that such learning process cannot always avoid the occasional confounding of ‘voices’, namely that of the participants and that of the researcher. Finally, the specific social context and the specific participant group limit the possibility of generalisation but allow careful transferability in a heuristic manner. A substantial amount of research and dialogue is needed to further explore these issues. Implications The main implication of this learning process is on the theoretical level, proposing a new direction of studying and conceptualising both poverty and collective trauma. An additional implication, relevant for social work theory of practice and policy, refers to participants’ frustration in many of their relationships with representatives of social institutions, such as social workers, which is frequently expressed through anger and verbally aggressive behaviour. Such behaviour often leads to somewhat similar behaviour among various professionals in response (Shamai and Sharlin, 1996). Therefore, it is important to develop special training programmes for those working with populations living in poverty, focusing on the traumatic aspects and outcomes of living in this situation. Such training might prevent professionals from perceiving expressions of anger by people living in poverty as personal attacks and to understand that they are outcomes of trauma. Hence, services can be provided for this population as trauma-informed interventions. In addition, social policy makers need to be aware of the long-term traumatic outcomes of poverty and its cross-generational impact. Thus, long-term considerations must be made when planning policies to combat poverty including community interventions designed to change the traumatic social identity of poverty. Conclusion The findings of this joint learning process revealed that poverty can be conceptualised heuristically as a specific type of collective trauma, as it meets all but one of the characteristics that constitute it. Conceptualising poverty as collective trauma opens new direction for further research, understanding and practice with populations living in poverty. Acknowledgements I would like to thank the brave social activist women that initiated this project and taught me so much about poverty, courage and optimism. 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( 2010 ) Understanding the Impact of Trauma and Urban Poverty on Family Systems: Risks, Resilience, and Interventions, Baltimore, Family Informed Trauma Treatment Center, available online at http://nctsn.org/nccts/nav.do?pid=ctr_rsch_prod_ (accessed 5 October 2017). Denscombe M. ( 2014 ) The Good Research Guide for Small-Scale Social Research Project , 5th edn , Maidenhead, Open University Press , McGraw Hill Education . Erken R. ( 2006 ) ‘Traumatic poverty’, in Odekon M. (ed.), Encyclopedia of World Poverty , Thousand Oaks , Sage . Evans G. W. , Cassells R. C. ( 2014 ) ‘ Childhood poverty, cumulative risk exposure, and mental health in emerging adults’, Clinical Psychological Science , 2 ( 3 ), pp. 287 – 96 . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS PubMed Flouri E. , Midouhas E. , Joshi H. , Sullivan A. ( 2015 ) ‘ Neighborhood social fragmentation and mental health of children in poverty ’, Health & Place , 31 ( January ), pp. 138 – 45 . 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( 2008 ) ‘ Linking human systems: Strengthening individuals, families, and communities in the wake of mass trauma’, Journal of Marital & Family Therapy , 34 , 193 – 209 . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Lewis O. ( 1966 ) ‘ The culture of poverty’, Scientific American , 215 ( 4 ), pp. 19 – 25 . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS PubMed Lister R. ( 2004 ) Poverty , London , Polity . Mills C. ( 2015 ) ‘ The psychiatrization of poverty: Rethinking the mental health poverty nexus’, Social and Personality Psychology Compass , 9 ( 5 ), pp. 213 – 22 . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS O’Connor F. F. ( 2001 ) Poverty Knowledge, Social Science, Social Policy, and the Poor in Twentieth Century U.S. History , Princeton , Princeton University Press . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Pastor L. H. ( 2004 ) ‘ Culture as causality: Examining the causes and consequences of collective trauma’, Psychiatric Annals , 34 ( 9 ), pp. 616 – 22 . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Shamai M. ( 2003 ) ‘ Therapeutic effects of qualitative research: Reconstructing the experience of treatment as a by-product of qualitative evaluation’, Social Service Review , 77 ( 3 ), pp. 455 – 67 . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Shamai M. ( 2016 ) Systemic Interventions in Situations of Collective and National Trauma: Theory, Practice and Evaluation , New York , Routledge . Shamai M. , Sharlin S. ( 1996 ) ‘ Who writes the “therapeutic story” of families in extreme distress: Overcoming the coalition of despair’, Journal of Family Social Work , 1 ( 4 ), pp. 65 – 82 . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Sharlin S. , Shamai M. ( 2000 ) Therapeutic Intervention with Poor Unorganized Families: From Distress to Hope , New York , Haworth Press . Small M. L. , Harding D. J. , Lamont M. ( 2010 ) ‘ Reconsidering culture and poverty’, ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science , 629 ( 1 ), pp. 6 – 27 . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Strauss A. , Corbin J. ( 1998 ) Basics of Qualitative Research: Techniques and Procedures for Developing Grounded Theory , 2nd edn , Thousand Oaks, Sage . Transendfreud T. , Knot-Dickscheit J. , Schulze G. C. , Knorth E. J. , Grietens H. ( 2016 ) ‘ Families in multi-problem situations: Backgrounds, characteristics, and care service’, Child and Youth Services , 37 ( 1 ), pp. 4 – 22 . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS © The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The British Association of Social Workers. All rights reserved. http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png The British Journal of Social Work Oxford University Press

