Views of the poor and explanations for poverty among professional psychology trainees

Samantha H. Rukert (2006)

Poverty in the United States has detrimental effects on mental health and well-being. In recent years, there have been repeated calls for the field of psychology to raise awareness of poverty and class diversity in research, practice, and training. This study integrated the dominant American discourse about poverty with attribution and stereotype theories to explore how doctoral-level professional psychology trainees understand poverty and the poor. Phenomenological interviews were used to examine how trainees view the poor and explain poverty, how their training has addressed issues of social class and poverty, and how these views and explanations might influence psychological practice. Results yielded valuable insight into trainees' (a) definitions of poverty, (b) views about popular images and stereotypes of the poor, (c) explanations for what causes and maintains poverty, (d) academic and field training about poverty and social class, and (e) stated and suggested barriers to working with the poor. A number of salient findings emerged. First, poverty was described as a dynamic human struggle to attain basic needs, rather than just the static condition of being without money. Second, trainees had divergent views about the nature and implications of class-based myths and stereotypes such as "White trash" and "welfare mother." Third, students preferred structural and cultural explanations of poverty over individualistic explanations and a belief in the American dream. Fourth, trainees indicated that poverty and social class were rarely addressed specifically and directly in their academic coursework; rather, these issues were covered informally in field training. Finally, a number of logistical and attitudinal barriers to working with the poor were suggested; these include financial constraints and the belief that therapy with the poor is more challenging and less effective than with the non-poor. These findings have significant implications for professional psychology, particularly for clinical practice and professional training programs. For example, inadequate training about cultural competence with the poor, combined with beliefs in a distinct culture of poverty, might contribute to an under-appreciation of the diversity among the poor and a one-size-fits-all approach to treatment.