Feature

Since its adoption as APA policy last year, the Resolution on Poverty and Socioeconomic Status has framed poverty as an outcome of inequalities that render certain demographic groups more vulnerable.

"The resolution marks an innovative stand for APA because it pointedly encourages psychologists to think about poverty and inequality as a structural problem," Heather Bullock, PhD, of the University of California at Santa Cruz, one of the APA members behind the push for the resolution.

Psychologists, in their roles as researchers, service providers, educators and policy advocates, Bullock says, are perfectly situated to understand the societal causes and consequences of poverty and advocate for economic justice.

The discipline indeed has a great deal to offer.

"Psychologists can identify poverty's impact on physical and psychological well-being, develop effective interventions, and work toward long-term solutions to reduce inequality and class-based discrimination," Bullock says.

The resolution on poverty provides a framework for research, teaching and advocacy to help psychologists do just that.

The resolution, which casts the problem through psychology's lens, originated within Div. 35's (Society for the Psychology of Women) second task force on women and poverty and was developed by Urban Initiatives staff and the Committee on Urban Initiatives, in conjunction with the Women's Programs and Public Policy Offices. The resolution lays out the steps psychologists can take to tackle poverty, pledging APA's willingness to advocate for more research on the causes and impact of socioeconomic disparity, and affirming the association's commitment to support investigations of related issues such as racial or ethnic bias, sexism, classism, ageism, unintended pregnancy, environmental factors, stereotypes, stigma, and mental and physical health problems.

The resolution also highlights the importance of studying attitudes toward the poor, which often attribute poverty to personal failings rather than larger socioeconomic barriers, myths that are often expressed in public policy. The document then highlights what psychologists can contribute to help society better understand and address poverty.

Most importantly, the resolution encourages psychologists to train students to continue this important work. The rest of the resolution's statements relate to public policy; the Code of Ethics mandate to "respect the fundamental rights, dignity and worth of all people" evokes professional duties to advocate for equal access to education, adequate income, food, employment, housing, medical and mental health services.

APA's Committee on Urban Initiatives (CUI) is following up on the resolution, forming a working group of psychologists with expertise in poverty on every level--from individual, family and community work, to government responses and public policy.

"Eventually we will broaden the group to include other disciplines because poverty is one of those issues that you can't approach from just one angle," notes Denise A. Alston, PhD, of the National Education Association Department of School System Capacity, and CUI chair. "Poverty touches not just mental health or economics, and people aren't in poverty because they are weak or lazy. There are structural reasons for poverty in our country, and structural reasons why it's difficult to alleviate."

Indeed, a key aim of the resolution is to dispel stereotypes about poverty's causes, as many psychologists' have found that people often attribute poverty to personal failings rather than societal ills.

As such, the problem strikes many a chord with a number of APA divisions, and CUI is in the planning stages for collaborative 2002 APA Annual Convention sessions on poverty in what is envisioned to be a call to action for more psychologists' involvement in this area.

"Many psychologists are going to be inspired by the resolution," says Bullock, "because it offers a blueprint for how to get involved and the areas in which work is needed."

Further Reading

  • Those interested in joining the Committee on Urban Initiatives Working Group on Poverty can contact the Urban Initiatives Office at (202) 336-6044.

  • A special poverty issue of Journal of Social Issues is available online at www.spssi.org/jsi_57_2.html.