In the Public Interest

Socioeconomic status (SES) factors and social class fundamentally determine human functioning across the lifespan, affecting the areas of development, well-being and physical and mental health--all of primary concern for psychological research, practice, education, policy and advocacy. Increasingly, the fields of public health, epidemiology and sociology are focusing on SES, backed by funding from both governmental and foundation sources.

Where is psychology in this arena? A 2006 report from the APA Task Force on Socioeconomic Status expressed concern that psychology as a field and psychologists as individuals are underrepresented in these initiatives and in addressing disparities resulting from growing inequality.

This is not to say that psychology has not generated a great deal of research and knowledge on SES, especially within the subfields of developmental psychology, health psychology and community/environmental psychology. But the importance of SES to our research and practice is much broader and we have much more to offer.

The significant disparities among socioeconomic groups in terms of access to health care, education, housing, child and elder care, transportation and the resulting effect on human welfare are well documented. Applied research suggests that social class has direct, indirect and moderating effects on a number of psychological processes. Psychologists have a critical role to play in understanding these disparities and their effects, and in identifying and clarifying ways in which this knowledge can be used to improve health and human welfare. A focus on SES can greatly improve our practice and research.

With its mission of promoting human welfare and social justice, APA's Public Interest Directorate is undertaking new initiatives to apply psychological principles to address the crosscutting issues raised by socioeconomic inequities. Our Office on Socioeconomic Status and the newly sanctioned Committee on Socioeconomic Status are working together with other experts to answer some of the most fundamental questions and determine next steps for action.

For example, we are exploring such questions as:

  • How can psychologists effectively measure SES?

  • How are objective or subjective indicators of SES related to an individual's health, educational and occupational achievement, and well-being?

  • How should curriculum be changed and enhanced to include a focus on SES and social class?

  • How does SES affect the client/therapist relationship?

  • How do we influence psychologists to see that SES, social class and the attendant concept of classism should be an important aspect of multicultural competency?

  • How can psychological knowledge be used to promote equal opportunity and increase access for the disadvantaged?

The Task Force on SES report raised some of these issues and discussed critical information for psychology on SES, social class and classism. The report is extremely informative, and I urge you to read it at www.apa.org/pi/ses.

Certainly there are many challenges to achieving class consciousness in psychology. One is the interdisciplinary nature of this work. Responding to this reality, our Office on Socioeconomic Status convened a meeting in December, where organizations and individuals from various disciplines addressed the spectrum of social issues that contribute to SES inequities and disparities. I was able to sit in for part of the session, which was attended by 21 people representing 19 organizations.

I thank Keyona King-Tsikata, director of APA's Office on SES, for organizing that meeting. It became quite apparent during the discussions that not only are other disciplines hungry for this type of interdisciplinary dialogue and collaboration, they are also looking to psychology to play a leadership role in moving forward.

Further reading

To read a copy of the report by the Task Force on Socioeconomic Status, visit: www.apa.org/pi/ses.