Tag Archives: Poverty and Socioeconomic Status

CROSS-POST: 4 Strategies for Success for the Low-Income Grad Student

PhD degree theme with textbooks and piggy bank with glasses

This is a cross-post from our fellow APA blog, gradPSYCH blog, and is targeted toward graduate students from low-income backgrounds who may struggle with a sense of belonging at their institutions. Please share this post with the graduate students in your life.

By Kala J. Melchiori, PhD (Asst. Professor of Psychology, James Madison University)

Dear low-income graduate students,

If you come from a less privileged background, graduate school can present unique social and cultural challenges. Perhaps the biggest hurdle for low-income grad students after financial worry is belonging. Students of lower socioeconomic backgrounds report lower feelings of belonging during graduate school and beyond[i]. Students who feel they do not belong are more likely to drop out of their programs and steer away from high-prestige academic positions (like R1 or R2[1] tenure-track jobs) after they graduate. Below I offer some advice I wish I had heard before starting graduate school.

  1. Tackle your uncertainty about belonging head-on

You can help cement the knowledge that you belong by making friends with your lab mates and cohort members. Your family and non-grad-school friends may not fully grasp the pressure you will be under, so your grad school friends are the key to navigating your first few years of grad school. Build friendships both in your cohort[2] and with more senior graduate students to help you learn the unspoken rules and expectations of graduate school and academia. Ask questions, listen to others’ experiences, and consult others outside of your department to learn unspoken expectations.

Learning unspoken rules and expectations can be unbalancing. The sense that others know the ropes of grad school while you are struggling may lead you to question whether you belong. However, no one has their academic life completely together. We are all figuring it out as we go along, but you may only see your own struggle. Remind yourself that you have worked to get here and you deserve to be here. Help your new grad school friends overcome feelings of inadequacy by affirming them when they made a good argument in class or gave an impressive presentation. You’re not an imposter, you’re an apprentice and it takes time to gain confidence and expertise.

  1. Seek out mentors

Uncertainty about belonging is related to privilege and cultural capital. Having role models who share your socioeconomic background can increase retention and academic performance[ii]. Connect with senior grad students or faculty who share some of your social identities for mentorship. If you are looking for a mentor who has a similar background to your own, find and email the diversity committee of a professional organization and ask about their mentorship initiatives.

Read the rest of the post here.

Filed under: GradPsych Blog, Poverty and Socioeconomic Status Tagged: gradPSYCH, graduate student, low-income

For Richer or Poorer: What Works to Reduce Poverty in America?


By Annie Davis (Public Interest Policy Scholar, APA)

How can we improve the economic wellbeing of American families? This was one of the issues that dominated the 2016 election cycle, with each candidate proposing a different way forward. Across party lines, we can all agree that poverty is harmful for our society. Research from psychology links poverty to negative physical and mental health outcomes – particularly for vulnerable groups like children and older adults.[1]

So what do we know about programs that effectively alleviate poverty? Most of our poverty data comes from the U.S. census, but this excludes many benefits shown to boost economic mobility.[2]

The Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM),[3] on the other hand, sheds more light.

The SPM provides a comprehensive picture of poverty in the U.S. by measuring household income, factoring in cash and non-cash benefits, and subtracting necessary expenses. This measure can be used to calculate the impact of individual safety net programs.

  • The Earned Income Tax Credit enables low- and moderate-income working individuals (primarily parents) to offset the impact of paying taxes, incentivize workforce participation, and provide income for necessary expenses. It raised 9.2 million people above the poverty line in 2015.
  • Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is monthly nutrition assistance for eligible low-income households to buy the food they need to be healthy. It raised 4.6 million people above the poverty line in 2015.
  • The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) provides support for low-income, nutritionally at-risk pregnant and postpartum women and young children (up to age 5), including food assistance, nutrition information, and referrals to medical and social services. It raised over 370,000 people above the poverty line in 2015.[4]

The huge impact of these programs adds to the massive reach of Social Security (26.6 million people raised above the poverty line).[5] These findings about the societal benefits of the safety net are consistent with data showing a 40% reduction in poverty since the beginning of the War on Poverty (and the creation of federal safety-net programs) in 1967.[6] The SPM unequivocally shows federal safety net programs work to protect low-income people from the harms of poverty, particularly those in marginalized groups.

