Socioeconomic Status

Worn shoes illustrating low social status
APA advocates for federal policies and programs that reduce poverty and inequality, addressing the needs of low-income populations.

Socioeconomic Status (SES) and Psychology

Socioeconomic status is the social standing or class of an individual or group. It is often measured as a combination of education, income and occupation. APA advocates for policies that help low-income individuals and groups gain access to needed services in order to support their mental and physical health.

SES policy issues include:





Food Scarcity

Food Insecurity

Minimum Wage

Minimum Wage

The Psychology of Scarcity

How limited resources affect our decisions and behaviors

Many people believe that the United States is the land of opportunity, and that anyone can succeed with hard work and intelligence. Concurrently, we often assume that people are poor because they lack the willpower or intellect to work hard and make the correct decisions. However, research by Anuj K. Shah, Sendhil Mullainathan, Eldar Shafir, and others shows how a scarcity of resources, including financial resources, shapes everyone’s decisions and behaviors. 

Scarcity drains mental resources, narrowing our focus and impacting our choices

We all have limited “mental bandwidth,” which restricts how much we can focus on at any one time. When we don’t have enough of something, such as food or money, this scarcity takes up most of our bandwidth, leaving less brain power for other tasks.

Scarcity increases negative emotions, which affect our decisions

Socioeconomic scarcity is linked to negative emotions like depression and anxiety. These, in turn, can impact thought processes and behaviors. For example, people who are anxious or sad tend to be less patient. They value smaller, short-term rewards at the expense of greater, long-term rewards.

The effects of scarcity may contribute to the cycle of poverty

Chronic deprivation can diminish psychological bandwidth, harming cognitive capacity and decision making. This is particularly problematic for low-income people, who have less margin for error. 

Poverty Harms Mental and Physical Health

Poverty disproportionately affects marginalized groups such as racial and ethnic minorities, sexual and gender minorities, women and older people. For both biological and psychosocial reasons, poverty harms physical and mental health.

People living in poverty:

  • Have lower life expectancies than those with more money.
  • Are at increased risk of heart attacks, strokes, lung cancer, respiratory conditions and high blood pressure. 
  • Are more likely to suffer from mental, emotional and behavioral conditions including depression and substance abuse.

Poverty is particularly harmful to children, as:

  • Poverty-related toxic stress (the unrelieved activation of the body’s stress system) can affect brain development and even gene activation.
  • Children living in poverty score lower on tests of cognitive development, complete fewer years of schooling and are more likely to experience symptoms of anxiety, depression and ADHD.

Public Policies Can Mitigate the Effects of Scarcity and Poverty

Focus on Data and Increased Research

Consistent and comprehensive data and an intentional research agenda are necessary to develop effective solutions that meet the unique needs of low-income people.

Access to Affordable Child Care

APA supports adequate federal appropriations for programs and legislation such as the Child Care and Development Fund; Head Start; and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) that give families access to quality, affordable child care and education.

Minimum Wage

Given that a worker with a child can work full time at the minimum wage and earn an income that is below the federal poverty line, APA supports increasing the earnings of our nation’s lowest wage earners through passage of the Raise the Wage Act.

Services for Homeless Families

APA supports improved services for homeless families that may help break the cycle of homelessness including coordinated policies across federal agencies and across support services; comprehensive assessments of parents and children to better align services to meet needs; increased access to early childhood care, education and parenting resources; and improved data collection. APA supports passage of the Homeless Children and Youth Act.

Support Nutrition Assistance Programs

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) increases food expenditures and decreases food insecurity for low-income households, and is associated with higher high-school graduation rates and better health outcomes in adulthood.

Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) benefits are associated with infant health and growth, and there is persuasive evidence that the National School Lunch Program reduces food insecurity.

Paid Family and Medical Leave

Workers who take unpaid leave to care for a newborn or other family member often experience serious financial strain, sometimes driving them back into the workforce before they or their family are ready. 

APA supports the Family and Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act, which would provide workers up to 12 weeks of partial income (66 percent of monthly wages) when an employee takes time off because of their own or a family member's serious medical condition or following the birth of a new baby (or adoption of a child). This leave would be funded by small payroll contributions from employees and employers and would be administered by an Office of Family and Medical Leave within the Social Security Administration.

Family of low socio-economic status

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Recent APA Advocacy Related to SES

August 2018

APA Comments on Imposition of Work Requirements

On Aug. 21, APA sent a letter (PDF, 116KB) to the Office of Management and Budget, commenting on the federal government’s widespread imposition of work requirements on low-income people who rely on safety net programs. APA noted that work requirements are not likely to increase long-term employment; conversely, they may actually increase poverty levels as low-income people lose benefits. APA highlighted psychological science showing that all individuals have limited mental capacity. When one does not have enough money, food, time, or any other important human need, this scarcity limits one’s ability to pay attention to anything but the most pressing tasks. Unemployed and low-income people are likely to suffer from these effects, making job-seeking harder. Hence, rather than harsh incentives, unemployed beneficiaries seeking jobs need support in addressing barriers to employment — for instance, by providing increased assistance with child care, transportation or job training.