Is Poverty a Collective Trauma? A Joint Learning Process with Women Living in Poverty in the City of Haifa in Israel

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0045-3102
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Abstract

Abstract This paper describes an exploratory joint learning process with long-term welfare clients aiming to understand their identification of poverty as collective trauma. The joint learning group included twelve women living in poverty. The process included three stages: (i) addressing and thematically analysing aspects of collective trauma in the participants’ life stories; (ii) comparing themes emerging from the stories with aspects of collective trauma; this led to the heuristic conceptualisation of poverty as a special type of collective trauma characterised by persistent and never-ending exposure of people living in poverty to traumatic adversities; (iii) analysing repetitive behaviour, thoughts and feelings, which are ‘trauma-based behaviour’, and exploring possible ‘resilience-based behaviours’. Implications of the process for participants and for theory of practice and policy are discussed. Poverty, collective trauma, joint learning, social workers Introduction The overarching goal of this joint study was to investigate whether poverty can be conceptualised as a collective trauma. The idea for the study was initiated by long-term women clients of a social services department in a major city in Israel. The initiative began as a joint attempt to explore a theoretical issue and developed into a process that the group members used as a source of support and empowerment. The process can be best described as joint learning for social workers and clients living in poverty, systematically analysed through qualitative research principles. The social context of the study The women who initiated the study were social activists participating in a joint project of the school of social work in one of the major cities in Israel, its municipal welfare department and clients living in poverty, called ‘Breaking the Chain of Poverty’. The women approached me with a request for a workshop regarding collective trauma, claiming that ‘all people living in poverty suffer from collective trauma’. From a theoretical perspective, this claim was surprising, since the literature on poverty indicates that people living in poverty are at high risk of exposure to various traumatic situations. To the best of our knowledge, however, no studies to date have integrated poverty and collective trauma. Thus, exploring poverty as a collective trauma might add a perspective to poverty theories. A study of this type was also an opportunity to extend the understanding of poverty in a direction initiated by people living in poverty, following a bottom–top approach as opposed to academic or professional standpoints. This change in approach has the potential to reduce the tendency, in poverty research, of othering the population under study and positioning the researcher at a distance (Krumer-Nevo, 2005; Krumer-Nevo and Benjamin, 2010). From a practical perspective, explaining poverty as a collective trauma might open up additional directions for intervention with this population. In accordance with the aforementioned change, we thought that an appropriate context to explore this topic would be a joint learning process. The women in poverty would contribute their experiences and I would contribute my academic knowledge on collective trauma and poverty. Notably, it is impossible to disconnect the joint learning process from its larger social context. The process started two months after a widespread social protest in Israel, and issues related to socio-economic gaps and injustice and socio-economic policy were still resonating in Israeli society. Literature review The study topic is located at the intersection of three bodies of knowledge: poverty, trauma and collective trauma. The intersection between poverty and exposure to traumatic events has been studied in recent decades (Klest, 2012; Mills, 2015). However, to the best of our knowledge, no studies whatsoever have addressed a possible meeting point of poverty and collective trauma. Poverty and exposure to traumatic events The literature describes poverty-related adversities but does not define poverty as a traumatic situation or as the result of ongoing traumatic events (Sharlin and Shamai, 2000; Berzin and De Marco, 2010; Transendfreud et al., 2016). However, some of the impacts attributed to the adversities of poverty are considered as outcomes of exposure to trauma, including depression, anxiety, restlessness and shame (APA, 2013; Chase and Bantebya-Kyomuhendo, 2015; Klest, 2012; Lister, 2004; Mills, 2015). Studies focusing directly on the association between poverty and trauma indicate that people living in poverty have higher probability of exposure to risk situations than people with higher socio-economic status (Erken, 2006; Flouri et al., 2015). These circumstances include living in unsafe neighbourhoods where they might experience direct and indirect exposure to potential traumatic events, such as violence (Collins et al., 2010). The constant restriction and limited choices that characterise poverty can lead to daily unexpected traumatic events, such as lack of food or disconnection from water or electricity supplies (Asselin, 2009; Lister, 2004; Mills, 2015; Sharlin and Shamai, 2000). These events often result in a sense of shame (Chase and Bantebya-Kyomuhendo, 2015) alongside ongoing stress potentially expressed through