In The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith noted that central aspects of living in poverty include marginalization from public life and suffering the stigma associated with being poor. The same year this capitalist’s bible was published, the Declaration of Independence gave marquee status to the notion that the United States was founded on a certain bedrock principle.
“There’s this idea that our society is premised on the pursuit of happiness,” says Laura Smith, a psychologist at Columbia University’s Teachers College. That premise, she reasons, is tied to the implicit American social contract, “which is that a hard day’s work is going to be the pathway to full enfranchised citizenship. And when full-time contributors to the necessary fabric of society can’t earn enough to lift their families out of poverty, our tacit social contract is compromised.”
Smith is the author of an academic cri de cœur, published in the September 2015 issue of American Psychologist, in which she calls on the psychological profession to take a strong stance in support of raising the minimum wage. While acknowledging that upping the lowest pay rate promises no panacea in the fight against poverty, Smith asks her colleagues to consider the “mountain of evidence that supports the damaging impact of poverty upon the psychological, social and physical well-being of adults, children and communities.”
Psychologists have a long history of putting their fingers on hot-button social-justice issues. Kenneth Clark’s postwar scholarship and testimony about the psychological harms of segregated schools informed the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling, the first opinion to cite psychological research. (Clark would become the American Psychological Association’s president.) A year after the MD-centric American Psychiatric Association dropped homosexuality from its roster of mental disorders in 1974, the other APA, a doctoral group, officially denounced public and private discrimination against gays and lesbians and supported related civil rights legislation.
Now the APA has stepped into the debate over economic inequity. In 2000, the APA called for more research into how poverty impacts health, mental health, and well-being. In recent years, the organization has begun leveraging that research, sending letters to members of Congress supporting minimum-wage legislation and urging members to do the same. A full-time worker making the current federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour pulls in $15,080 per year, which is not quite enough to break the poverty level of $15,930 if they have one child.
“Poverty leads to premature deaths, worsens academic performance, and stigmatizes those who rely on the social safety net,” says Representative Barbara Lee (D-CA), an advocate of raising the federal minimum wage, who is herself a psychiatric social worker. She adds that she hopes her congressional colleagues will see Smith’s paper “as a call to action and will work with me to advance antipoverty legislation so all Americans can live with dignity and economic security.”
Researchers have indeed found that children growing up in poverty are more likely to experience a multitude of physical and psychological ills and to do worse in school than other kids. Impoverished adults tend to have worse health and die earlier than those with higher incomes. (Considering the United States’ high rate of wealth inequality compared with other nations, these poverty-related health disparities may help explain why the country that spends the most on healthcare has one of the shortest life expectancies.)
Correlation is not necessarily causation, however, and poor mental or physical health can certainly result in depressed earning power; the illness could drive the economic disparity. But it’s helpful to look at the problem from the opposite vantage: There is significant research suggesting that alleviating poverty does indeed help narrow some of the mental-health gaps. For example, during the 1990s, researchers examined the effects over time of the construction of a casino on a Cherokee reservation in western North Carolina. As local income levels rose, the rate of psychiatric troubles in children who had been living in poverty steadily dropped until, after four years, the rate was the same as seen in kids in families that had never experienced poverty. Other research has shown that school performance of children rises as their parents are brought out of poverty.
Isaac Prilleltensky, a community psychologist at the University of Miami, points to one likely cause of such rising achievement: “Parents who can afford better nutrition for their children are helping them to learn and function at higher levels in school and society,” he says.
“In poverty,” says Eldar Shafir, a behavioral scientist at Princeton who researches low socioeconomic status’s negative effects on the brain, “the situation conspires against the person in so very many ways. Everyday life management is harder. People working several jobs to make ends meet have less energy to devote to their physical and psychological well-being.”
Eldar and his colleagues recently found that the stress of ruminating over money woes so impairs cognitive function that it is the equivalent of losing 13 IQ points or a full night’s sleep.
Smith’s American Psychologist paper highlights the profound psychological harm caused by societal scorn toward “burger flippers,” as well as by low-wage earners’ overall alienation from democratic and civic life. Pushed to the margins of the society, the poor wind up “looking inside at this beautiful snow globe world” they see on TV, Smith says. “That by itself is ruinous for their well-being.”
One recent study found that socially excluded individuals are more likely to subscribe to the belief that life has no meaning, to refrain from emotional language, and even to avoid mirrors. In other words, social exclusion may lead to a state of “inner numbness.” Another study showed that brain-activity patterns of those experiencing such exclusion were similar to the brain activity that indicates someone is suffering from actual physical pain.
Dave Regan, president of the healthcare-workers union SEIU-UHW, which is spearheading a 2016 California ballot initiative to raise the state minimum wage, says Smith’s paper “confirms and provides concrete evidence for what millions of people know to be true through their own experience.” Giving voice to the perspectives of his rank and file, he says, “Our standard of living is so low that we have to endure the humiliation and the shame, and the kids understanding that they can’t go on the field trip, because everybody’s got to pay $75 to go.”
If all low-wage American workers “just went home,” Smith says, “all of our lives would just screech to a halt. So what does it mean when you require the contribution of somebody, the labor of somebody, but yet you’re not willing to pay them enough to live decently?”
A raise in the minimum wage would do more than just support the material needs of the poorest Americans, Smith argues. The pay raise would send a powerful message that these individuals’ contribution to society is indeed valued. For low-wage earners, getting off public assistance and benefiting from the pride of earning enough to survive from work alone, she further believes, would both ease some of stigma of being poor and allow them to feel like more autonomous, enfranchised members of society. In short, they would reap more of the benefits implied in the social contract.
Correction: A previous version of this article mistakenly stated that the American Psychological Association dropped homosexuality from its list of mental disorders in 1974. It was the American Psychiatric Association that did so.