Join | Login

The Role of Divisions 9 (SPSSI) and 35 (Society for the Psychology of Women, SPW) in the Birth and Development of APA’s Office and Committee of Socioeconomic Status
By Bernice Lott,University of Rhode Island


This unofficial narrative is an attempt to retrieve a piece of history many of us have forgotten or never knew. I take full responsibility for all errors attributable to unintentional lapses in memory. Responses are welcome to make the record more accurate or to add related threads.

The story begins in 1996, when Cheryl Travis, then-president of Division 35 (Society for the Psychology of Women, SPW), initiated a Task Force with Joy Rice and Karen Wyche as co-chairs, on Women, Poverty, and Public Assistance. There were 12 members, and I was one of them. Communicating primarily by e-mail, the TF produced “a position paper summarizing research and policy recommendations for state interpretation and implementation of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA).” Our document was published as a special report on May 16, 1997 by APA, under the sponsorship of what was then the Public Service Directorate. As noted in the Introduction, the goal of the TF was “to provide information on key areas of welfare reform” and to advocate, from a human capital perspective, for investments in the education, training, and productive skills of poor women (APA, 1997). The areas covered in the report included: myths and facts about welfare; education; work and training issues; child care; healthcare; domestic violence; homelessness; and service delivery.

A second, revised, glossy-covered version (Making “Welfare to Work” Really Work) was published a year later (APA, 1998). It was widely distributed, including to members of the U.S. Congress and state offices. This report was written in collaboration with APA’s Women’s Program Office, Urban Initiatives Program, and Public Policy Office.

As a result of the positive responses to the TF’s reports, the Division 35 TF was re-appointed in 1999 by the next SPW president (Melba Vasquez), this time with Heather Bullock and me as co-chairs. This second TF changed its focus and name in acknowledgement of the belief that the problem was NOT welfare, but poverty, and recognized the need to move beyond middle-class assumptions and middle-class issues, and to provide visibility to poor women and to their expressed values and concerns. One objective of this TF was development of a resolution on poverty and socioeconomic status (SES) that was to be brought to APA’s Council of Representatives (COR). To realize this objective, members of the TF worked together with APA’s Committee on Urban Initiatives, directed by Leslie Cameron, who was also the director of the Women’s Program Office. This Committee drafted a formal resolution that included supportive evidence from a wide variety of sources, and made recommendations for research, education and practice (APA, 2000). The Resolution frames “poverty as an outcome of inequities that render certain demographic groups more vulnerable” (O’Connor, 2001). The Resolution on Poverty and Socioeconomic Status was adopted by COR in 2000.

The work of the second TF culminated in a Journal of Social Issues publication (Lott & Bullock, 2001) titled Listening to the Voices of Poor Women. Included were papers on: identification of the poor; attitudes and attributions for poverty; media images; low-income parents and the public schools; welfare mothers’ reflections of personal responsibility; housing; experiences with public assistance; clothing; applied research with underserved communities; partnerships with community agencies; and social policy implications.

The establishment of these two task forces marked a formal recognition by SPW of the relationship between gender, social class, and poverty. For APA, passage of the 2000 Resolution signified acceptance of the importance of social class as a variable in human behavior. We need to honor the ground-breaking work of the members of these task forces, some of whom participated as graduate students: Diane Bowker-Turner, Ann Brodsky, Heather Bullock, Catherine Cozzarelli, Katherine Gamble, Ingrid Johnstonn-Robledo, Bernice Lott, Donna McDonald, Guerda Nicolas, Pamela Reid, Stephanie Riger, Joy Rice, Joan Rollins, Lenore Rubin, Janis Sanchez-Hucles, Renee Saris, Jacqueline Scarbrough, Hazel Spears, and Karen Wyche.