August 2018

APA Supports Homeless Children and Youth Act

On Aug. 21, APA submitted a letter (PDF, 205KB) of support to the Senate and House sponsors of the bipartisan Homeless Children and Youth Act of 2017 (S. 611, H.R. 1511) (HCYA). APA highlighted that families with children comprise a major, and the fastest growing, segment of the homeless population. Homelessness is especially harmful to children, as experiences such as frequent moves, family split-ups, and crowded accommodation negatively affect development. HCYA, which would align the McKinney-Vento Act with definitions used to verify eligibility for other federal assistance programs, is vitally needed.

April 2018

APA Opposes Farm Bill

APA sent an April 13, 2018, letter (PDF, 170KB) to House leadership joining with advocacy partners to argue against the Farm Bill, which would have made harmful cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). If enacted, the Farm Bill would have imposed harsh new work and reporting requirements on millions of SNAP recipients. Those who could comply with these requirements would lose benefits for up to 36 months. Up to two million people would have seen their benefits reduced or eliminated over the next 10 years, likely pushing them further into poverty. APA also sent an action alert to the Federal Action Network and signed several coalition letters. 

Update: APA sent an Aug. 21, 2018, letter (PDF, 192KB) to Senate and House Chairs and Ranking Members of the Committees on Agriculture, prior to the Farm Bill being negotiated in conference committee. APA reiterated opposition to harmful provisions in the House bill, and supported Senate provisions including an increase in pilot funding to test promising approaches to connecting SNAP Employment and Training participants to the workforce.

February 2018

APA Opposes Work Requirements

APA sent a letter (PDF, 414KB) to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, arguing against work requirements for Medicaid beneficiaries. APA responded to the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Service’s recent guidance encouraging states to experiment with work requirements for Medicaid beneficiaries. APA cautioned that this new policy will hurt unemployed people in fundamental ways that counter the government’s obligation to provide a safety net for our most vulnerable citizens, highlighting disproportionate effects on vulnerable communities such as disabled Americans and those with substance use disorders. The letter highlights that unemployed people need support to encourage employment – for example childcare, transportation, or job seeking – not punishment. And finally, APA emphasized that while decent, dignified work brings health benefits, interventions which force people off benefits or into ill-fitting jobs may cause harm.

February 2018

APA Informs Social Security Administration on Improving Outcomes for Youth with Disabilities

The American Psychological Association’s Office on Disability Issues in Psychology and Public Interest Government Relations Office submitted written comments (PDF, 302KB) to the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) request for information on improving adult economic outcomes for youth with disabilities receiving Supplemental Security Income. Despite federal initiatives to improve access to employment among individuals with disabilities, researchers have found that people with disabilities are far less likely to be employed than their counterparts without disabilities. APA’s comments called on the SSA to provide additional technical assistance to service providers and increased interagency collaboration through cooperative agreements and memorandums of understandings.

August 2017

APA Supports the Raise the Wage Act

APA sent an Aug. 4, 2017, letter (PDF, 219KB) to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) thanking him for the introduction of S. 1242, the Raise the Wage Act, which would increase the earnings of our nation’s lowest wage workers, thereby improving the well-being of low-income families.

The letter notes that higher wages help individuals rise out of poverty both by increasing their access to food, healthcare and education, and by removing the cognitive burdens associated with scarcity of resources.

June 2017

Smoking Ban for Public Housing Should Be Paired With Smoking Cessation Programs

APA sent a June 14, 2017, letter (PDF, 150KB) to Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Ben Carson supporting a 2016 HUD policy banning smoking in government-owned public housing. The letter also asked that HUD take steps to ensure that the rule does not adversely impact HUD participants through threatening eviction without providing support with smoking cessation.

June 2017

APA Holds Congressional Briefing on Family Homelessness

On June 6, 2017, APA joined with coalition partners to host a bipartisan, bicameral congressional briefing on family homelessness. The event highlighted new research published in the APA Div. 37 (Society for Child and Family Policy and Practice) book series, Advances in Child and Family Policy and Practice. Speakers shared findings illuminating the urgent need for communities to respond more effectively to growing homelessness among children, families, and unaccompanied youth, and identified The Homeless Children and Youth Act (S. 611/HR. 1511) as a promising legislative solution.
May 2017

Coalition Supports Federal Assistance for Homeless Families

APA joined with coalition partners to support the Homeless Children and Youth Act (S. 611/H.R. 1511), which would make it easier for communities to help homeless children, youth and families. The legislation would give communities the flexibility to use federal funding to meet local needs, and help ensure that those most in need of assistance receive it. It would also align the definition of homelessness used by the Department of Housing and Urban Development with that used by other federal agencies and programs, and encourage better data collection and transparency in order to advance our knowledge of homeless children, youth and families.

