In the Public Interest

This month marks the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty. It presents an opportunity to commemorate this historical marker, to reflect on psychology's contributions, and to further envision how APA's mission to advance the creation, communication, and application of psychological knowledge to benefit society and improve people's lives can be transformative for America's low-income populations. It is impossible to reflect on the meaning of this anniversary without acknowledging the immense challenges and structural obstacles facing the most vulnerable, disadvantaged and disenfranchised in our society — America's poor — and recommit ourselves to helping eradicate poverty and its negative consequences.

Several crucial anti-poverty programs took root in the War on Poverty, including Medicare and Medicaid, Head Start, low-income housing programs and community action programs. The War on Poverty also led to the creation of nutrition programs such as the School Breakfast Program, food stamps (now known as "SNAP") and the National School Lunch Act. These programs are a lifeline to thousands of people, including children who are better able to learn when not hungry.

Today, even though the United States is the wealthiest country in the world, too many Americans continue to experience the hardship, hunger and deprivation that go hand-in-hand with poverty. In fact, 15 percent of Americans lived below the poverty line in 2012 ($19,000 for a family of three), including 22 percent of all children. It is important to note the changing face of poverty, which is now working poor families, with at least one employed person in the household, with a total income that falls below the federal poverty line.

Psychological research has documented the detrimental effects of poverty on physical health and psychological well-being. Access to secure housing, nutrition, health care and financial security buffer against many of the health disparities that affect low-income communities. The protections provided by the War on Poverty programs has mitigated the effects of poverty and, without them, our poverty rate would be even higher. For example, according to 2012 Census Bureau data, the poverty rate would have been twice as high if not for such programs as Social Security, SNAP, unemployment insurance and low-income tax credits.

These programs provide a safety net to millions of Americans during periods of high unemployment and difficult financial circumstances. Unfortunately, many of these programs are under attack and/or have suffered large cuts. In recent years, many policy decisions to scale back these programs more often have stemmed from politics and negative stereotypes about the poor, rather than evidence of their effectiveness or lack of it.

This examination of poverty also begs us to look more closely at income inequality, which has grown exponentially since the 1970s and negatively impacts all of us. The richest Americans continue to gain wealth, even after the Great Recession and the sluggish economic recovery. In 2012, the top 1 percent of earners pocketed more than one-fifth of the income earned by all Americans. Negative social outcomes linked to high income inequality include limited social mobility and increased rates of mental illness, poor child well-being, infant mortality, violence and teen pregnancy.

As we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, I encourage every psychologist to reflect on how you can contribute to understanding and mitigating the impact of poverty. Whether through your research, your teaching and training, the programs you lead or the services you provide, the educational achievement, health and well-being of the nation's citizens stands to gain from psychology's efforts. In 2014, please plan to take part in opportunities created by APA's Public Interest Directorate for members, colleagues and organizations to share, showcase and strategize around psychology's unique contributions to addressing poverty and inequality. Let us all accept a role in examining these issues, use the privilege of our education and deploy the research from our field to lift up all Americans.

Be a part of the conversation about psychology's contributions to ending poverty! Use and follow the hashtag — #PovertyPsych.