- by Stacey Prince
I am on a plane headed to the annual convention of the American Psychological Association, dubbed by fellow psychologist Laura Brown (who is also on my flight) “summer camp for psychologists”. A gathering of over 10,000 psychologists with diverse interests and careers from around the world, the event is usually stimulating and exciting, a shot in the arm to keep doing clinical work and advocacy, a chance to hear new viewpoints, learn new interventions, and socialize with friends and colleagues. This year the convention is being held in Washington, DC, which normally would also cause great excitement for me; I love the city’s history, museums, monuments, and buzzing sense of political life going on all around. But right now, like many Americans, I feel a huge sense of conflict, disappointment, and wariness about the workings of our government. The debt ceiling has just (literally, in the last 24 hours) been lifted, but the sigh of relief that accompanies this is small, offset by worries about the still impending possible cuts to basic lifelines such as supplemental Social Security income and Medicare, as well as by witnessing the bitter, polarized partisan debate that led to this unsatisfactory and temporary resolution to the budget crisis. Going to APA in Washington, DC brings together in one place, in one weekend, three things I am passionate about and deeply committed to: psychology, social justice, and political activism. Yet this year, instead of excitement, I feel wary, weary, angry and, to bring a psychological term to bear, some learned helplessness about our country, where we’ve been and where we are going. Here are some of the pieces that go into that unsettling mix.
1) The gap between the super rich and the poor and middle class is more extreme than it’s been in almost a century. The richest 1% of Americans earn nearly 25% of the country’s income and control a whopping 40% of its wealth. Meanwhile, with unemployment at 9% for the population overall the partisan budget debate has threatened to cut some of the most basic safety net programs that help keep the nation’s most vulnerable, including the poor, the elderly, people with disabilities and the unemployed, afloat. Although some of those programs were spared during this go-around, the threat of draconian cuts still looms ahead during the November “super committee” negotiations. Was this just a postponement of the inevitable?
2) The resource gap is even more pronounced for people of color, and cuts that have taken place and may take place in the future also disproportionately impact people of color. In contrast to the national unemployment rate of 9 percent, joblessness for Black Americans stands at over 16 percent. Earlier this week, a New York Times article reported that in 2009, the median wealth of whites was 20 times that of black households and 18 times that of Hispanic households, differences that represents the largest racial wealth disparities in the 25 years that the Census bureau has been collecting the data.”
3) Once an individual becomes unemployed, it is more difficult than ever to get rehired. For example, this article describes an investigation into systematic discrimination against unemployed job seekers that was called for by members of Congress and conducted by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The message “the unemployed need not apply” is at times explicitly stated on job announcements, and even when it’s not, many job seekers report verbal rejection after a recruiter or employer earns they are currently unemployed.
4) Employment barriers for people of color who are jobless are even higher. Black and Latino workers are typically the first fired in an economic downturn. White high school dropouts are twice as likely to find work as similarly uneducated black men, and even college-educated black Americans are far more likely to be unemployed than their white peers. Also, since African-Americans, older workers (especially women), and disabled workers have higher rates of unemployment during this downturn, discriminating against unemployed people likely hits these groups particularly hard. So much so, in fact, that the same EEOC panel that is investigating discrimination against the unemployed has also been tasked with investigating whether this discrimination is illegal because it disproportionately targets people of color and other groups that are specifically protected by antidiscrimination laws.
5) A report by UBS economist Paul Donovan indicates that there is a strong correlation between social inclusion, healthy competitiveness and economic development. On the flip side, his report also indicates that a prejudicial society is more likely to have difficulty recovering from economic hardship than one that is non-discriminatory and equally empowering to all of its citizens. He argued that "A prejudicial society is likely to deny its labor, its workforce, the potential to develop – access to education, access to jobs" and that “prejudice, in whatever form – including racism, sexism, homophobia, religious intolerance – irrationally destroys the value of human capital." What would happen, he asks, if someone whose mind holds the answer to one of the biggest problems facing the human race, such as climate change, energy efficiency or food productivity, was denied the ability to develop due to his or her ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation? This is just one example of the many, many ways in which prejudice hinders the enhancement of human capital. Of course there are daily, less dramatic examples in the lives of people who are denied equal access to education, wealth accruement, housing, employment, and other resources required to survive and thrive.