depression, anxiety and restlessness symptoms (Klest, 2012; Lister, 2004; Mills, 2015). As the knowledge of traumatology developed, some mental health symptoms highly associated with populations living in poverty were more precisely defined as outcomes of traumatic stress (Erken, 2006). Nonetheless, existing studies on poverty and trauma tend to focus on the exposure to specific events as the cause of traumatic stress, rather than perceiving the entire experience of poverty as a traumatic situation, as was indicated by clients in poverty who raised this question. Most poverty theories that have developed in the last three decades attribute the causes of poverty to social and political contexts, addressing mainly social structure, social power, social exclusion and oppression (Chase and Bantebya-Kyomuhendo, 2015; Giffords, 2014; Lister, 2004; O’Connor, 2001). Yet, when referring to the implications of poverty, most studies describe its effects on groups of individuals rather than a phenomenon that includes collective impacts (e.g. Asselin, 2009; Klest, 2012; Mills, 2015; Evans and Cassells, 2014; Flouri et al., 2015). Thus, it is not surprising that traumatic events, to which people in poverty are exposed, have been studied only as outcomes of individual trauma rather than traumatic events shared by the social group living in poverty. It is possible that the society’s perception of poverty as an outcome of social processes and structure (Krumer-Nevo and Benjamin, 2010; Lister, 2004; Mills, 2015; O’Connor, 2001) and its excluding attitude to people living in poverty have affected the approach adopted by researchers, who are an integral part of the society. Studies have focused on personality traits, which characterise the group as a whole (Small et al., 2010), including the concept of a ‘culture of poverty’ (Lewis, 1966). However, raising the question of whether poverty can be conceptualised as a collective trauma does not imply that people living in poverty are to be blamed for their situation. On the contrary, policy makers must take into account these social processes (namely collective trauma) when planning policy practice designed to change these processes. Collective trauma Various terms are used to describe collective trauma. They include mass trauma (Landau et al., 2008), which emphasises the traumatic impact of one specified event on a large group of people who experience it together; cultural trauma (Pastor, 2004), emphasising the shared exposure by a group of people with the sense of belonging to a collective; and historical trauma (Brave Heart, 2004), which is similar to cultural trauma but impacts across generations. Although emphasising different aspects of traumatic events, all these terms depict catastrophes shared by many people, which frequently remain as lacerations in the collective narrative of the victims and in their social identity as individuals (Brewer, 1991). In addition, whereas individual trauma is usually defined according to symptoms manifested in an individual, collective trauma can be experienced without the manifestation of specific traumatic symptoms but by belonging to a specific group that experienced a traumatic situation. Collective trauma does not imply homogeneity and a lack of diversity between individuals within a collective (Bonanno and Diminich, 2013), but refers to a shared experience that may be perceived and expressed in various ways according to individual differences. This can be clearly described by Brewer’s (1991) claim that identity includes two parts: the ‘I’ and the ‘we’. The ‘I’ characterises the individual’s uniqueness whereas the ‘we’ characterises the individual’s assimilation within the public or within a specific group that was exposed to the traumatic event. For the purpose of this study, an integrative definition that takes into account the characteristics of the different terms used to describe collective trauma has been used: Collective trauma develops in a process that starts with a catastrophic event, such as a natural disaster or mass trauma that causes physical and psychological losses, damage, and pain, which have an impact on the entire group and on individuals within the group. The impact creates emotional and psychological wounds that become keystones in the group’s narrative, set of beliefs, and identity, as well as of individuals within the group, across generations. The collective trauma … has an impact not only on the past, but also on the future identity of the group and its individuals. Even if the group is coping well with the physical and psychological damages caused by the trauma, if the events that developed into collective trauma continue to be a part of the group’s narrative, they continue to have an impact on the group (Shamai, 2016, p. 11). Thus, for a situation to be described as a collective trauma, it needs to include the following: (i) an event that can be defined by time, namely with a start point and an end point, to which a large number of people are directly or indirectly exposed; (ii) physical and/or psychological damage experienced by many people; (iii) direct or indirect exposure to the event that constructs identity, sets of beliefs, and a narrative of individuals and the entire group and (iv) a narrative that can pass down the generations, even if the event is over. As mentioned above, the question of whether the entire experience of poverty can be conceptualised as a collective trauma has not been studied. The present learning group attempted to explore whether these two apparently discrete areas can be integrated and whether poverty can be can be also conceptualised as a collective trauma. This question was approached by integrating real-life knowledge of women living in poverty with existing knowledge theories regarding poverty, trauma and collective trauma. Method The methodology