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The Need for Meaningful Policy Change: The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same

Police tape saying "police line do not cross"

Last year, APA celebrated its Congressional Fellowship Program’s 40 years of success on Capitol Hill. The article below by a former APA Congressional Fellow highlights the contribution of psychologists to public policy and of the Fellowship experience to Fellows’ professional development.

Heather E. Bullock, PhD (Professor of Psychology, University of California – Santa Cruz)

As we approach the anniversary of the tragic May 2014 attacks against students at the University of California at Santa Barbara and Santa Barbara City College, I am overcome with the same loss and sorrow that I felt 16 years ago when two seniors at Columbine High School killed 12 of their peers, a teacher, and themselves. After each devastating school-related shooting, we ask ourselves the same questions over and over again.

Should we restrict access to guns? Can we improve school climates? Are we adequately addressing mental health needs? Do video and computer games encourage violence? How do we prevent another gun-related tragedy from occurring?

Back then, I was an APA/AAAS Congressional Fellow (1998-1999) working as a legislative aide for the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (Democratic Office – Senator Edward M. Kennedy). In the intervening years, psychological research has continued to inform our understanding of violence prevention, but partisanship is limiting meaningful action just as when I was on the Hill.

I worked round-the-clock on juvenile justice issues, including legislation to improve access to mental health services, expand afterschool programming, and restrict access to guns. Unfortunately, many of the initiatives we advocated for made little headway. I did, however, learn a great deal about the power of lobbies and the real-world dynamics and consequences of political gridlock.

Like other fellows, I arrived in DC with a strong sense of purpose and absolutely no idea that I would work on such a diverse agenda, or how much I would learn and grow personally, professionally, and politically. My intent was to focus on another seemingly intractable set of policy issues – poverty and welfare. I wanted to see safety net programs strengthened and expanded. I hoped that we could gain traction in overhauling restrictive aspects of newly enacted “welfare reform” (e.g., time limits).

My legislative portfolio included early childhood education, food stamps (now the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program or SNAP), and welfare policy. In 2001, President Clinton signed into law a provision that my office championed that allows states to use a more progressive method for treating and valuing vehicles when assessing whether a household is eligible for food stamps. I remain thrilled by this victory and grateful for the opportunity to work on this important legislation.

For the most part, however, many of the same battles continue, illustrating the old adage that “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” Poverty rates remain unacceptably high; cash assistance reaches too few eligible families; and efforts to raise the minimum wage continue to be stymied, despite the fact that doing so will lift millions of Americans out of poverty. And we grieve a long history and growing number of school shootings, including recent tragedies in Washington and Florida.

The lack of progressive, meaningful action on so many issues reinforces my commitment to the public interest and to developing innovative strategies for advancing and amplifying the impact and reach of psychological research. Although the next 40 years will surely bring this same familiar mix of struggle and progress, it is wonderful to know that APA’s Congressional Fellowship program will continue to provide a crucial bridge between research and advocacy, as well as foster a cadre of psychologists who are in it for the “long haul,” whether inside or outside of the beltway.


Heather Bullock Profile Photo

Heather Bullock, PhD, is Professor and Chair of the Psychology Department at the University of California – Santa Cruz. Her research examines the social psychological causes and consequences of economic injustice, with special attention to poverty among women. She also studies the role of attitudes and beliefs in predicting support for anti-poverty policies, and the impact of framing on policy preferences.

Professor Bullock was a member of the American Psychological Association’s (APA) Task Force on Socioeconomic Status (SES) and served as chair of APA’s Committee on SES. She is currently the editor of Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy.

Visit the APA Congressional Fellowship website for more information.

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