• poor people;
  • working-class people;
  • owning-class people;
  • social exclusion;
  • poverty;
  • mixed income housing;
  • rent subsidies;
  • workplace safety laws

Social scientists have long observed that people who occupy the lower levels of the economic ladder are largely excluded from the social realities of people at higher rungs. According to Harvard sociologist Lee Rainwater, a predominant way of seeing the poor is not to see them as part of society at all: “The central existential fact of life for the lower class… is that their members are not included in the collectivity that makes up the ‘real’ society of the ‘real’ people.”1 Yet, commonplace conceptions of poverty often lack this relational dimension—rather, poverty is most frequently understood and discussed exclusively in terms of income and purchasing power (or lack thereof).

Certainly, the inability to purchase basic necessities is a critical aspect of life in poverty and is the source of psychological and physical suffering for poor families. A social exclusion perspective, however, provides additional context for practitioners wishing to address poverty-related deprivations and the well-being of families withstanding them. In this context, poverty, as the bottommost rung in the social class hierarchy, is more broadly conceptualized as the class position with the least socioeconomic power and that therefore faces the most socioeconomic oppression. Correspondingly, more powerful social classes are understood not only to have higher incomes and to own more wealth and property, they also command greater shares of other desirable social assets as well. These “reward packages” of socially valued goods, as sociologists David Grusky and Manwai Ku have explained, include cultural (knowledge, “proper” manners), social (social associations, informal networks), physical (such as enhanced physical and emotional well-being), and civil assets (such as access to due process and positions of civic leadership).

Insiders and Outsiders

  1. Top of page
  2. Insiders and Outsiders
  3. Opening Our Eyes to Social Exclusion
  4. Suggestions for Further Reading
  5. Concluding Comments

People with membership in more powerful social classes have more power in nearly every important sense of the word. As has been recently publicized by Occupy Wall Street and related movements, much of the nation's assets belong to the wealthy. They tend to direct the political processes that shape life in other classes and to be the arbiters (and marketers) of cultural tastes that signify social standing. They have seats at the tables where decisions are made and trends are set. In a sense, they are society's ultimate “insiders.” Such statements regarding inclusion in circles of power apply most readily to owning-class people at the top of the social class hierarchy (whom Occupy Wall Street would call “the 1%”) and incrementally less to the classes below them. For example, as a group, middle-class people do not usually have the same degree of political clout or trend-setting ability that owning-class people can acquire. Nevertheless, as compared to the groups below them, middle-class people are more likely to be represented among civic governing bodies, they have more opportunities to take part in culturally esteemed social and educational experiences, and they may still have enough discretionary income left to participate in socially valued trends and fashions.

If people at the top of the social class hierarchy are the ones typically found at the center of society's most powerful circles, then one might expect people at the bottom to be relative outsiders to those circles. Correspondingly, gaps of experience and understanding that exist between social class insiders and outsiders are one manifestation of social class exclusion.

Taken-for-granted policies, procedures, assumptions, and attitudes all help to accomplish the social exclusion of the poor

Such gaps between middle-class practitioners and their clients who live in poverty have, in fact, been noted by clinicians who work in poor communities. For example, Phoebe Schnitzer, a family therapist who practiced in a low-income Boston community, observed that her clinic's accessibility was limited not only by clients' financial constraints but also by her colleagues' “thinking about who ‘they’ are and why ‘they’ don't come in.”2 This perspective portrays poverty as more than material deprivation. Rather, the fact that the poor are often excluded from mainstream societal experiences and opportunities is understood to be a defining feature of poverty.

Brown University sociologist Hilary Silver traced the development of this theoretical viewpoint to French political debate of the 1960s within which the poor, as one of a number of vulnerable social groups, began to be referenced as les exclus. Silver provided examples of the kinds of opportunities that social exclusion can preclude in the lives of the poor:

[P]eople may be excluded from a livelihood; secure, permanent employment; earnings; property, credit, or land; housing; the minimal or prevailing consumption level; education, skills, and cultural capital; the benefits provided by the welfare state; citizenship and quality before the law; participation in the democratic process; public goods; the nation or the dominant race; the family and sociability; humane treatment, respect, personal fulfillment, and understanding.3

Taken-for-granted policies, procedures, assumptions, and attitudes all help to accomplish the social exclusion of the poor along these dimensions, and their enactment may take place within or outside the awareness of the class-privileged people who carry them out. This process is analogous to the operation and maintenance of other kinds of sociocultural privilege, such as skin color privilege: White people are often unaware of the benefits (to them) and the consequences (to others) of the sociocultural privilege that they carry, but this fact does not mitigate its impact.

