Praxis Blog

Using ACT To Evolve Society and Reduce Poverty

acceptance and commitment therapy blog title

The following is an excerpt from The Nurture Effect: How the Science of Human Behavior Can Improve Our World by Anthony Biglan

When we hear about the misfortunes of others, it is a natural, psychologically protective mechanism to think of reasons why similar misfortunes couldn’t happen to us. 

Consider a study done in 2007, before the 2009 recession (Himmelstein et al. 2009). It found that medical problems led to 62 percent of bankruptcies. Among people filing for medically caused bankruptcies, 75 percent had health insurance, and most were well educated and owned homes. This study indicates that even if you are middle-class, should you suffer a heart attack or stroke, between the cost of medical care and an inability to work, you could quickly lose your life savings and your home.

What would it be like to be poor? 

The official poverty level for a family of four is $23,050. Perhaps you earn more than that, or you’re a student with good prospects for making more than that in the near future. Imagine living for just one month on a little less than $2,000. If you lived alone you could probably afford an apartment and enough to eat. But what if you were supporting three others? 

The federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. If you worked full-time at that wage, you would earn about $14,500 a year: not enough to afford an apartment almost anywhere in the country.

The Damage Done by Poverty

Psychologist Lisa Goodman and her colleagues at Boston University (2013) summarized the consequences of poverty that make it so stressful. 

There are the challenges of securing food and housing. Imagine that you haven’t yet figured out where you’re going to sleep tonight. 

Poverty is also stigmatizing. If you were poor, there is a good chance that people would apply negative labels to you, such as

  • Unmotivated
  • Uneducated
  • Unpleasant
  • Dirty
  • Angry
  • Stupid
  • Criminal
  • Violent
  • Immoral
  • Alcoholic
  • Abusive

As you might imagine, people who have thoughts like this about you wouldn’t be very warm or respectful. As a result, you would have many stressful interactions. You would also have very little power. If you felt that a merchant, professional, or bureaucrat had treated you unfairly, how likely is it that you could prevail in a dispute?

Poverty’s Effect on Children

Poverty is especially harmful to children, affecting most aspects of their development and making them generally less healthy (McLoyd 1998). They may have lower birth weights, potentially resulting in a variety of conditions affecting cognitive development. 

Poverty is most harmful to young children. They develop fewer cognitive and verbal skills than other children and are more likely to fail in school. Poor parents don’t read to their children as much or teach them as many of the rudimentary facts they need in order to be ready for school—for example, colors, shapes, and the names for common objects. These differences arise partly because poorer families have fewer toys and books, and partly because many poor parents simply have less time to interact with their children due to working two jobs or being a single parent. 

Poverty undermines children’s development because it hampers effective parenting (McLoyd 1998). Poor adults have many more stressful life experiences, such as layoffs, evictions, forced moves, conflicts with neighbors, and hostile and discriminatory behavior from others. As a result, they experience more anxiety and depression. Poorer parents are also more likely to be sick, not only because of poorer health habits and inadequate health care, but also because poverty is a physical stressor. 

Poverty is, of course, not just a problem for children. A Gallup study of 288,000 adults found that those who were poor had significantly higher rates of depression (30.9 percent versus 15.8 percent), as well as higher rates of asthma, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart attacks (A. Brown 2012).

Poverty simply isn’t good for the economy. People with minimal income cannot fully participate in the economy because they don’t have sufficient resources to buy the goods and services they need to be fully productive (Whiting 2004). If even half of the families living in poverty were better off, how many more customers would American business have?

It isn’t difficult to see that poverty is extremely damaging—not just for the poor, but also for our society. 

How Can We Help Eliminate Poverty?

If you think the situation is hopeless, you may find the acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) perspective helpful. After all, why do we feel distressed about these facts and want to turn away from them? It is because facing them puts us in contact with others’ distress and the threat that we too could experience these terrible life outcomes. 

ACT encourages us to accept these feelings and see that they will not harm us. Indeed, these feelings reflect our empathy for others. If we take action to try to change this situation, that is an example of living and affirming our values, regardless of how much progress we make.

So for anyone who wishes to take action against poverty and economic inequality, you can start by taking the following steps:

  1. Accept difficult feelings about the situation, rather than struggling with them.
  2. Identify concrete actions we can take to move our society in directions we value.

For Policy Makers:

  • Request that the Institute of Medicine or the Surgeon General create a report that articulates the epidemiological evidence on the harm of poverty, and that identifies policies that increase or decrease poverty and economic inequality. 
  • Enact laws that require economic policies to be evaluated in terms of their impact on poverty and inequality. 

For Citizens:

  • Campaign for political leaders who will support policies that reduce poverty and economic inequality. It isn’t enough to vote for such leaders; we need to work to get them elected in order to create the society we want.
  • Join (or create) and generously support organizations aimed at working in favor of policies needed to reduce poverty and inequality.

Join us to Articulate and Work to Advance the Values We Want to See in Our Communities and Nations!