used in attempting to explore whether poverty is a collective trauma resembles some aspects of action research. However, it cannot be defined as such, since the main goal of an action research is to solve a particular problem and to produce guidelines for best practice and change (Denscombe, 2014), whereas our original attempt focused on exploring a theoretical issue. This was done through a joint learning process between clients living in poverty and the researcher. Following the inductive method, the clients shared their experiences of poverty and their impact on their lives, including traumatic aspects, and the researcher shared her expertise in collective trauma. This was followed by a deductive section in which the characteristics of the women’s experiences were compared to the definition of collective trauma. The process of integrating inductive and deductive processes in a similar but not identical manner with Charmaz’s terminology of ‘abduction’ (Charmaz, 2006, pp. 103–4) allowed us to arrive at conceptualising poverty as collective trauma. Addressing possible implications for practice following conceptualisation of poverty as collective trauma was beyond the scope of this study group. This notwithstanding, the process outcome led to several practical implications on both macro and micro levels of intervention. Participants The group included twelve women. Their ages ranged from thirty-six to sixty (mean age of fifty). Four of the participants were married, one was widowed and all the rest were divorced, mainly as a result of intimate violence. All participants had (one to five) children. Ten participants were Jewish and two were Arab. Five of the participants had part-time jobs and received income supplement allowance, four received disability allowance due to health and mental health problems, and one received a bereavement allowance. The family income of the two married women was slightly above the poverty line. Ten participants were second-generation in poverty, mainly due to immigration. Two of the participants had become poor in the last ten years, following a divorce. Process The eighteen-month process included twenty-five meetings, which were all documented verbatim. In the first phase, the researcher posed a question to the group as to how to investigate the topic. Various suggestions were made and the decision that was accepted by all except one member was to start by sharing their experiences of poverty and analysing these experiences to discover whether they included elements of collective trauma. After clarifying the learning method, additional decisions were made regarding the place and time of meetings. The group decided on two-hour meetings at the community centre, every second week, and did not set a time limitation for the process. Following this, ethical issues of privacy and anonymity were clarified. Each group member undertook to maintain the other members’ privacy. In addition, they were asked for permission to document the meetings for research purposes. The women agreed, as they perceived this as an opportunity to inform other researchers and social workers about their experience of living in poverty. Some of the women insisted that their real name would appear if the study was published. However, others expressed concern that this would violate their own or their children’s privacy. Thus, the names of all the study participants were changed. Each participant signed an informed consent form stating that: (i) participation in the joint study was completely voluntary, (ii) they were entitled to end their participation at any stage, (iii) they would receive the report of the joint study and that requests to delete certain things from the documentation, which they had said during the study, would be respected and (iv) if painful material arose in the joint study process and they felt the need to work it through, they would be referred to appropriate help. The joint study group was part of the larger Breaking the Chain of Poverty project, which was approved by the ethics committee of the University of Haifa. The first phase included ten meetings and the experiences of the women regarding life in poverty were analysed based on Strauss and Corbin’s (1998) approach. In the second phase, which included five meetings, the findings of the thematic analysis were shared with the group to establish trustworthiness. Based on the findings, a joint attempt was then made to evaluate whether or not poverty can be perceived as a collective trauma, by comparing the findings of the first phase with the components of collective trauma. The third phase included ten meetings and resembled some parts of an action research, in which the group members tried to implicate the findings of the first two phases by identifying their ‘trauma-related behaviours’ and looking for ‘resilience-related behaviours’ as an alternative option. Findings First phase of the process Four main themes, which described painful and traumatic experiences, emerged from content analysis (Strauss and Corbin, 1998) of the women’s life stories: (i) the shortage of basic needs and the way this affects daily life and self-esteem, (ii) being a parent living in poverty, (iii) loneliness and (iv) anger directed towards social workers. Shortage of basic needs and the way this affects daily life and self-esteem Almost all the participants’ stories included descriptions of the lack of basic needs, such as food, clothing, housing and more. Hadass described how her mother always talked about the need to have food at home, and how this impacted her behaviour in the present: She [the mother] worked in a hospital kitchen and used to collect the leftovers … there was never enough food for me and my brothers … she used to say that if there is not enough food at home, it creates problems … so this