How Should Psychologists Engage with the Consequences of Poverty?
According to the World Health Organization website, “approximately 1.2 billion people in the world live in extreme poverty (on less than one dollar per day)” (http://bit.ly/173Mwtu accessed 30 May 2013). According to the World Bank web site “2.4 billion live on less than US $2 a day, the average poverty line in developing countries” and “in some developing countries, we continue to see a wide gap – or in some cases – widening gap between rich and poor, and between those who can and cannot access opportunities” (http://bit.ly/19sd2g2). But is there poverty in Australia?
According to the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) Paper 194 ‘Poverty in Australia’: “in 2010, after taking account of housing costs, an estimated 2,265,000 people or 12.8% of all people, including 575,000 children (17.3% of all children) lived in households below the most austere poverty line widely used in international research. This is set at 50% of the median (middle) disposable income for all Australian households… A less austere but still low poverty line, that is used to define poverty in Britain, Ireland and the European Union, is 60% of median income… When this higher poverty line is used, 3,705,000 people, including 869,000 children were found to be living in poverty. This represented 20.9% of all people and 26.1% of children.” (http://bit.ly/11Il5jW accessed 30 May 2013).
There is an overwhelming consensus amongst psychologists and other social scientists that poverty has deleterious consequences for mental and physical health (Carr and Sloan, 2003) but what can psychologists do to make a positive difference?
One set of answers given recent are to be found in a ‘Global Special Issue’ devoted to Psychology and Poverty Reduction. A Global Special Issue is a series of peer-reviewed psychology journals around the world all engaging with the same theme: poverty reduction, through special sections or entire issues of the journal. The following peer-reviewed journals participated in this initiative: Psychology and Developing Societies; The Journal of Psychology in Africa; The Interamerican Journal of Psychology; Journal of Pacific Rim Psychology; International Journal of Psychology Special Section; Applied Psychology: An International Review; American Psychologist; Journal of Managerial Psychology; Journal of Health Psychology; New Zealand Journal of Psychology; The Australian Psychologist; and Australian Community Psychologist Special Section .” To learn more about the Global Special Issue which was led by Professor Stu Carr of the Poverty Research Group at Massey University Aotearoa / New Zealand) visit: http://bit.ly/11Il7Zb (accessed 4 June 2013).
The Australian Community Psychologist is the specialist journal The Australian Psychological Society College of Community Psychology, a recognised specialist area of practice within psychology in Australia. To find out more about this journal visit: http://bit.ly/19sc4QW (accessed 10th June 2013) and to find out more about the College of Community Psychology visit: http://bit.ly/12nNJsx (accessed 10th June 2013).
A Special Section of the Australian Community Psychologist on Poverty Reduction, Guest Edited by David Fryer and Cathy McCormack, is about to go to press. The call for papers for this Issue envisaged “a special issue devoted to community critical psychology approaches to poverty reduction. Contributions by: people with first-hand experience of poverty; poverty activists; members of organisations committed to poverty reduction; as well as papers by academics and researchers, are invited. Contributions which contribute, from a community critical standpoint, towards the development and implementation of practically effective, politically engaged, ideologically progressive reduction or prevention of poverty or which critique the role of acritical psychology and the psychology industry in poverty construction and maintenance are especially welcome. Authors from anywhere in the world are invited to contribute but especially those writing from communities impoverished and immiserated by colonisation and globalisation. Innovative modes of communication using a variety of forms of text are welcome.”
Certainly this Australian Community Psychologist Special Section delivers on the promise to reflect the perspectives of “people with first-hand experience of poverty “ and “poverty activists” in that it is the result of the collaboration, over a quarter of a century, between community activist, Cathy McCormack, and community psychologist, David Fryer.
Cathy is a community activist who has facilitated tenants’ groups, promoted popular education, deployed the theatre of the oppressed, collaborated in award-winning documentary cinema, accepted international speaking engagements and written powerful accessible prose exposing and contesting socio-structural violence. David is Head of Research and Academic Program Development at the Australian Institute of Psychology, immediate Past President of the European Community Psychology Association (for more details visit: http://bit.ly/11wFgxf) (accessed 10th June 2013), former Co-Editor of the Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology (http://bit.ly/11Aj5Hh – accessed 10th June 2013) and has an international reputation for his community psychology research in relation to unemployment and poverty.
Together, Cathy and David have: collaborated in teaching and running workshops with undergraduates, post-graduate clinical psychology trainees; community groups and academics; co-presented at conferences; spoken at book festivals; co-authored papers; and attempted to raise critical awareness by bridging community activism and community health psychology and using newer communication means like pod casts and community radio. This is the first time they have co-edited a journal special issue together.
