Urban Traumatic Stress Disorder (UTSD) in Employment

Urban communities have been in an employment income crisis for decades. According to the MIT Living Wage Calculator and the Living Wage Index, prior to the COVID pandemic, the percentage of households in urban communities that can pay their bills ranges from a high of 62% in Chicago to a low of 34% in Camden. This means that between 38% and 66% of urban households across the US do not earn enough money to pay their monthly bills. The individuals in these families are either unemployed or underemployed (they have a job but don’t earn enough money to pay their bills). The pandemic has made this poverty crisis even worse.

This “poverty pandemic” is most critical among urban youth and young adults. According to the Center for Labor Markets and Policy at Drexel University, more than 50% of 20 to 24 year old black male urban residents don’t have a job or they are not enrolled in school. Many political leaders suggest that there are plenty of jobs and blame individuals in these urban communities for the low rate of unemployment. They mistakenly state that there is widespread urban unemployment because these individuals “don’t work hard,” “are chronically late to work,” “steal from their employers,” “are too lazy to work” or “too proud to take low paying jobs.” However, research suggests that the primary reasons for this crisis is not laziness, but the shortage of jobs and the prevalence of trauma among the residents of poor urban communities.

Over the last 25 years, psychologists have suggested that individuals living in communities where there is frequent violence, crime and abuse experience the same symptoms as individuals diagnosed with Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). However, the violence, crime and abuse that residents experience takes place on a daily or weekly basis so the trauma that they experience is not “post.” It is continuous and manifests itself in unique ways in urban neighborhoods. I have found that the term Urban Traumatic Stress Disorder (UTSD) more accurately describes what they are experiencing at home, in school or at work. UTSD comes about because of continuous trauma and often leads to erratic behavior and can result in violence, uncontrolled anger and substance abuse.

The condition is not a reflection on a person’s intelligence. People experiencing UTSD often find it difficult to plan, focus and communicate because the urban-related trauma they experience leads to changes in the Amygdala region of the brain that prevents them from effectively controlling their emotions. Urban residents looking for employment must have clear plans relating to the type of job they are qualified for and how much they need to earn. In addition, they must be able to communicate effectively with their boss, co-workers and customers to keep their job. If they are suffering from UTSD, they will likely have trouble planning, focusing and communicating. They will therefore probably not get a job and if they do get hired, eventually lose it because of their inability to overcome the impact of UTSD.

Billions of dollars have been spent on job training programs in urban communities. These programs teach the technical skills necessary to find a job. However, they do not provide the neurological support to effectively address UTSD. The good news is that the daily practice of mindfulness, where individuals spend 10 minutes or more focused on breathing and present moment awareness, can rewire the amygdala and overcome the effects of UTSD. Unfortunately, there are very few community based organizations that provide trauma-informed job training and placement for adults.

However, there are some innovative programs for younger workers like the “One Summer Program” in Chicago that provides a 25-hour-per week summer job, a mentor and social-emotional support for youth with a higher risk for violence. This program was part of a 2015 randomized-control experiment where 800 students received the job and trauma-informed support and a control group of youth were not offered employment or support. The study found that the students who had the job and the trauma-informed support had 43% fewer violent crime events than the youth in the control group. This shows trauma-informed job training could be the key to both urban employment and crime reduction. It is essential that government and nonprofit leaders include trauma-informed job training, placement and coaching in every program attempting to increase employment in urban communities.

Dr. Dale Caldwell is the co-founder of the Black Excellence Alliance ( He is a professor and the executive director of the Fairleigh Dickinson University (FDU) Rothman Institute of Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Dr. Caldwell is the author of six books including the ground-breaking book Intelligent Influence: The 4 Steps of Highly Successful Leaders and Organizations. He is the creator of the Entrepreneur Zone program and the founder of the Dale Caldwell Foundation,, the Black Executives Network, the Black Entrepreneurs Hall of Fame, the Black Executives Hall of Fame, the Black Inventors Hall of Fame and the Black Tennis Hall of Fame. These innovative organizations inspire black excellence and immortalize accomplished people who have been overlooked in the history books because of their race.

Dr. Caldwell earned a BA in Economics (with a minor in African American studies) from Princeton University, an MBA in Finance from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and a Doctorate from Seton Hall University. He is an International Coach Federation (ICF) Associate Certified Coach (ACC) who completed the Harvard Kennedy School Senior Executives in State and Local Government program and the Rutgers Leadership Coaching for Organizational Performance program.