In the Public Interest

Over the years, there has been a growing awareness of the increasing gap between the "haves" and the "have-nots." This awareness has been expressed in different ways around various concerns. Quite often the "have-nots" are characterized as African Americans, American Indians, Asian Americans, Hispanics or poor white Americans, while the "haves" are usually seen as everybody else. What the "haves" have, of course, is money, lots of it. What the "have-nots" have not is money, or very little of it.

In the United States, as in many other countries, having money means having economic and political power, being better educated, having access to better health care, being better housed and generally enjoying a better quality of life. Having less money, particularly a lot less, means less power, inferior education, limited access to health care, living in substandard housing and generally experiencing a diminished quality of life.

APA's stance

In 2000, the APA Council of Representatives adopted its Resolution on Poverty and Socioeconomic Status, a formal statement that clearly set out APA's concerns about poverty and how they should be addressed in policy and advocacy. The complexity of the topic required a series of evidence-based statements to address the wide range of issues involved. Of the resolution's 25 "whereas" statements that define the scope of the problem, 10, for example, were health-related, another five demographic or statistical, while others covered family, economics, race, ethnicity, gender and APA ethics. These clauses provide a substantive foundation for council to develop its action statements, but also sets forth the range of issues that APA and its members should address. Some examples from the resolution:

  • The income gap between the poor and the rich has continued to increase over the past 20 years. The average income of the poorest fifth of the population is down 6 percent and the average income of the top fifth is up 30 percent.

  • Families with a female head of household had a poverty rate of 29.9 percent in 1998 and comprised the majority of poor families.

  • Psychologists as researchers, service providers, educators and policy advocates have a responsibility to better understand the causes of poverty and its impact on health and mental health, to help prevent and reduce the prevalence of poverty, and to effectively treat and address the needs of low-income individuals and families by building on the strengths of communities.

  • Psychologists are ethically guided to "respect the fundamental rights, dignity and worth of all people."

These examples suggest APA's concern and awareness of the pervasive effects of poverty on the young, the old, people of color, citizens, and noncitizens--and the way in which it consigns poor people to the utter edges of their society. The Council of Representatives then approved a set of possible actions for APA that empower it to respond in the public policy arena to poverty-related matters. For example, the resolution calls for APA to:

  • Advocate for more research on prejudicial and negative attitudes toward the poor by other people who may perpetuate policies that tolerate poverty and social inequality.

  • Recommend that, where possible and appropriate, socioeconomic status be identified for published reports of social sciences research.

  • Encourage more psychology training on the causes and impact of poverty, on the psychological needs of poor families, and on the importance of developing "cultural competence" and sensitivity to diversity around issues of poverty to help prevent and reduce the prevalence of poverty and to address the needs of low-income clients.

  • Support public policy that ensures parity with medical coverage for mental health and substance abuse services under Medicare and Medicaid and that ensures all people have access to care that is comprehensive and culturally sensitive.

These action statements and others not listed provide clear and strong policy direction for advocacy at the legislative and executive levels of government, and enable APA to be proactive, as well as reactive, on issues related to poverty--essentially closing the gap between the "haves" and the "have-nots." Hopefully, psychologists in their professional and scientific roles will utilize the resolution to influence their teaching, practice and research.

The public would be well served by such actions.