The contributions to this special section begin with a paper by Emma Sampson, Heather Gridley and Colleen Turner reflecting on their submission in 2010 on behalf of the Australian Psychological Society (with ‘expert advice from David Fryer) to the Australian Social Inclusion Board’s public consultation onBreaking the Cycle of Disadvantage and their subsequent reflections on this attempt to influence both the Australian Government’s policy and practice agenda as well as and how psychologists think and work in relation to poverty and they appear to have had some success in that their emphasis on location-disadvantage was reflected in the Australian Social Inclusion Board’s eventual recommendation that “the structural advantage caused by the locations in which people live” should be addressed.
The next paper in the Special Section, by Darrin Hodgetts, Kerry Chamberlain, Yardena Tankel and Shiloh Groot, emphasises the importance of advocacy and action research. They describe a project in which they provided food parcels for one year to 100 households in return for members of those households engaging for nine months in researcher-structured fortnightly conversations with social workers. The researchers then used this to facilitate a workshop for judges which took place during an annual professional development event for the judiciary to make available new discursive resources relevant to how “the courts . . . can actually work to improve a person’s situation” to judges who engage with the consequences of poverty on a daily basis. Darrin, Kerry, Yardena and Shiloh also report “supporting direct action events, fostering service developments, presenting public lectures for wealthier community groups, conversing with government bodies . . . conducting workshops with key stakeholder groups, writing policy submissions and engaging with journalists to extend public deliberations about poverty within the mediapolis.”
The third paper in the Special Section is by Carl Walker who focuses attention on the scale of, and inexorable increases in, ‘personal debt’ in the UK, the psychological consequences of personal debt and the “prevailing construction of personal debt” as the “personal problem of a small group of feckless and /or financially illiterate people.” Carl argues that the manufacturing of consumer debt is “deliberate and systematic . . . as a strategic economic and political strategy.” Carl concludes that “if psychologists are serious about mental health and suffering then they have to critically engage with the institutions contingent on the continuation of poverty and debt”.
The fourth paper in the Special Section is by Cathy McCormack who, like Emma, Heather and Colleen reports on an attempt at advocacy and lobbying, in Cathy’s case as a Commissioner to the Church of Scotland Assembly Special Commission on the Purposes of Economic Activity in 2012. Cathy reports that after “two years sitting round a table bearing witness to the vast amount of evidence presented” the 14 Commissioners “were in agreement that the model of the economy that has dominated the UK for most of the last three decades has failed all but the few” but could not agree upon whether “the current devastating effects on our communities” were an “unfortunate side-effect of governmental social and economic policies” or “an inherent part of the economic model that continues to be deployed”. Cathy’s view – developed and confirmed during decades of community, housing and political activism – is that the latter is the case.
The fifth contribution to this Special Section is by Katie Thomas, who reviews her own book, Human Life Matters: the Ecology of Sustainable Human Living vs. the Rule of the Barbarians. Katie’s book uncovers and critiques the “deification of barbarism that has swept the globe alongside phenomena of market reification, globalism and neoliberalism”. Barbarism, according to Katie, is manifested in “the domination of the financially and physically strong over the majority; the insemination of raw, competitive greed into cultural life; and the imposition of dominance and aggression onto most human interactions”.
The fifth contribution to this Special Section is by Darrin Hodgetts who reviews Nandita Dogra’s 2012 “Representations of global poverty”, which explores “the representation politics surrounding poverty and appeals for charitable aid” e.g. through deployment of discourses and implicated images which “do not implicate potential UK-based donors in the causes and extent of poverty in the ‘majority World’”, through which poverty is repositioned as a problem inherent to the society itself rather than the result of exploitation.
Taken collectively, the contributions to this Australian Community Psychologist Special Section make sobering reading. As Emma, Heather and Colleen demonstrate, contributing to Government consultation exercises is important but evidence for its effectiveness is slim. Darrin, Kerry, Yardena and Shiloh emphasise that there are “methodical processes that harm certain vulnerable groups of people ‘as a matter of course’ . . . enacted through technocratic and bureaucracy procedures for ‘managing’ the poor”. Carl emphasises “the deliberate and systematic manufacture of consumer debt as a strategic economic and political strategy.” Katie emphasises the “violence, suffering and deprivations foisted on those who could not or would not compete in the global market”. Cathy most explicitly names poverty as a form of social violence through her notion of the “’war against the poor”. Having read this Special Section we hope it will be hard to resist the conclusion that it is an urgent priority for psychologists to work to better understand poverty and to better deploy that understanding progressively in the interests of, and in collaboration with, those subjected every day to poverty in our communities.
Once it has been published you will be able to access this Australian Community Psychologist Special Section free of charge via http://bit.ly/14xF3PA.