For many low-income minority families, the decision on whether mothers should stay home with their children is just another luxury they do not have. For these families, the issue is much more basic--survival.
"Disasters such as Hurricane Katrina happen on a regular basis for these families," says psychologist Nancy Boyd-Franklin, PhD, author of "Black Families in Therapy: Understanding the African-American Experience" (Guilford, 2003) and a professor at Rutgers University Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology. "There is a feeling among many African-American communities and working poor families that the country has forgotten them. Whole families and their realities are invisible to the outside world, including many in our field."
Those realities, says Boyd-Franklin, include being the last hired and first fired, working multiple jobs and suffering from inadequate wages and racist circumstances that make balancing work and family extremely difficult.
"They are in the kind of jobs where they cannot take time off if their child is sick," she explains. "A sick child becomes a major family crisis."
How do they manage? Reliance on extended family, both biological and not, is one strategy. Extended families may share a household. Or a neighbor might watch a working mother's children. Poor minority families also rely on a powerful work ethic and spirituality, says Boyd-Franklin.
What these families typically do not expect is help from psychologists, she says, noting that they often have a "healthy cultural suspicion" of institutions including psychology clinics.
"For many who come from more privileged existences, it is very hard to understand the realities these families face," says Boyd-Franklin, who grew up in a low-income housing project in the Bronx. "I have seen psychologists in schools make judgments about parents who cannot come in for meetings when those parents will be fired from their jobs if they take time off."
How can psychology help? Given the importance of extended families in minority cultures, says Boyd-Franklin, they should assist whole families rather than children or adults in isolation. They should take a multisystem approach. And they should bring free or subsidized services to where families are, instead of expecting families to come to them, she says, citing the school-based Rutgers/Somerset Counseling Project she runs as an example of an intervention that reaches people who do not believe in therapy and would not come to clinics.
Boyd-Franklin is optimistic that psychologists can help improve the lives of the working poor. But to achieve that, she says, training programs need to change.
"We pay lip service to race and class, though they are still taught as separate issues," says Boyd-Franklin. But a single class in cultural competence is not enough. Instead, she says, psychologists need training that helps them understand the concrete realities of poor families' daily lives. She would also like to see licensing boards require ongoing continuing education on race and class.