The value of these programs is clear, not only in alleviating poverty but also in preventing the downstream effects of poverty on physical and mental health. However, these kinds of programs are constantly under threat in the current political climate. If they were to be further cut, as has been proposed, this would plunge more Americans into poverty, and the physical and psychological harms that ensue.

These include negative impacts on:

  • mental health,
  • family functioning,
  • cognitive functioning,
  • trauma/chronic stress, and
  • academic and professional success.[7]

APA will continue to advocate for programs that alleviate the burden of poverty. For example, APA has supported SNAP, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and the Child Tax Credit, programs that lessen families’ financial strain and food insecurity, thereby reducing toxic stress and improving mental health.

Moreover, APA has recently supported legislation like the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act (S. 786/H.R. 1439), which would guarantee paid leave following the birth of a child or during a serious health condition, with positive impacts on child development, maternal mental health, and family relations.

Help APA stand up for vulnerable Americans! Sign up for our Federal Action Network to contact your representatives about these issues.


[1] Evans, G.W. (2004). The environment of childhood poverty. American Psychologist, 59, 77–92. doi: 10.1037/0003-066x.59.2.77

[2] Bitler. M., & Hoynes, H. (2013). The more things change, the more they stay the same? The safety net and poverty in the Great Recession (NBER Working Paper No. 19449). Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research. Retrieved from http://www.nber.org/papers/w19449

[3] Renwick, T., & Fox, L. (2016). The Supplemental Poverty Measure: 2015 [U.S. Census Bureau, P60-258(RV)]. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

[4] Renwick & Fox, 2016

[5] Renwick & Fox, 2016

[6] Wimer, C., Fox, L., Garfinkel, I., Kaushal., N., & Waldfogel, J. (2013). Trends in poverty with an anchored Supplemental Poverty Measure (Working paper 13-01). New York, NY: Columbia Population Research Center (CPRC). Retrieved from https://www.gc.cuny.edu/CUNY_GC/media/LISCenter/Readings%20for%20workshop/Madrick2.pdf

[7] Evans, G.W. (2004). The environment of childhood poverty. American Psychologist, 59, 77–92. doi: 10.1037/0003-066x.59.2.77

Flouri, E., Midouhas, E., & Joshi, H. (2014). Family poverty and trajectories of children’s emotional and behavioural problems: The moderating roles of self-regulation and verbal cognitive ability. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology42(6), 1043-1056.

Hudson, C.G. (2005). Socioeconomic status and mental illness: Tests of the social causation and selection hypotheses. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry75(1), 3.

Manseau, M. (2014). Economic inequality and poverty as social determinants of mental health. Psychiatric Annals, 44(1), 32-38. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.3928/00485713-20140108-06

Santiago, C.D., Wadsworth, M.E., & Stump, J. (2011). Socioeconomic status, neighborhood disadvantage, and poverty-related stress: Prospective effects on psychological syndromes among diverse low-income families. Journal of Economic Psychology32(2), 218-230.

Shonkoff, J.P. (2010). Building a new biodevelopmental framework to guide the future of early childhood policy. Child Development81(1), 357-367.

Yoshikawa, H., Aber, J.L., & Beardslee, W.R. (2012). The effects of poverty on the mental, emotional, and behavioral health of children and youth: Implications for prevention. American Psychologist67(4), 272-284.


Annie Davis is a Public Interest Policy Scholar at the American Psychological Association and a fourth year Ph.D. student in Clinical Psychology at The Catholic University of America. Her clinical and research interests center on mental health interventions for young children living in poverty.


