World Social Justice Day 2023: Make A Difference

Rosie Phillips Davis 

Rosie Phillips Davis (formerly Bingham), PhD, ABPP, is Professor of Counseling, Educational Psychology and Research at the University of Memphis, where she has worked for more than 30 years. She has served in many leadership roles, including President of the American Psychological Association (2019), President of the International Association of Counseling Center Service (date) and more. Davis’s scholarship has focused on the power of inclusion, multicultural vocational psychology, ethics and living well in a diverse society. 

I am not sure how we can have World social justice when so many people live in poverty. About 9% of the world’s eight billion people live in extreme poverty. That amounts to less than $1.90 per day (or the equivalent in local purchasing power).  In high income countries like the United States and Australia the poverty line is set at living on less than $30.00 a day.  Such a stark contrast that causes me to wonder about what a socially just world would look like.

Living in a socially just world would mean that the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges would enable all people to have access to clean water, a healthy diet, good health care, affordable housing, decent work, education, transportation, and caring relationships.  A socially just world implies choices and freedoms such as freedom of religion without fear of persecution or reprisals. A completely socially just world is certainly out of reach in my lifetime, but I hope that psychologists will use science, education, practice, and advocacy to influence the behavior, hearts, and minds of people to move in a more socially just direction.  Poverty has far too many long-lasting devastating effects.

Seventy-five percent of the people living in poverty are women and children. In the United State the largest percent of those individuals living in poverty are consistently Native Americans, African Americans, and Hispanic (terms used by the U. S. Census Bureau). Over 20 % of LBGTQ+ individuals live in poverty and 25% of persons living with a disability live in poverty. The intersection of individuals marginalized by race/ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and disability status predicts the major portion of those in poverty. It is not accidental that those living in such poverty live at this intersection.  It is therefore predictable that poor communities and the schools in them are more likely than not to fit those same characteristics. It is no wonder that the schools in such communities are often found to be under-performing.

For a few years poverty numbers were moving in the right direction.  For example, in the United States the overall poverty rate dipped from 15.6% in 2010 to 13.4% in 2019.  Then the Covid 19 pandemic hit. As might be expected, lower income and poor neighborhoods were hardest hit. The children in those neighborhoods have suffered greatly.  We saw the shuttering of schools, churches, extra-curricular and group activities. So now what were poor vulnerable children to do?  Gangs did not shutter.  In Memphis where I live—just like in dozens of other cities, violent crime decreased, but car thefts, robberies and assaults increased.  According to the Memphis Chief of Police many of the crimes are being committed by children from 12-17. Many of those young people are affiliated with gangs. School attendance by such youth has been on the decline. Gangs have a direct link to those children who are predominantly housed in very poor neighborhoods.  Many of them are inheritors of intergenerational poverty.

By third grade when children are about 8 years old, some estimate that more impoverished children have reading scores 26 points below those of their wealthier counterparts.  According to Dr. Eric Jensen, author of Teaching with Poverty in Mind, to grow up healthy and secure, children need a strong, reliable primary caregiver who provides consistent and unconditional love, guidance, and support; safe, predictable, stable environments; ten to twenty hours each week of harmonious, reciprocal interactions and enrichment through personalized increasingly complex activities. Children need such experiences before they are 3 years old.  That rarely happens in such poor neighborhoods at any point in the children’s lives.  Many households are headed by women who work long hours in low paying jobs because they too are inheritors of intergenerational poverty. Such situations beg the question of a socially just world.

But what can psychologists do?  During my term as President of the American Psychological Association the organization had a laser focus on poverty.  We had programs and talks in numerous locations in the United States and around the world focusing on poverty in each local community.  People from nonprofit and even members of the U.S. Congress were interested in designing programs or strategic plans to end poverty. APA had an active website ( to actions psychologists could take to enhance their skills, knowledge, and interventions around poverty.  Unfortunately, the website at APA while still searchable is no longer up to date.   Nonetheless, psychologists may still want to challenge themselves to consider what they can do to contribute to poverty reduction and what actions can they take to move us toward a more socially just world.

Here are a few suggestions:  1) begin to understand poverty in your area and find out what the needs are.  Then volunteer to use your skills where they fit.  2) If you are a teacher, develop and teach a course that includes large segments on poverty.  Assign students an advocacy or consultation project to aid a poverty-focused organization or program.  Students on college campuses are likely to be surprised at the number of fellow homeless and food insecure students.  3) Advocate for safety net programs.  During the pandemic in the United States when aid was increased to families, 50% of poor children were lifted out of poverty.  When the aid ended most fell right back into poverty.   4) Advocate for behavioral changes in the people and systems that keep poverty in place.  For example, use research to demonstrate the effectiveness of taking a neighborhood approach to change.  5) Encourage APA, BPS ( other organizations to keep their webpages on poverty current.  6). Finally do whatever you can no matter how small to help.  Give an hour.  Give a dollar.  Look in the eyes of that unhoused person on the street who is asking you for help. Show them that you care.  And then…care.

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