More than Economics: Why psychologists should support increasing the minimum wag | Teachers College Columbia University

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More than Economics: Why psychologists should support increasing the minimum wage

The national campaign to increase the minimum wage needs the support of a group with a rich history of protecting citizens and promoting social equity: psychologists.

That was the key message of a widely hailed article in the September issue of American Psychologist  by TC’s Laura Smith, Associate Professor of Psychology and Education in TC’s Department of Counseling & Clinical Psychology.

Smith, who is an authority on poverty as an exclusionary social dynamic that should be considered by therapists, argues that the minimum wage is more than a mere issue of economics. Her article, “Reforming the Minimum Wage: Toward a Psychological Perspective,” notes that the current federal minimum wage of $7.50 – which translates to an annual income of $15,080 for a 40-hour work week – places a worker with one child below the federal poverty line of $16,057. Having more than one child pushes a minimum-wage worker even deeper into poverty.

The harmful health effects of poverty, Smith notes, have been a central concern of social scientists, who have contributed to “a mountain of evidence that supports the damaging impact of poverty upon the psychological, social, and physical well-being of adults, children, and communities.”  She cites numerous studies demonstrating that “poor children have been found to suffer from a long list of physical and psychological disorders at higher rates than do other children, and their levels of success and adjustment in school and beyond are lower.” She cites further studies documenting that poor adults “tend to be sicker and… die earlier than the rest of us.”

Specifically, Smith – the author of Psychology, Poverty, and the End of Social Exclusion: Putting Our Practice to Work (Teachers College Press, 2011) – cites studies that have demonstrated higher levels of depression, antisocial behavior, stress, and feelings of marginalization among poor children and adolescents. Moreover, poor people have more limited access to educational, cultural, health, and other resources, and other studies establish the ways that this social exclusion “seems to constitute a unique source of harm in and of itself,” characterized by a “diminished state of human functioning.”

Too often, Smith argues, psychological and social services focus on remedying the damage done by poverty without addressing any of the causes of poverty itself.  Raising the minimum wage and providing a living wage would in effect accomplish two goals at once for at least some poor families. First, she cites numerous studies suggesting that many of the harmful effects of poverty may be reversible when families are able to earn enough money to raise themselves above the poverty line. “By bringing full-time low-wage workers above the poverty line, it addresses the material deprivation of poverty,” she writes. “Empirical evidence supports us in believing that this would, in turn, begin to address the negative mental and physical health-related sequellae of poverty.”  Second, she notes that this would address the “social pain” that poor families feel as the result of living their lives on the outside looking in. In addition to freeing low-wage earners from the welfare rolls, a fair wage for a full day’s work is expressive of people’s inclusion within mainstream society and its tacit social contract. Thus, low-wage earners could “potentially experience themelves more directly as autonomous, enfranchised members of society and might be more likely to receive that recognition from others.”

Smith’s article has already generated considerable attention, including a feature entitled “It’s Science: Raising the Minimum Wage Would Make America a Happier Place” in The Nation. She says that so far “people seem interested and positive” in their reactions, and that she has been asked to present on the topic at the APA annual meeting next summer.

Smith draws on two historical examples of psychology as a field embracing public policy for social good.  In 1975, the American Psychological Association issued a statement supporting civil rights legislation to protect the rights of gay Americans. In 2002, the APA issued a resolution against racism, citing its harmful effects and calling “upon all psychologists to speak out against racism, and take proactive steps to prevent the occurrence of racists acts, and… promote psychological research on the alleviation of racial/ethnic injustice.”

Smith believes the issue of the living wage could become a similar watershed moment for the field, broadening the way Americans think about poverty (and other issues related to social class) in much the same way that research on the psychological effects of discrimination shaped national dialogue about school segregation during the Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954.

As that trial took place, she notes, “the racial segregation of American schools was not unilaterally assumed to be a fundamentally psychological problem; it was considered to be an issue that fell within the parameters of educational policy and race relations. Yet, when the opportunity presented itself on the national stage, psychology played an important role in shaping a policy outcome that ultimately promoted the psychological well-being and civil rights of people all over the country. Analogously, the movement to reform the poverty-level minimum wage now being paid to low-wage workers may not, at first glance, appear to be a natural issue for psychological advocacy. Once again, however, a psychological perspective holds promise as a key contribution to national dialogue on this issue.”

Smith emphasizes that providing a living wage will not cure all the ill effects of poverty in American society, but believes that by framing it as a public health issue, the field of psychology can influence public policy in a direct way.

“This seems like a really natural place to enter the dialogue,” she says. “Low-wage earners are doing jobs that our nation requires, that we need someone to do, and it seems like a no-brainer that someone who performs a necessary job shouldn’t have to end up in a homeless shelter. A living wage won’t solve the problem of poverty, but it can fix it for a whole lot of hard-working people.” – Ellen Livingston


Published Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2015