Filed under: Poverty and Socioeconomic Status, Public Policy Tagged: Child Tax Credit, Earned Income Tax Credit, paid family and medical leave, poverty, poverty reduction, public policy, safety net programs, SNAP, social safety net, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, war on poverty

5 Ways to Teach Your Students about World Poverty

Erasing poverty

Jamie L. Franco-Zamudio, PhD (Associate Professor, Spring Hill College) with assistance from students, Paige E. Guillory and Claire M. Oswald

Although in observance since 1987, in 1992 the United Nations (UN) General Assembly adopted the resolution to designate October 17th as the “International Day for the Eradication of Poverty”. On this day, and throughout the year, the International Committee for October 17 encourages us to raise awareness about the effects of living in extreme poverty and to develop action plans to eradicate poverty on the local, national, and international level. In 2015, they called for actions that are focused on building a sustainable future. The call included one important point—that our strategies should be developed in solidarity with people living in poverty because their expertise is essential for creating plans that will primarily affect their communities.

I teach about issues of economic justice in many of my classes, but this is the first year that I will formally observe what is also known as World Poverty Day. As I was brainstorming different ways to teach about poverty across the globe, I realized it would be beneficial to enlist the assistance of two undergraduate students. Together we developed this list of resources and activities.

You might choose to cite these resources in lectures or use them as content for assignments. For example, when teaching about disseminating information to a broad audience I ask students to create infographics, fact sheets, or policy briefs. My student, Claire Oswald, created the one below.


Infographic by Claire Oswald: Healthcare and Poverty


1. Share these informational resources on global poverty


The website includes information about the goals of the initiative, and includes links to the 17 goals for sustainable development and the millennial goals for 2015 and beyond. There are links to fact sheets and informational videos on topics such as “Empowering Women”.  The bottom of the United Nations home page includes links to issues such as Zero Hunger Challenge and Refugees and Migrants.           

This report includes information about the effects of living in extreme poverty, outlines specific human rights, and lists the obligations of the international community to eliminate extreme poverty.

The website provides statistics describing what poor people think about poverty, illustrations of the poverty line, and graphs and charts illustrating the number of people living in poverty across the world.

The report includes recommendations to reduce prejudice and discrimination of people living in poverty and promote inclusion in the political process.

The website includes resources for developing partnerships, child labor, better working conditions, and improving living standards using local resources and employees.

This report illustrates the health and mental health outcomes for children living in poverty.


2. Screen these documentaries on global poverty


Poverty, Inc.

This is an excellent documentary describing how “charity” to impoverished countries is more paternalistic and self-serving than helpful. One reviewer, Peter Debruge, commented, “It all comes down to the old “give a man a fish” vs. “teach a man to fish” quandary, wherein donations provide a temporary fix, whereas training and help building connections to the world market could empower a way out.”


The True Cost

An excellent documentary describing the environmental, social, and psychological effects of “fast fashion.” A section of the film highlights the experiences of low-wage workers in Bangladesh.


Living on One Dollar a Day

This documentary illustrates what it is like to live on a dollar a day in rural Guatemala.

For a list of many other insightful documentaries about poverty, visit the Documentary Addict page.


3. Encourage your students to take action against poverty

  • Invite your students to sign a petition to end poverty
  • Provide students with links to volunteer at a local homeless shelter via the Homeless Shelter Directory.
  • Fundraise to provide a loan through Kiva to help someone start their own business.
  • Invite students to take action via the Results website, which provides links encourage legislators support policies to end world poverty.
  • Free Rice is an online “game” website that for points scored, rice is donated to feed the hungry.


4. Try these activities with your students so they can better understand poverty

  • Encourage your students to try to live on a limited budget by participating in the online challenge at Spent.
  • Spend the day participating in a poverty simulation.


