Mental Trauma of the Working Class: Solutions to Oppression, Sexual Violence, and Malnutrition

*Trigger warning: discussion of sexual abuse

When we think of poverty, we think of what is in the wallet. However, the poor talk about what is in the mind and heart (1). In ‘The Working Poor: Invisible in America’, David Shipler exposes the turmoil of millions of working-class Americans who were born into injustice yet contribute substantially to our country’s prosperity. They create the image of the ‘American Dream’ that conceals the jarring truths of the working poor. Although the working class silently suffers in the most powerful country in the world, this issue is pervasive globally. When a working family experiences a crisis, struggles in one aspect of life augment miseries in another.

Crises include the intertwined issues of poor education, debt, social exclusion, malnutrition, and mental illness. Shipler explains the poor’s struggles of declining mental and physical health which negatively impact a family’s budget and diet. This was demonstrated through the horrific conditions that El Monte immigrant sweatshop workers were subject to (2), and the life-long battle with sexual abuse trauma that many low-income women face (3,4). With poverty comes food insecurity, resulting in devastating outcomes of hunger and malnutrition. These consequences strike families with a myriad of health issues that exacerbate the pain of living in perpetual debt (5).

Those with a permanently low-income include sweatshop workers. Legal and illegal immigrants from third-world countries are paid extraordinarily little for their intensive labor in sewing shops – sometimes far below the federal minimum wage (6). Sweatshops are found all across the world, including Europe, Asia, Britain and the US, due to the ludicrous demand for clothing to be made and delivered abnormally fast. A barrier that immigrants face in responding to their financial hardship is their commitment to a life of pain. It becomes their only choice when they are emotionally threatened through deception, fear, and abuse.

A sweatshop that had tumultuous ramifications on its employees’ budgets was El Monte in Los Angeles. The company employed Thais at less than a dollar per hour. They were deceived through the promise of a well-paid life in America but were instead enslaved to manufacture clothing for 17 to 18 hours daily. They were subject to perilous working and housing conditions that amplified the severity of physical and mental illnesses. They also faced emotional abuse as they were told that their families in Thailand would be murdered if they resisted or escaped work (2). Immigrants forced themselves to endure this mistreatment due to their fear of deportation and promise to send money home to loved ones.

Overall health declination is also faced by the greater proportion of women in poverty who were sexually abused compared to those of high socio-economic classes. The myriad of other factors that contribute to poverty in their lives intensify their suffering, such as a low income. Most importantly, unresolved sexual abuse trauma can feel like a lifetime of crippling pain. Unlike debt, it cannot be erased by declaring bankruptcy. Shipler describes the story of Kara King, a young mother who was repetitively molested by her father in her childhood. Childhood sexual abuse can damage a victim’s capacity for intimacy in adulthood and result in the failure to form healthy relationships with family members. Victims are stripped of their confidence to perform in the workplace which further drives poverty. Hence, sexual abuse has ramifications on a family’s budget as the mental struggles it induces causes damage to a household’s economic potential.

A giant barrier to Kara’s management of her trauma was the emotional distance she created between herself and her partner. As disclosure of such a horrific past is an incredibly vulnerable act, victims struggle in finding consolation from others. Without social support, sufferers rely only on their minds that have been skewed by extreme hurt. They may blame themselves for the pain imposed by their childhood assailants, causing victims to yearn for intimate relationships that provide protection and care. These relationships can be easily compromised and broken by the victim’s fear of sexual exploitation. This can then contribute to conflict-laden households which compromise the physical and mental health of affected families.

Additionally, women who cannot afford contraception are susceptible to lives of single parenthood. This is a colossal handicap for low-income earners as 59% of all poor families have only one wage-earner (4). Women who face sexual trauma are also more likely to intentionally have children young. It is perhaps an outlet for them to channel love to their child in a way that does not remind them of the pain their own parents inflicted upon them. However, premature pregnancy can result in the inadequate provision of a child’s financial and emotional needs. Adolescents who engage in early sexual activity as a result of childhood sexual abuse should be given family planning and mental health counseling to reduce the likelihood of making hasty decisions to have children early (7). Kara’s story demonstrates the importance of a loving, support system to help sexual abuse victims process their trauma. The subsequent economic success that could arise from this would give families greater chances of achieving adequacy in other areas of their lives, especially nutrition.

The daily crises the poor face have severe ramifications on their diet. What creates further difficulty is the cyclic pain of poverty that many immigrants and sexual abuse victims endure as it usually overrides their consideration of a healthy diet as important. For example, nutrition is not a priority for immigrants when they lack proper immigration papers or English fluency (8). The lack of sustenance is highly problematic, as a depleted mind and body cannot be productive to generate income. Issues present even when a healthy diet takes precedence. The rough neighborhoods that sweatshop workers live in are short of whole foods that support adequate nutrition. They also cost exorbitant prices, so the poor succumb to cheap, nutrient-devoid foods that are calorically-dense for survival. Excess consumption of these foods can lead to many illnesses, including diabetes, heart disease and cancer. The health of the poor is then greatly endangered, causing medical care expenditure which creates more debt (9).

Hope should not be lost in the management of the seemingly endless struggles that the poor face. Many support groups exist for those in poverty, such as the organization, ‘So Others Might Eat’ (SOME) (10). They provide free benefits, including food, clothing, and healthcare (11). Attendants include those with mental illnesses, victims of sexual abuse, and those with drug addictions. SOME’s supplementation of a trauma and addiction treatment program was beneficial to ensuring that sufferers receive emotional support along with dietary adequacy.

SOME’s holistic services address the interconnected factors that intensify poverty altogether which is beneficial compared to focusing only on proximate causes. For example, someone’s drug addiction is not the problem. What drives them to take drugs, such as the escape of sexual abuse trauma, is the true issue. However, a problem that SOME faced was that many attendants still found it difficult to transition into a productive life after following their programs (10). A strategy for organizations in supporting others with a smoother progression into society is the addition of more halfway houses. These structured environments for long periods of stay (~90 days) are conducive to recovery. This setting could involve résumé writing lessons, mock interview sessions, and social support while residents seek employment (12). Organizations like SOME could also reach immigrants by advocating for their services in multiple languages, including Spanish, Chinese, Thai, Korean and Maori (in New Zealand).

It is clear that immense hardships are regularly faced by millions of the unheard working class. The working class reality falsifies the notion that hard work equates to financial freedom as they work relentlessly to be trapped in low-paying jobs for life. Immigrants produce our luxury with hands of pain and humility as they “clothe and comfort the Americans they wish to emulate” (13). Sexual abuse victims often lead lives as single parents while battling demons of their past. They, along with all working poor, are at the brink of disaster as a single disruption in their lives can be catastrophic. They face a constellation of challenges in which holistic, systematic approaches are needed for hope and pain alleviation. Without sufficient income to pay for a sustainable supply of nutritious foods, the health of the poor continues to suffer. The agony that low-wage workers face while performing essential services that drive our nation’s economy is shameful. This is not the American dream that we should glamorize.


  1. Shipler, DK. The Working Poor. New York: Random House, 2004. 10.
  2. Ibid., 80-81.
  3. Ibid., 143
  4. Ibid., 144.
  5. Ibid., 207.                                                                                    
  6. Ibid., 90.
  7. Ibid., 145.
  8. Ibid., 57.
  9. Ibid., 201-218.                                                                                                              
  10. Ibid., 255.                          
  11. Ibid., 308.           
  12. Ibid., 258.                          
  13. Ibid., 77.

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