We've long known that there's something cyclical about poverty, chronic drug abuse and other life-defeating circumstances. We in Kern County hear descriptors like "Appalachia of the West" and shrug, often chalking up the conditions that create cultures of pervasive hopelessness to laziness or ignorance or Darwinian selection.
The widespread perception about these ills, particularly common in the poverty-wracked Kern County communities of the Kern River Valley, Oildale and Taft, is that nothing can be done. Squalor will always exist — somewhere.
A growing body of research suggests that something can in fact be done.
The condition known as toxic stress — a continuous, ongoing trauma born of fear, gloom and lack of nurture — literally becomes part of one's DNA and, as such, is passed along to new generations, where the same debilitating environment reinforces it.
The first steps in conquering any disease are defining it, understanding how it spreads and identifying possible paths to a cure. Researchers have now done that.
The hard part is staying on those paths.
In statistical terms, we know the effects of toxic stress. People who live in the Kern River Valley, Oildale and Taft — three impoverished, majority-white communities — have the highest premature death rates across in the county. They die four to 17 years earlier than others in Kern.
According to data analyzed by the Virginia Commonwealth University’s Center for Human Needs, residents in those three communities have an average life expectancy of between 68 and 72 years old — roughly eight to 10 years less than the national average.
Take Lake Isabella and the other communities of the Kern River Valley. Many people live in trailers or shanties and exist on disability payments or Social Security. Few have college degrees; the annual median income is $18,000; and food insecurity, broken homes and abuse are rampant.
Researchers say this constant state of crisis causes a physiological response that leads to a plethora of possible outcomes, none of them good: obesity, asthma, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Drug abuse, alcoholism and suicide are other byproducts.
The chain can seem unbreakable, especially when one considers that new mothers in Kern County lead the state in number of adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs — a primary component of toxic stress.
As The Californian's Harold Pierce reports, about 11.6 percent of Kern County mothers reported experiencing a high incidence of specific hardships during their childhoods, significantly higher than the state average.
Enough of these ACEs make people as much as 12 times more likely to die by suicide, 10 times more likely to use injection drugs and seven times more likely to become an alcoholic, according to a 2014 report published by The Center for Youth Wellness.
Research has shown that it's possible to break the chain. The key is nurturing. Social services, governmental and nongovernmental, cannot directly insert themselves into damaged homes, but we can encourage the development of programs shown to suitably replace important aspects of healthy home life: churches, sports programs, youth programs like Boys & Girls Clubs, mentoring programs, senior centers, veterans centers, substance abuse programs, and the like.
The takeaway from this toxic stress research is that the poverty and hopelessness we sometimes brush aside as a sad consequence of the human experience need not always exist. Pathways are out there — difficult and multigenerational, but achievable. We owe it to ourselves to pursue them.