5. Assign the following readings to your students

This book focuses on the work of Dr. Paul Farmer whose life calling was to provide healthcare to communities in need in Haiti, Cuba, Peru, and Russia. Dr. Farmer asserts, “The idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that is wrong with the world” and “For me, an area of moral clarity is: you’re in front of someone who’s suffering and you have the tools at your disposal to alleviate that suffering or even eradicate it, and you act.”

For more books about world poverty, visit The Borgen Project.

This paper by Dr. Heather Bullock is sponsored by the National Poverty Center. We encourage you to review the references for additional relevant articles.

This website includes links to resources, readings, and information regarding how to help.


Below, Paige Guillory, one of my students, provides a great example of her learning experiences regarding global poverty.


A Case of Service and Immersion: Paige Guillory Shares her Experiences

Immersion Trips

Paige has travelled to several different countries with the Spring Hill College International Service and Immersion Program (ISIP) and partners such as International Samaritan, Mustard Seed Communities, Hand in Hand Ministries, and Caribbean Social Immersion Program.

“After being very fortunate to travel internationally to experience global poverty and serve where you can, it is important to return home, tell the stories of those you met, and do what you can to give to those you met or serve your local community in similar ways. After traveling to the Dominican Republic (DR) and meeting Haitian migrant children at a shelter in the DR, our ISIP group returned home to share their stories, raise money for their shelter, and bring awareness to the problems surrounding immigration. We created a website to easily share what we experienced and what we planned to accomplish.”


Learning from Local Issues

“As important as it is to serve those in poverty globally, especially in very poor, underdeveloped countries, there is so much local poverty surrounding us that needs immediate attention as well.

For example, it is important to realize that every local tragedy, natural disaster, or devastating situation in a local community affects those living in poverty in very different, and usually more devastating, ways. In Louisiana, where the dangerous flooding that occurred in mid-August of 2016, thousands of families lost their homes, businesses, and possessions in a very quick few days. In looking at where the flooding caused the worse damage, many poor communities with lacking resources, the inability to safely evacuate, and unfortunate home locations near bayous, canals, and rivers suffered the most damage. It is a harsh reality to realize that those living in poverty are more at risk for losing their lives and possessions when disasters occur locally. Being aware of these setbacks should call us to rethink our education, healthcare, disaster relief, and political systems to better accommodate those who are at greater risk for failure and setbacks. Although not everyone was able to realize that the flooding in Louisiana affected those in poorer communities to a greater and more devastating degree, the community of south Louisiana and those who have come from out-of-state to help rebuild our community, provide support, and donate needed items have seen that Louisiana is a community that gives to our neighbors in times of need.”

You might choose to plan a weekend volunteer day. For example, the students at her college spent the day with NOLA Tree Project gutting four of the over 100,000 homes damaged in the flood.


Pictured: Paige Guillory taking down molding drywall



Author Biographies:

Jamie Franco-Zamudio, PhD, is an Associate Professor at Spring Hill College. Her current research addresses the benefits of experiential learning and service-learning for social justice outcomes. Franco-Zamudio is a member of the Governing Council of the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI) and is currently serving as Co-Chair of the SPSSI Teaching and Mentoring Committee. She is a member of the Board of Directors for Lifelines Counseling Services in Mobile, AL.

Paige Guillory is a senior student at Spring Hill College in Mobile, AL but originally from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. She is a member of Psi Chi International Honor Society and is currently studying Biology, Psychology, and Biochemistry. She plans to pursue a Medical Degree and Masters of Public Health in the hopes of becoming a physician.

Claire Oswald is senior health sciences major with a psychology minor at Spring Hill College. She plans to pursue a career in occupational therapy. She is a member of Psi Chi International Honor Society in Psychology and the American Medical Student Association. She has participated in many social justice endeavors, including the Ignatian Teach-In and 3 years of participation in the International Service Immersion Program.

Filed under: Poverty and Socioeconomic Status Tagged: International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, poverty, poverty reduction, student resources, teaching, World Poverty Day

Food Stamp Cuts May Put 1 Million More Americans At Risk of Hunger: What We Can Do About It


By Sara Buckingham, MA (Public Interest Policy Scholar, APA Public Interest Government Relations Office)


How do you decide between heating your apartment, purchasing lifesaving medication, and eating?