6) That distinction between surviving and thriving is an important one. What we are talking about here is not just the inability to achieve a comfortable, middle class existence, but about people in disenfranchised groups dying, whether by ill health or suicide, at disproportionately higher rates, and as a result of poverty and joblessness. Here are two powerful articles, the first on the relationship between poverty and other social conditions and US health related deaths, and the second linking poverty to suicides. The first study found that poverty, low levels of education, poor social support, health insurance status, experiencing racism and discrimination, and other social factors account for about as many deaths in the US as heart attacks, strokes, and lung cancer combined. The investigators provide estimated number of annual deaths attributable to each social cause, but note that these numbers were likely an underestimation as they did not account for the compounding effects of numerous factors (low education plus racism plus low social support, for example). The second study indicates that suicide rates increase during times of economic hardship, with several likely mediating variables including unemployment, personal financial stress, and previous suicide risk. This relationship is true not just in the US, but also has been observed in other countries including Greece, England and Japan, as well as in Europe, but I do not know whether the underlying racial disparities that contribute to unemployment and suicide risk are similar in those countries.
7) Despite all of the evidence regarding systemic oppression at every level including education, employment, healthcare, wealth accrual, the criminal justice system, etc. etc., the myth of meritocracy is still being touted by some. For example, Oklahoma state representative Sally Kern recently stated that “it's character that ought to count, not whether you're white or black... it should be your willingness to say, 'I'm going to become everything I can become’.” Kern was blithely promoting the myth of meritocracy, or its flip side, the “culture of poverty”. This argument, often used by conservative politicians to justify cuts to social program spending such as food stamps, maintains that poverty in communities of color is due not to systemic oppression or economic factors, but to a deeply rooted intrapersonal flaw that holds them back. They are simply not working hard enough, the myth goes, and/or are too dependent on governmental assistance to be motivated to succeed. This article soundly debunks the myth, yet it prevails in both media and government discussions, including in the recent pernicious budget debate.
8) Meanwhile, as the poor (and in particular poor people of color) continue to get poorer, the rich keep getting richer. Top executive salaries soared in the last two years (article), a 23% gain since 2009, while the average American’s wages went up just 0.5 percent from 2010 to 2011 (which, after correcting for inflation, means that average American is actually earning less than the previous year). Just to make this picture a little bigger (and worse), this article indicates that, unlike previous times in history, at this juncture economic recovery is not adding up to job growth. So, while CEO’s and some companies are starting to show signs of recovery, job growth- and hence financial health for the majority of Americans - is not following suit.
What is one to do with all of this depressing news? In particular, as a psychologist, I am wondering what I can do about it? Perhaps you are wondering the same thing. I have just a few ideas, and they feel small in the face of the overwhelming difficulties our country is facing. When working with clients, it is crucial for us to try to assist them in making accurate attributions about experiences they may be having. People who are unemployed struggle with feelings of worthlessness, inadequacy, difficulty fulfilling roles (as father, mother, provider) as well as the stress associated with financial hardship. Help broaden their lens of analysis to look at the bigger picture, including how ethnicity and other social group memberships play into disparities in education, employment, and wealth accrual. Whether working with people of color or white individuals, articles on slow job growth, unemployment rates, and discrimination against the jobless can be helpful. This is not to make clients feel hopeless; quite the contrary, this broader ecological perspective can help them feel hopeful that this situation they find themselves in is not their fault. If we simply tell people to try harder, we are promoting the myth of meritocracy ourselves. Give at least some of your time to pro bono or low fee services. Join a group or listserv to stay informed (the Psychologists for Social Responsibility Poverty and Inequality Project is one such group). If you are an educator, help find ways your department can make higher education more accessible and affordable to more students; also help your students become aware and involved in community issues such as poverty, homelessness and oppression. If you have other ideas, I welcome your comments here, and if I am inspired by other ideas as I attend the APA convention in our nation’s capitol this weekend, I too will post them.