craziness to have enough food is always with me … I spend a lot of money on food; money that I don’t have. The painful memories impacted not only the behaviour, as in Hadass’s description, but also the emotional way in which the participants told their stories. The richness of detail gave the impression that the past is still alive and is enacted in the present. The following excerpt from Miriam’s story is another example of this: I was six years old when I woke up one morning and went to the bathroom. On my way, I saw my parents still in bed and heard my mother asking my father for money. He said in an angry voice that he can’t give her money because he didn’t have any. Then she asked again, saying that she needed the money for food. He didn’t answer. Then she asked again . . . and suddenly I saw his hands around her neck; she was almost choking . . . . My father was not a violent person. He was just frustrated that he could not bring home enough money . . . and I learned not to ask for anything and not to bother my parents. . . . When I was 19, I met my husband and shortly after we met, I married him. … it was a big help to my parents since they had to feed only two children instead of three. My husband had a stable salary and it was tempting to improve my financial situation. . . . I didn’t pay attention to the fact that he was very controlling and had a short fuse . . . the traumatic experiences of poverty turned into traumatic experiences of being a victim of violence . . . I can afford to buy a cup of coffee in a café, but … I’ll feel guilty and irresponsible … . It is a waste of money. I heard someone say that you can take a person out of poverty but you can’t take poverty out of a person. The lack of basic needs was not described as a mere reference to memories. Most of the stories focused on the present and pointed to the constant stress in which the participants were living. Naomi’s story is illustrative: I can’t sleep .... Thoughts trouble me. How will I pay the electricity and water bills? Where will I get the money to pay the municipal tax? I received a bill that includes a fine that doubled the amount of money, but the girls have grown and I need to buy them new clothes. Maybe I will postpone the electricity payment, but what will happen if they disconnect the electricity … I am like an acrobat … what I’ll pay now, what I’ll postpone … You know, these kinds of thoughts can just come, without any warning—in the middle of the day, during discussions with friends. …  We all share these obsessive thoughts … I heard it’s a typical characteristic of trauma. Besides the content analysis of the meetings, it is important to add a researcher’s observations: the first refers to the women’s tendency to respond immediately to the descriptions regarding the shortage of basic needs. They then usually added their own description, even though it had been decided to let each woman present her entire story before reflecting on it. It seemed that shortage of basic needs was their collective experience. Being a parent living in poverty This theme describes the deep sadness, shame and frustration of being unable to give their children more than their basic needs, and sometimes even less. Many of the experiences referred to confrontations by the children, who compared their financial situation to that of their friends. This can be illustrated by Fadoa’s and Naomi’s stories: … it is an important holiday for us [Muslims], and it is traditional to buy new clothes and new shoes, but I couldn’t. I was ashamed and so were my children … My son asks me to give him money to buy a sandwich at the cafeteria. That’s much more expensive than making it at home, but he doesn’t want to bring a sandwich from home. He says that all his friends buy at the cafeteria. So sometimes he refuses to go to school . … My eldest son goes to college … he wants to be a teacher, so he can have a stable salary. It costs a lot of money and I can’t help him (Fadoa). Naomi’s daughter goes to high school in an affluent neighbourhood. In her story, she described her response when the students in the computer class were asked to bring their own laptops, and she could not afford to buy one: I came to school and started yelling at the principal. How can you do such a thing to my daughter? She was humiliated in front of her friends … well, they solved the problem and found her a laptop, but this did not help to remove her sense of humiliation … when she came home, I wanted to cheer her up so I went to buy her clothes that she needed … and I spent more money than I planned. I was so ashamed for her and for myself. Many of the stories included experiences of the children fighting against their identification as poor. Most of the group members received a package of food from the social services, either weekly or monthly. When Sivan’s daughter found out that her mother was receiving this welfare assistance, she ‘freaked out, and yelled for an hour that we are not poor. She told me not to accept it, but I can’t afford to refuse’. All participants mentioned the inability to give the children something more than their basic needs. The common response of the other group members to stories about this frustration differed completely from their responses to other stories. In relation to other issues, the women sometimes severely criticised each other. However, when they shared frustrating and sad experiences relating to their inability to provide the children’s needs, the group showed empathy and strong support: ‘… but you give many other things to your son/daughter … I saw you doing … [something that they knew about the participant’s motherhood].’ Notably, the most important goal of most of the women was to provide a better future for their children. In most of the stories, participants commented on how they had experienced their own parents as children and young adults. The majority of the participants’ stories regarding the relationships with their parents involved anger and unresolved issues. Hadass’s story illustrates this attitude: Both of my parents worked many hours because our financial situation was hard … I didn’t want to stay home alone or with my brothers. So I stayed with my friends almost every day and for many hours. When I came home, my mother used to be angry at me and blame me for many things … today, I understand that she came home from work and was very tired and had to take care of the household chores … but as a child, it was very hurtful. Like Hadass, many of the participants made a connection between the way their parents had treated them and poverty. Only two participants described close, warm relationships with their parents despite the conditions of poverty in which they were raised. The sense of loneliness Most of the participants described the sense of loneliness in their attempts to cope with life’s challenges. Some were disconnected from their extended families because of unresolved conflicts in the past or the extended family’s unwillingness to help, either financially or in other ways, and often just because of their indifference to the participants’ desperation. The group members lived in neighbourhoods populated by people living in poverty and, despite the good relationships with their neighbours, they hardly discussed financial difficulties, as expressed by Naomi: ‘This is a secret—an open secret, but a secret.’ This loneliness was felt the whole year round, but its intensity increased during the holidays. Keren’s story is illustrative: My sister, who is very rich, invited us [her and her two sons] to celebrate the seder [Passover meal] with them, but she didn’t offer to collect us or for us to stay overnight at their place. I’ll be able to get there by public transportation, but after the seder, I’ll have to take a cab … it will cost me a fortune, which I can’t afford … so we will stay at home, just the three of us, sad, like on every holiday. Another painful topic that characterised the loneliness was having kept childhood sexual abuse a secret for many years. Seven women had been sexually abused in early adolescence by family members or neighbours and another three had experienced abuse in young adulthood. The sense of loneliness is known to be a common experience of sexual abuse victims. It was interesting to reveal the connections made between sexual abuse and poverty by the women who experienced abuse in early adolescence: My parents used to work long hours and I stayed at home alone. My aunt and uncle lived next door. One afternoon, my uncle came to me and sexually abused me … it happened several times … and then I decided to tell my mother and she didn’t believe me. She told her sister and both of them accused me of seducing my uncle … I guess my mother felt guilty about leaving me alone for so many hours. I can understand that she needed to work. I also work until 6pm. But I can’t forgive her for not believing me. So I was alone with the story (Sivan). I was also sexually abused and have never told anyone. I was about 10 years old and my mother was at work. My brother took a shower and left the door unlocked. I needed to go to the bathroom and didn’t know he was in there. When I went in, he caught hold of me and forced me to suck his … I refused and he wouldn’t let me go. He said that if I tell anyone, he will say that I am lying and will hit me … and this is my secret all these years. … despite my financial situation, I work only mornings. I won’t leave my daughter alone with my son (Hadass). Of all the women who had been sexually abused, Sivan was the only one who had previously tried to deal with the subject. This attempt created additional trauma because of her parents’ disbelief and accusations. All the other women who had been sexually abused had kept the abuse as a secret, which added to their sense of loneliness. The women said that talking about the secret reduced their shame related to the abuse. They learned that it had happened to other women and that the abuse was not their fault, as they used to think. This, in itself, reduced the sense of loneliness and resembled a therapeutic impact in a research context (Shamai, 2003). The participants perceived the sexual abuse as one of the outcomes of poverty, as their parents had to work long hours. The sexual abuse was a part of their collective experience and, like their financial situation, was kept secret, adding to the sense of loneliness. Anger towards the social workers All the participants’ stories included endless anger and complaints directed towards social workers. These stories could be defined as a ‘historical accusation list’, with detailed descriptions of all the situations in which they had been disappointed, frustrated or angry at their social workers, even if this had happened ten or twenty years before. The amount of detail provided about these frustrating experiences gave the impression that they were happening in the present. The women appeared to perceive the social workers as responsible for all their difficulties, or at least for their inability to solve them. The social workers represent the government, their extended family that ignored them, and all the significant others whom they had met in their lives and who had frustrated or hurt them. It was surprising that, even in stories in which the social worker was described as playing a helpful role, she was portrayed in negative terms within the overall context of the story. It was interesting to observe the group members’ dialogue regarding their relationships with social workers. Kamil criticised ‘the repeated complaints about the social workers’ and Naomi responded: ‘This is characteristic of trauma. The memories are repeated again and again.’ Thus, it can be concluded that social workers are significant figures in the life stories of people in poverty, but their significance is experienced as part of the suffering. Second phase of the process This phase started by presenting the thematic analysis to the women, who reflected on the results and added information that helped clarify and validate the analysis. This was followed by an attempt to answer the question of whether, based on these stories and the analysis, poverty can be conceptualised as a collective trauma. The uniform response that poverty is definitely a collective trauma was accounted for by the following observations: (i) all the women had traumatic experiences related to poverty; (ii) the memories of these experiences invaded their present lives, especially when facing a situation that even slightly resembled a past experience; (iii) in these situations, they became anxious and nervous, and adopted a defensive position (which they called ‘the protective mask’), and was often expressed by aggressive behaviour; (iv) many of the women avoided participating in activities in which their poverty might be exposed; and (v) many of the group members described themselves as anxious, depressed and suffering from sleeping difficulties. However, they described themselves as being in a constant inner struggle not to perceive the world as a negative place and not to lose hope. According to their explanations, it was clear that they had a definite knowledge of the characteristics of individual trauma and traumatic stress. Following these explanations, the definition of collective trauma was presented by the researcher and compared to the women’s experiences: (i) in collective trauma and in poverty, there are losses, physical and psychological damage and pain, which have an impact on the entire group and on individuals within it; (ii) the impact of the loss and damages creates emotional and psychological wounds, which become keystones in the group’s narrative, set of beliefs and identity, as well as of individuals within the group, across generations; (iii) even if the group is coping well with the physical and psychological damage caused by collective trauma and poverty, these events continue to be a part of the group’s narrative, and have an impact on the group; and (iv) collective trauma and poverty are socially constructed processes and have an impact not only on the past, but also on the future identity of the group and its individuals. Notwithstanding all of the above, one element of collective trauma does not fit the characteristics of poverty. Whereas collective trauma is usually triggered by a specific catastrophic event, such as a natural disaster or a war, which can be framed in time and space, in poverty, traumatic events continue to accumulate and, in most cases, do not end. In addition, people living in poverty are among the excluded groups in society mainly due to theories, in which poverty is perceived as an outcome of individual or group characteristics of which they should be ashamed. Although many of these theories have been updated, they are often used by politicians to justify socio-economic policies. Thus, as seen in this joint learning study, the loneliness described by the participants refers also to their sense of shame for being blamed for their poverty by different agents in society. Third phase of the process The third phase of the process was more like an action research attempting to develop practical implications of the findings of the joint learning. Behaviours based on collective traumatic experiences, referred to by participants as ‘trauma-related behaviour’, were identified by the group. The women described behaviours related to their daily struggle and analysed how their traumatic experiences of poverty shaped these behaviours, making them a significant part of their interactions with different people. Outcomes of this trauma-related behaviour had negative emotional impact on the women. Thus, other behaviour options, referred to as ‘resilience-related behaviour’, were suggested, among them, not to be ashamed to ask for help, and replacing aggressive with assertive behaviour. In addition, participants shared the findings of the process with the staff of the social services departments in Haifa. The social workers noted that conceptualising poverty as a collective trauma led them to reconsider some of their interventions with populations living in poverty. Discussion The findings of this joint learning process showed that poverty can be conceptualised as a special type of collective trauma. It includes all the elements of collective trauma but, rather than being triggered by a single catastrophic event, it consists of an ongoing cumulative process of traumatic experiences. However, since this joint learning process was a first attempt to explore poverty as a collective trauma and needs further empirical support in future work, our preference is to describe it as a heuristic concept, based on the limited data available. The study findings raise two main questions: (i) What is the importance of conceptualising poverty as a collective trauma? (ii) What is unique about the methodology of a joint learning in researching collective trauma and poverty? Conceptualising poverty as a collective trauma Many studies have indicated that people who live in poverty have a higher probability of exposure to traumatic events (Collins et al., 2010; Klest, 2012; Lister, 2004; Mills, 2015). However, none of these studies conceptualises poverty, in itself, as a collective trauma, which impacts both individual and collective identity. The findings of this study indicate that the reality of people living in poverty involves ongoing exposure to traumatic situations, even without experiencing a specific individual trauma. One