As of April 1, up to 1 million more Americans will face that decision.


Who is affected by hunger?

Nearly 50 million Americans – including one of every five children – are at risk of going hungry (Coleman-Jensen, Rabbitt, Gregory, & Singha, 2015). Our largest and most effective solution to hunger is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or ‘food stamps’). SNAP provides food assistance to people below a certain income level, helping to prevent hunger. This assistance also frees up their income for other necessities, such as housing, utilities, and health care.


Why are so many people now losing SNAP benefits?

Under the current law, adults who are ‘fit for work’ and not caring for a child can only access SNAP for 3 months in a 36-month period, unless they are:


  1. working or in a training program at least half-time or
  2. in a state with a particularly high unemployment rate.


Prior to 2016, most U.S. states qualified for this unemployment exemption, but now, due to lower unemployment rates, only 10 states qualify, and 3 of them are doing away with the exemption voluntarily. However, lower state unemployment rates do not represent everyone’s day-to-day experiences. Chronically unemployed people have given up looking for work, skewing employment data, and local unemployment rates vary widely within states.


States with Newly Reimposed SNAP Time Limits in 2016




a 19 states are required to reimpose the time limit: Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Arizona, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Washington.

b Three states are voluntarily reimposing the time limit: Mississippi, South Carolina, and West Virginia.

c 7 states and the District of Columbia currently qualify for an exemption to the time limit: California, Illinois, Louisiana, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, and Rhode Island.

d All other states imposed the time limit prior to 2016, either due to no longer qualifying or voluntarily doing away with the exemption.


Why is hunger a health problem?


Hunger is a debilitating condition and plenty of research demonstrates its harms:


  • Physical – hunger is associated with higher infant mortality rates, vulnerability to illnesses and infections, and impaired physical development. It is also associated with chronic diseases, including hypertension, abnormally elevated levels of lipids in the blood, and cardiovascular health issues (Seligman, Laraia, & Kushel, 2009).
  • Cognitive – hunger alters mental functioning and can even stunt intellectual capacity (Gundersen, Kreider, & Pepper, 2011).
  • Emotional – hunger impacts psychological well-being. One study even shows that families’ lack of sufficient food, irrespective of their income, is associated with persistent depressive disorder and suicidality in adolescents (Alaimo, Olson, & Frongillo, 2002).
  • Socioeconomics – hunger has wide-reaching effects. For example, children who are hungry perform worse in schools, and people of all ages perform worse on tests, with negative implications for future economic success (Gundersen, Kreider, & Pepper 2011). As with any scarce resource, people who are hungry spend their mental energy on their hunger, which can narrow their focus and lead them to neglect other areas of their home or work lives (Shah, Mullainathan, & Shafir, 2012).


What can Congress do to address this problem?  

  1. Revise the rule so that unemployed individuals diligently searching for jobs qualify for SNAP benefits
  2. Expand the time-limit on benefits to better reflect the typical unemployment period. Over the past year, the average length of unemployment has ranged from 7 to 8 months (U.S. Department of Labor, 2016). In 2002 and 2008, bills were introduced in the Senate to do this (S. 1731, S. 2302).

There are a number of solutions to this crisis, but our government must act quickly to return SNAP benefits to up to one million people who will lose them this year. You can help! Join APA’s Federal Action Network to participate in our public policy advocacy efforts.






Alaimo, K., Olson, C. M., & Frongillo, E. A. (2002). Family food insufficiency, but not low family income, is positively associated with dysthymia and suicide symptoms in adolescents. The Journal of Nutrition, 132, 719-725.


Coleman-Jensen, A., Rabbitt, M. P., Gregory, C., & Singha, A. (2015). Household food security in the United States in 2014 (Report Number 194). United States Department of Agriculture. Retrieved from: http://www.ers.usda.gov/media/1896841/err194.pdf.


