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For Richer or Poorer: What Works to Reduce Poverty in America?


By Annie Davis (Public Interest Policy Scholar, APA)

How can we improve the economic wellbeing of American families? This was one of the issues that dominated the 2016 election cycle, with each candidate proposing a different way forward. Across party lines, we can all agree that poverty is harmful for our society. Research from psychology links poverty to negative physical and mental health outcomes – particularly for vulnerable groups like children and older adults.[1]

So what do we know about programs that effectively alleviate poverty? Most of our poverty data comes from the U.S. census, but this excludes many benefits shown to boost economic mobility.[2]

The Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM),[3] on the other hand, sheds more light.

The SPM provides a comprehensive picture of poverty in the U.S. by measuring household income, factoring in cash and non-cash benefits, and subtracting necessary expenses. This measure can be used to calculate the impact of individual safety net programs.

  1. The Earned Income Tax Credit enables low- and moderate-income working individuals (primarily parents) to offset the impact of paying taxes, incentivize workforce participation, and provide income for necessary expenses. It raised 9.2 million people above the poverty line in 2015.

  2. Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is monthly nutrition assistance for eligible low-income households to buy the food they need to be healthy. It raised 4.6 million people above the poverty line in 2015.

  3. The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) provides support for low-income, nutritionally at-risk pregnant and postpartum women and young children (up to age 5), including food assistance, nutrition information, and referrals to medical and social services. It raised over 370,000 people above the poverty line in 2015.[4]

The huge impact of these programs adds to the massive reach of Social Security (26.6 million people raised above the poverty line).[5] These findings about the societal benefits of the safety net are consistent with data showing a 40% reduction in poverty since the beginning of the War on Poverty (and the creation of federal safety-net programs) in 1967.[6] The SPM unequivocally shows federal safety net programs work to protect low-income people from the harms of poverty, particularly those in marginalized groups.

The value of these programs is clear, not only in alleviating poverty but also in preventing the downstream effects of poverty on physical and mental health. However, these kinds of programs are constantly under threat in the current political climate. If they were to be further cut, as has been proposed, this would plunge more Americans into poverty, and the physical and psychological harms that ensue.

These include negative impacts on:

  1. mental health,

  2. family functioning,

  3. cognitive functioning,

  4. trauma/chronic stress, and

  5. academic and professional success.[7]

APA will continue to advocate for programs that alleviate the burden of poverty. For example, APA has supported SNAP, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and the Child Tax Credit, programs that lessen families’ financial strain and food insecurity, thereby reducing toxic stress and improving mental health.

Moreover, APA has recently supported legislation like the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act (S. 786/H.R. 1439), which would guarantee paid leave following the birth of a child or during a serious health condition, with positive impacts on child development, maternal mental health, and family relations.

Help APA stand up for vulnerable Americans! Sign up for our Federal Action Network to contact your representatives about these issues.


[1] Evans, G.W. (2004). The environment of childhood poverty. American Psychologist, 59, 77–92. doi: 10.1037/0003-066x.59.2.77

[2] Bitler. M., & Hoynes, H. (2013). The more things change, the more they stay the same? The safety net and poverty in the Great Recession (NBER Working Paper No. 19449). Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research. Retrieved from

[3] Renwick, T., & Fox, L. (2016). The Supplemental Poverty Measure: 2015 [U.S. Census Bureau, P60-258(RV)]. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

[4] Renwick & Fox, 2016

[5] Renwick & Fox, 2016

[6] Wimer, C., Fox, L., Garfinkel, I., Kaushal., N., & Waldfogel, J. (2013). Trends in poverty with an anchored Supplemental Poverty Measure (Working paper 13-01). New York, NY: Columbia Population Research Center (CPRC). Retrieved from

[7] Evans, G.W. (2004). The environment of childhood poverty. American Psychologist, 59, 77–92. doi: 10.1037/0003-066x.59.2.77

Flouri, E., Midouhas, E., & Joshi, H. (2014). Family poverty and trajectories of children’s emotional and behavioural problems: The moderating roles of self-regulation and verbal cognitive ability. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology42(6), 1043-1056.

Hudson, C.G. (2005). Socioeconomic status and mental illness: Tests of the social causation and selection hypotheses. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry75(1), 3.

Manseau, M. (2014). Economic inequality and poverty as social determinants of mental health. Psychiatric Annals, 44(1), 32-38. doi:

Santiago, C.D., Wadsworth, M.E., & Stump, J. (2011). Socioeconomic status, neighborhood disadvantage, and poverty-related stress: Prospective effects on psychological syndromes among diverse low-income families. Journal of Economic Psychology32(2), 218-230.

Shonkoff, J.P. (2010). Building a new biodevelopmental framework to guide the future of early childhood policy. Child Development81(1), 357-367.

Yoshikawa, H., Aber, J.L., & Beardslee, W.R. (2012). The effects of poverty on the mental, emotional, and behavioral health of children and youth: Implications for prevention. American Psychologist67(4), 272-284.


Annie Davis is a Public Interest Policy Scholar at the American Psychological Association and a fourth year Ph.D. student in Clinical Psychology at The Catholic University of America. Her clinical and research interests center on mental health interventions for young children living in poverty.

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