of the most severe outcomes of poverty is the development of life narratives, which, as in other cases of collective trauma, become an inter-generational keystone of the collective set of beliefs and identity. This finding can explain the mistrust in social institutions, the constant need to take a defensive position when facing even a small sign of threat to their precarious physical and psychological existence, the low self-esteem and the shame of being poor. Conceptualising poverty as a collective trauma can change the pathological perspective that often typifies people living in poverty (e.g. mental health problems, culture of poverty) to a non-pathological perspective that perceives these difficulties as normal in situations of collective trauma (Mills, 2015). Since poverty is a continuous and cumulative traumatic event, these types of ‘pathological’ emotions and behaviour are understandable and some of them are used as a necessary defence mechanism that helps them live in the traumatic situation. Furthermore, since collective trauma is an outcome of external causes, it is not considered as a result of personal or social/cultural characteristics of a specific group. This non-pathological perspective has special importance in the theoretical dialogues between the two counter perceptions of poverty: conservative versus structural–contextual perception (Krumer-Nevo and Benjamin, 2010). It supports the contextual perception of the explanation of poverty, which points to the social context and social policies as its major contributors, rather than blaming the poor populations for creating the poverty by personal or cultural characteristics. In addition, the findings of the present study challenge collective trauma theories. They call to expand the view of collective trauma through researching beyond a single catastrophic event to examine ongoing and cumulative events that add to a reality perceived by those experiencing it as an ongoing catastrophe. Joint learning process as methodology for research of collective trauma and poverty The methodology used in this joint learning group requires researchers to pay special attention when studying both traumatised populations and populations living in poverty. Researchers tend to study these populations from an external and distanced position. This type of research positioning was defined as ‘othering’ (Krumer-Nevo, 2005), referring to social processes that differentiate and demarcate social groups or individuals based on social values (Lister, 2004). Thus, researchers who focus on outcomes of traumatic events might perceive those with PTSD or other traumatic stress symptoms as different because of their impaired mental health and might perceive people living in poverty as ‘others’ due to their ‘inability’ to cope with standard socio-economic requirements. This can be corrected by studying traumatised populations and/or populations living in poverty from an insider position. It can be achieved by encouraging these populations to initiate topics that they consider relevant for study and to join researchers in the process of the study, as in the present case. This type of methodology might lead to new and innovative knowledge, which is unique to people experiencing poverty. Limitations The findings of this study must be read with caution, as the joint learning process was exploratory in nature. Furthermore, one should recall that such learning process cannot always avoid the occasional confounding of ‘voices’, namely that of the participants and that of the researcher. Finally, the specific social context and the specific participant group limit the possibility of generalisation but allow careful transferability in a heuristic manner. A substantial amount of research and dialogue is needed to further explore these issues. Implications The main implication of this learning process is on the theoretical level, proposing a new direction of studying and conceptualising both poverty and collective trauma. An additional implication, relevant for social work theory of practice and policy, refers to participants’ frustration in many of their relationships with representatives of social institutions, such as social workers, which is frequently expressed through anger and verbally aggressive behaviour. Such behaviour often leads to somewhat similar behaviour among various professionals in response (Shamai and Sharlin, 1996). Therefore, it is important to develop special training programmes for those working with populations living in poverty, focusing on the traumatic aspects and outcomes of living in this situation. Such training might prevent professionals from perceiving expressions of anger by people living in poverty as personal attacks and to understand that they are outcomes of trauma. Hence, services can be provided for this population as trauma-informed interventions. In addition, social policy makers need to be aware of the long-term traumatic outcomes of poverty and its cross-generational impact. Thus, long-term considerations must be made when planning policies to combat poverty including community interventions designed to change the traumatic social identity of poverty. Conclusion The findings of this joint learning process revealed that poverty can be conceptualised heuristically as a specific type of collective trauma, as it meets all but one of the characteristics that constitute it. Conceptualising poverty as collective trauma opens new direction for further research, understanding and practice with populations living in poverty. Acknowledgements I would like to thank the brave social activist women that initiated this project and taught me so much about poverty, courage and optimism. 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Published: Oct 31, 2017

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