Gundersen, C., Kreider, B., & Pepper, J. (2011). The economics of food insecurity in the United States. Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy, 33, 281-303.


Seligman, H. K., Laraia, B. A., & Kushel, M. B. (2010). Food insecurity is associated with chronic disease among low-income NHANES participants. The Journal of Nutrition, 140, 304-310. doi:10.3945/jn.109.112573


Shah, A. K., Mullainathan, S., & Shafir, E. (2012). Some consequences of having too little. Science, 338, 682-685. doi:10.1126/science.1222426


U.S. Department of Labor. (2016). Unemployed persons by duration of unemployment. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved from: http://www.bls.gov/news.release/empsit.t12.htm.

Filed under: Health and Wellness, Poverty and Socioeconomic Status, Public Policy Tagged: food assistance, food stamps, hunger, public health, public policy, SNAP cuts

Penalizing the Poor and Homeless: Psychology’s Contribution


Image source: Flickr user ccozzaglia [Astrid Idlewild] on Flickr, under Creative Commons

By Maha Khalid (Program Coordinator, Office on Socioeconomic Status)

“Poverty is not an accident. Like slavery and apartheid, it is man-made and can be removed by the actions of human beings.” – Nelson Mandela

Communities across the country respond to poverty and homelessness with a variety of programs: food banks, emergency shelters, transitional housing, and permanent supportive housing. However, despite these programs, there has been an emergence of class-based stigma, stereotyping, and discrimination, which has led to policies that penalize unavoidable aspects of poverty.

Historically marginalized and disenfranchised populations have been disproportionately affected by the lack of affordable, accessible, safe, and stable housing. Such oppressed groups include racial and ethnic minorities, refugees and immigrants, older adults, veterans, persons with disabilities (including mental illness), female-headed households with children, and unaccompanied youth — many of whom are lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender, and/or aging out of foster care systems (Cochran, Stewart, Ginzler, & Cauce, 2002; Lehman & Cordray, 1993; Shinn, 2007; Toro, Dworsky, & Fowler, 2007; U.S. Conference of Mayors, 2008; U.S. Conference of Mayors, 2009; U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 2009).

The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty has noted nationwide trends among states and cities that target the poor. For instance:

  • Individuals living in poverty who may have only committed a minor crime may be unable to keep up with the financial penalties, which can result in violating probation. Ultimately, these unaffordable fees can result in a vicious cycle of poverty and incarceration.
  • Children involved in the welfare system are disproportionately detained in the juvenile justice system, which is psychologically distressing and places youth at increased risk of subsequent delinquent activity.
  • Recent food sharing bans in cities across the United States have imposed fines and even jail time for the crime of disbursing of food to hungry and homeless individuals.

As such, National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week in 2015 (November 14-22) focused on the decriminalization of homeless individuals. Psychological research and practice contains significant contributions to understanding the correlates and consequences of homelessness. Watch Susana A. Lopez, PhD, of the Nathanson Family Resilience Center at UCLA Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, provide an overview of the current research on “Criminalizing Housing Status: Focus on Homeless Youth.” The presentation is available here.

Additionally, the APA Presidential Task Force on Psychology’s Contribution to End Homelessness was tasked with identifying and addressing the psychosocial factors and conditions associated with homelessness, and defining the role of psychologists in decriminalizing and ending homelessness. The report and its recommendations are available at http://www.apa.org/pi/ses/resources/publications/end-homelessness.aspx.

What do you think?  What do we need to do to better address the needs of homeless individuals in our communities?  Add your thoughts in the comment section.


Maha Khalid is the Program Coordinator of the Office on Socioeconomic Status and the Editor of the SES Indicator. She works to facilitate and promote psychology’s contribution to the understanding of SES and the lives and well-being of the poor. She received her bachelors in Psychology from the George Washington University.

