In the Public Interest

As national attention turns increasingly toward the growing financial divide between the rich and the poor, APA's Public Interest Directorate continues its efforts to better understand and reduce socioeconomic health disparities. Identifying the causes of and ways to reduce health disparities is a major APA strategic initiative housed within the directorate.

Evidence has shown the critical role of socioeconomic factors in understanding health disparities. For example, low socioeconomic status is linked to such negative health outcomes as low birth weight, diabetes, depression, life expectancy, heart attacks and lower self-rated health.

APA's Public Interest Office on Socioeconomic Status explores the intersection between health disparities and poverty in its latest annotated bibliography series, Examining the Complexities Between Health Disparities and Poverty. This compilation uses a psychosocial framework with a social justice lens in its exploration of physical and psychological factors to include social and environmental forces that shape health.

Socioeconomic status and race and ethnicity are very much intertwined, and both must be considered if we are to fully understand health disparities. We know that higher proportions of blacks and Hispanics are poor and more likely than their white counterparts to live in neighborhoods with higher concentrations of poverty, even when family incomes are similar. Americans who are socioeconomically disadvantaged, ethnic-minority or have little formal education experience significantly worse health outcomes than those who are white, more affluent or better educated.

A 2013 report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Overcoming Obstacles to Health, describes the association between socioeconomic status and health status. For example, the authors found that 25-year-old college graduates can expect to live eight to nine years longer than those who have not completed high school, and two to four years longer than those who have attended but not graduated from college. They also found that life expectancy gaps are even greater when race and education are considered. Between 2008 and 2010, white college graduates could expect to live 10 to 14 years longer than blacks who had not finished high school.

Failure to address socioeconomic factors continues to be a major barrier to improving health outcomes for underserved, poorer populations. Poor people face multiple barriers to good health, in addition to those related to access. These include chronic stress, unsafe housing, crime and violence, poor schools, inadequate transportation, limited availability of healthy food choices, and inadequate places to play and exercise. I should note that one of the APA Health Disparities Initiative working groups is Stress and Health Disparities.

Psychology has a long history of commitment to underserved populations, and psychologists are recognized for competencies and leadership in research and practice in the health arena. Therefore, we have a substantial role to play in the work that must be done to reduce poverty and socioeconomic health disparities. Through our committees, offices and initiatives, the Public Interest Directorate is working with psychologists in doing just that.