A further development began when I was elected by SPSSI to represent it on APA Council (where I served for 6 years). Shortly after I began on Council in 2002, it decided, after a not-too-lengthy discussion, to sunset the Urban Affairs Committee (author of the 2000 Resolution on Poverty and SES). I found this decision, supported by the Public Interest Directorate (as a cost reduction measure), very disturbing. It seemed to be a clear sign of APA’s low level of interest in social class issues, despite the Resolution it had approved two years earlier. My co-SPSSI representative, Irma Serrano-Garcia, and I then drafted a new business item for COR asking for a permanent committee on SES to be part of the Public Interest Directorate. We presented this to Council at its August 2003 meeting. Such a committee seemed to be a clear follow-up to the earlier Resolution on Poverty and SES that had included recommendations for research, education, advocacy, and public policy. The proposed committee would function as the primary coordinator of SES issues, examine disparities between social classes in access to resources, their impact on human welfare, and propose inequity-reducing strategies. This call for a new permanent committee on social class was met with some positive reactions but a greater number and variety of negative responses or indifference. Some saw little need for another “committee;” some feared diluting APA’s attention to ethnic minorities.

The Board for the Advancement of Psychology in the Public Interest (BAPPI) reviewed the initiative and did not approve it, offering instead a substitute motion that called on its committees to review the extent to which SES issues were addressed in their work. After reviewing the responses, BAPPI formulated a revised substitute motion that requested the establishment of a six-member APA Task Force on SES. The substitute motion was approved by Council in February 2005.

This APA TF was chaired by Susan Saegert and included Nancy Adler, Heather Bullock, Ana Mari Cauce, William Lui, and Karen Wyche as members. Its final report and recommendations (APA, 2006) were approved during a fateful COR meeting in New Orleans in August 2006, a year after the Katrina tragedy. It was no accident that the events of Katrina influenced the decision and prompted some impassioned vocal support from those who saw the clear relationship between social class, poverty, and the suffering of so many in the aftermath of Katrina. At the same time, at this meeting in New Orleans, a high-ranking member of APA governance urged opposition, commenting that social class was a subject in (and for) sociology, not psychology! But the Committee was approved (CSES), as well as a new APA Office on Socioeconomic Status (OSES) to be housed in the Public Interest Directorate. The first CSES meeting was held in 2007;  Heather Bullock was the first chairperson and served in this capacity for three years.

A third chapter in this history of leadership by SPW and SPSSI began in 2006 when the two division presidents (Joan Chrisler and Irene Frieze, respectively) asked Heather Bullock and me to chair a task force that would study the question of how courses in psychology could incorporate issues of social class. Out of this work came a report on Resources for the Inclusion of Social Class in Psychology Curricula (APA, 2008) that is now online as a living document maintained by OSES. Members of this group, faculty and graduate students, included Martha Bergen, Hal Bertilson, Crystal Blount, Lina Chhun, Larry Gainor, Keri Gregory, Katharine Hahn, Mary Hill, Jessica Johnson, Julie Philllips, Faye Remers, Harmony Repond, Christine Smith, and Shirley Truong. The extensive and detailed list of resources covers classroom exercises, course syllabi, fiction, legislation on relevant social policy, popular media, scholarly books and articles, and websites.

Both SPW and SPSSI should be proud of the indispensable role they have played in raising the consciousness of APA about the significance of social class in understanding human behavior and in recognizing the vital place of class issues in our education, theory, research, and practice (see also Bullock, Lott, & Truong, 2011). As birth parents of APA’s OSES and CSES, both divisions should continue to observe their achievements and look for opportunities to work together to further critical class scholarship, applications and progressive social policy.


Thanks to Alex Rutherford and Heather Bullock for their gracious assistance in filling in blanks and providing great suggestions.


APA, Division 35 Task Force on Women, Poverty, and Public Assistance (1997, May 16). Implementing welfare policy to insure long-term independence and well-being. Washington, DC.
APA, Division 35 Task Force on Women, Poverty, and Public Assistance (1998). Making “welfare to work” really work. Washington, DC.
APA (2000). Resolution on Poverty and Socioeconomic Status. 
APA (2006). Report of the APA Task Force on Socioconomic Status.
APA (2008). Report of the Task Force on Resources for the Inclusion of Social Class in Psychology Curricula.
Bullock, H.E., Lott, B., & Truong, S. V. (2011)  SPSSI and poverty: Reflections at seventy five. Journal of Social Issues, 64, 148-162.
Lott, B.& Bullock, E. (2001). (Eds.)  Listening to the voices of poor women. Journal of Social Issues, 2.
O’Connor, E.M. (2001). Psychology responds to poverty. Monitor on Psychology, 32, p. 81.


OSES publishes an online newsletter The SES Indicator that is available at Those interested in SES issues can join the network by emailing

—Bernice Lott

<<   Contents   >>