Copyright 2015 American Psychological Association

Image source: Flickr user ccozzaglia [Astrid Idlewild] on Flickr, under Creative Commons

Filed under: Human Rights and Social Justice, Poverty and Socioeconomic Status, Public Policy Tagged: discrimination, homeless, homelessness, poverty, public policy

Is the minimum wage a psychological matter? (Spoiler alert: Yes)


By Gabriel Twose (Senior Legislative and Federal Affairs Officer, APA Public Interest Government Relations Office)

Do you think that the field of psychology has anything to say about the minimum wage?  In a recent article in American Psychologist, Laura Smith of Columbia University argues that psychology has much to contribute.  Psychological research contributes to our understanding of poverty by highlighting its developmental and health risks for low-income Americans, and how stereotypes about poverty affect that population.

The Facts about the Minimum Wage
The federal minimum wage in the United States was established in 1938 as part of the Fair Labor Standards Act, aiming to ensure “a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.” It reached its peak buying power in 1968, but has failed to keep up with inflation.  The minimum wage was raised to $7.50 per hour in 1999, which is where it stands today.  This is far from a living wage – it is not enough to lift a full time worker with a child above the poverty line.  Although a number of states tie their minimum wage to the cost of living, the federal government has not instituted such an index.

Psychological harms of poverty
Poverty and economic adversity can be difficult environments.  Substantial psychological evidence has outlined the potential harms that can accrue. For example, low-income children and adults are more likely than those living in more affluent circumstances to be at risk for developmental, emotional, and behavioral disorders and worse academic outcomes, with negative implications for success later in life.

Marginalization and exclusion
Psychological research has also looked at other facets of the debate around the minimum wage. Stereotypes about individuals shape others’ reactions to them and opportunities provided to them. We know that the poor are often stereotyped as lazy and stupid, and both politicians and the general public tend to ignore the structural factors that create and perpetuate their circumstances.  Low-wage workers are often treated worse than other workers; you can probably think of examples in your own life, as you’ve seen how people can speak to fast-food workers, janitorial staff, or manual laborers.  Dr. Smith cites a study in which participants rated applicants for a position in a parent-teacher organization; when the candidate was described as working class, she was rated as cruder, more irresponsible, and less suited for the position.  These kind of biases and stereotypes, often unconscious, can lead to marginalization and social exclusion.  This exclusion can make it more difficult to get a job, and has additional harmful effects; excluded people tend to behave more aggressively, make more high-risk, self-defeating decisions, and score worse on logic and reasoning tasks.

Policy Solutions
Dr. Smith points out that several cities have already begun experimenting with increased minimum wages in order to lift workers out of poverty, including San Francisco, CA, Seattle, WA, and Santa Fe, NM.  Additionally, there are a number of relevant federal bills, several of which have been supported by APA.

  • Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) and Representative Bobby Scott (D-VA) have introduced legislation that would raise the minimum wage to $12 an hour by 2020 ( 1150/H.R. 2150).
  • Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT) and Representative Keith Ellison (D-MN) have called for an increase to $15 an hour ( 1832/H.R. 3164).
  • Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) introduced the Fair Employment Opportunity Act of 2014, which would prohibit employers and employment agencies from discriminating against unemployed job-seekers by refusing to consider them for employment. Although this bill was not passed, it has been incorporated into the recently introduced Jobs! Jobs! Jobs! Act of 2015 (R. 3555).

Get involved!
Psychological research has an important role to play in the conversation around the minimum wage, explaining both the negative effects of poverty and the ways in which we marginalize the poor, deeming them unworthy of our help.  The minimum wage is a natural focus for psychologists’ advocacy, and we encourage you to get involved.  A great way to do this is to sign up for APA’s Federal Action Network, joining 123,000 members and affiliates in raising psychology’s voice as one.

Image source: Flickr user Michael Fleshman on Flickr, under Creative Commons

Copyright 2015 American Psychological Association

Filed under: Poverty and Socioeconomic Status, Public Policy Tagged: advocacy, culture