Poverty and Mental Illness Cost a Community

One of the common misconceptions surrounding poverty and mental illness is the effects it has on the community. It is not just the problem of the people who suffer from it, it’s a problem for the entire community and can have devastating effects on the community’s future.

Statistically, the issue of poverty is actually worse in Wichita than in the rest of the country.

Approximately 12.7% of people in the United States reported living below the poverty line. In Sedgwick County, the number of people living in poverty rises to 13.5%. In Wichita, it is 17%.123

In what ways do poverty and mental illness cost a community? While there are several, we are detailing six of the biggest impacts.


1) High School Dropouts

The first major effect of poverty and mental illness on a community involves education. Low-income students are more likely to drop out of high school, compared to their middle-income or high-income peers, and 37% of students with a mental health condition age 14 and older drop out of school.4

Studies show that a high school dropout makes significantly less than a high school graduate, and even less than a college graduate.5 This amount adds up over a lifetime and can play a role in keeping people from escaping poverty.

Overall, it is estimated that high school dropouts cost taxpayers an average of $292,000 over a lifetime.5

2) Incarceration

In addition to income, poverty and mental illness play a huge role in incarceration rates. 1.2 million individuals with a mental illness are in jail each year. One of the potential reasons for this is access to mental health care. For example, Arkansas, Alabama, and Mississippi provide the least access to mental health care and have the highest rates of imprisonment.6

As stated earlier, those living in poverty are more likely to drop out of high school compared to their peers. In a 2014 study, over 80% of the incarcerated population in the United States had dropped out of high school.7

3) Health Care

Those living in poverty and/or with a mental illness also suffer from increased medical and healthcare costs, which are often paid for by taxpayers in the community.

Research has shown that people who live in poverty suffer from poor health due to a lack of access and money for health care, poor living environments, stress, and lack of basic necessities. Those facing early challenges in their life and living in poverty also see a higher probability of lifelong illnesses, such as diabetes or cardiac diseases.8

In 2013, the United States spent over $200 billion on mental health disorders.9

4) Workforce

Poverty and mental illness also deprive a community’s workforce of skilled workers and innovation. The prevalence of those living in poverty and suffering from mental illness dropping out of high school means skills are not developed, or they are not able to maintain stable jobs or receive additional training they need. This can cause a strain on a community’s workforce and innovations.

5) Mental Illness

There is research that shows a bidirectional relationship between poverty and mental illness. Poverty may exacerbate mental illness, as well as mental illness, can lead to poverty.10

The rate of adults experiencing mental illness is highest among those with family income below the federal poverty line. Also, adults living in poverty are more likely to experience severe mental illness and have serious thoughts of suicide.

6) Poverty Cycle

One of the challenges in escaping poverty is the “poverty cycle.” Earlier we showed the odds of someone growing up in poverty dropping out of high school. This leads to decreased income, and this adds up over a lifetime. This can mean a person raised in poverty is likely to grow up and raise a family in poverty, thus their children grow up in poverty. This is the “poverty cycle.” An estimated 30.8% of high school dropouts end up living in poverty, compared to 13.5% for those with a Bachelor’s Degree.11

By providing help in getting people out of poverty, it can have a long-term effect on that person’s family. Their children won’t grow up in poverty, and will therefore have an improved chance to graduate high school. This typically results in higher income potential in their lifetime, meaning they can provide for their family. This results in the family having improved access to basic necessities, improved health, and a better chance of overall success in the future.


After detailing six of the biggest ways poverty and mental illness cost a community, the next big question is how can we make a difference? At Breakthrough, our organization is dedicated to helping people in our community break through the cycle of poverty and mental illness.

Learn more about the ways we are helping the community, and how your help can make an impact on breaking the cycle, at