March 2017

With Partners, APA Supports Policies That Alleviate Burdens on Low-Income Families

APA joined with coalition partners to sign two letters broadly supporting policies to benefit low-income communities. The first letter (PDF, 641KB) urges the president and members of Congress to protect and assist low-income and vulnerable people and invest in broadly shared economic growth and jobs. The second letter (PDF, 691KB) encourages the president and members of Congress to ensure a strong and effective national nutrition safety net for vulnerable low-income individuals and families.

Also in March, APA signed onto a letter (PDF, 112KB) asking Congress for $6.36 billion for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), in the FY 2018 Agriculture Appropriations bill. APA has long supported WIC, an evidence-based program that has been instrumental in improving at-risk women and children’s health, growth and development for 43 years. This level of funding would: Ensure that no eligible applicants are turned away; maintain current and anticipated WIC participation levels; ensure adequate funding for nutrition education, breastfeeding support, referral services and administration; respond adequately to forecasts of food cost inflation; provide funds to maintain clinic staffing and assure competitive salaries.

December 2016

Psychologists Inform Congressional Staff on the Psychological Effects of Poverty

On Dec. 2, 2016, APA hosted a congressional briefing in conjunction with U.S. Rep Barbara Lee, D-Calif., on "The Psychology of Poverty: How Scarce Resources Affect Our Behaviors and Decisions, and What We Can Do About It." Speakers included Eldar Shafir, PhD, David Yokum, PhD, and Chye-Ching Huang, LLM.

The briefing covered why poverty can be so difficult to escape. We know that structural barriers impede mobility; in addition, research shows that insufficient resources have detrimental psychological effects. With less money, people must plan how to stretch their dollars as far as possible and decide which essential items they cannot afford. Preoccupation with so many difficult decisions can affect thoughts and emotions, which can make it harder to meet the challenges of day-to-day life.

May 2016

APA and Partners Successfully Defend Child Nutrition Programs

APA and coalition partners successfully argued against a harmful 2016 House reauthorization of child nutrition programs. The Improving Child Nutrition and Education Act of 2016 would have, among other things, restricted the Community Eligibility Provision, a program which allows schools with high poverty rates to provide free breakfast and lunch to all students. This legislation would reduce children's access to nutrition programs, increase children's food insecurity, and harm children's nutrition and health, contributing to the very problems that the programs are designed to address. Many APA members actively participated in this effort by responding to an action alert and contacting their representatives.

February 2016

APA Supports Measures to Reduce Lead Poisoning in Response to Crisis in Flint, Michigan

APA joined with more than 80 national organizations to request immediate and long-term relief for residents of Flint, Mich., in a Feb. 19, 2016, letter (PDF, 156KB). The letter to the majority and minority leaders in the U.S. Senate noted that the urgency of this situation requires changes to the city's infrastructure that must happen immediately. In addition, it noted there will be long-term medical, developmental and educational effects of the exposure to lead-contaminated water that must be tracked and treated as the children of Flint grow.

September 2015

Letter to Congress Outlines Need to Roll Back Proposed Cuts for Federal Homelessness Programs

APA and other mental health and social welfare organizations sent a Sept. 10, 2015, letter supporting funding for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration homelessness programs in the federal 2016 fiscal year budget. These programs are vitally important parts of the network of services for the individuals with serious mental illness. APA and allies asked that current funding levels be maintained, particularly the Projects for Assistance in Transition from Homelessness (PATH).

May 2015

APA Calls on Congress to Support Working Parents and Caregivers

APA sent a May 12, 2015, letter (PDF, 146KB) to Sen. Kristen Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., to voice support for the Family and Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act of 2015 and to thank them for their continued efforts to support working families. The FAMILY Act provides up to 12 weeks of partial income for workers who take time off to care for an elderly or seriously ill family member, or following the birth or adoption of a child.

Taking time off from work to care for family members can push lower-income Americans into poverty. Poverty, in turn, is associated with stress, depression and other harm to mental health....The health of our nation begins with the health of our families.”
—Antonio Puente, PhD, 2017 APA President

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APA represents the largest and most visible national presence advocating for psychology at the federal level. There are three APA government relations offices and two APA-affiliated organizations that engage in government relations activities. 

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