Social psychologist Bernice Lott illuminated such class-related discrimination in her theorizing about responses to the poor by people who are not poor. With reference to the constructs of moral exclusion and delegitimization, she summarized her view of society's stance regarding poverty:

I propose that a dominant response [to the poor] is that of distancing, that is, separation, exclusion, devaluation, discounting, and designation as “other,” and that this response can be identified in both institutional and interpersonal contexts. In social psychological terms, distancing and denigrating responses operationally define discrimination. These, together with stereotypes (i.e., a set of beliefs about a group that are learned early, widely shared, and socially validated) and prejudice (i.e., negative attitudes) constitute classism.4

Correspondingly, psychotherapeutic distancing with regard to people living in poverty has been noted sporadically within the mental health literature since the 1970s by such commentators as Rafael Javier and William Herron. These psychoanalysts interpreted the resulting schism as the countertransferential concomitant of therapists' class-related biases, which, if left unexamined, threaten to reduce relationships with poor clients to little more than “tokenism, pity, and condescension.”5

Questions for Self-Assessment
  1. Describe ways that people in poverty are socially excluded.
  2. How does this dynamic apply to mental health services?
  3. Describe prickly space. How does this construct promote social exclusion?
  4. What psychological effects are known to result from exclusion?

Opening Our Eyes to Social Exclusion

  1. Top of page
  2. Insiders and Outsiders
  3. Opening Our Eyes to Social Exclusion
  4. Suggestions for Further Reading
  5. Concluding Comments

In addition to becoming more aware of their own attitudes toward the poor, where can practitioners look to see the experiential manifestations of social exclusion in their poor clients' lives? In developing multicultural competence, practitioners are called upon to move beyond color-blindness to “see” racism (as well as its counterpart, White privilege), and analogously, seeing social class exclusion is a sine qua non for class-aware practice. As this section of the article explains, some of its manifestations are quite visible, particularly in the lives of the poorest people.

Many of us in the middle and owning classes take for granted that we do not live next door to poor families

These manifestations begin at a basic, concrete level with the physical presence (or absence) of people's bodies in shared public spaces. In a symposium at the 2010 Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association, psychologists Heather Bullock and Shirley Truong described the institutionalization of the exclusion of homeless people through such initiatives as the creation of prickly space—public areas that are intentionally designed to be uncomfortable places to sit. They pointed out that, in fact, poor people are increasingly excluded from occupying public property—a reality that has become more noticeable as the numbers of people losing their homes have escalated during the recent economic downturn.

In a 2009 report entitled, “Homes Not Handcuffs,” the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty and the National Coalition for the Homeless documented the rise in civic actions and ordinances that restrict the sharing of food, make it illegal to sit or sleep in public spaces, and drive homeless people away from public areas, often resulting in the loss of these individuals' personal documents, medications, and other property. Author Barbara Ehrenreich has referred to this trend as the criminalization of poverty.

Speaking of spatial distance, many of us in the middle and owning classes take for granted that we do not live next door to poor families—this state of affairs has come to seem so natural to us that we may scarcely notice it. The feminist scholar bell hooks is one of only a few social critics who has addressed our nation's social class segregation:

The poor live with and among the poor—confined in gated communities without adequate shelter, food, or health care…. The rich, along with their upper-class neighbors, also live in gated communities where they protect their class interests—their way of life—by surveillance, by security forces, by direct links to the police.6

Social science research suggests that the distressed, isolated communities that result from socioeconomic segregation are one of the conduits by which poverty damages the psychological and physical health of poor children and thus perpetuates poverty in the lives of their families. Moreover, as documented by the National Bureau of Economic Research, U.S. neighborhood segregation by economic status is currently on the increase, growing steadily more defined between 1970 and 2000.

Action to counteract social class segregation is not unprecedented in this country. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)'s 2000–2006 Strategic Plan included goals aimed toward a reduction in socioeconomic as well as racial segregation. Civic interventions that have been used in service of socioeconomic integration include mixed-income housing and rent subsidies. Mixed-income housing results in new buildings that incorporate both market rate and subsidized apartments. When mixed housing is constructed in poor communities, these relatively inexpensive areas can be developed in an integrated fashion that allows local families to remain in their communities (as opposed to the areas being gentrified outright, leaving local families to go elsewhere). Tenant-based rental assistance programs provide families with housing subsidies that they are free to use in any neighborhood of their choosing. Along these lines, responsible urban planning could move decisively toward the eradication of socioeconomic segregation (if politicians and the rest of us were to throw our weight behind it).

One of the reasons that political systems do not consistently act in the direction of such humane possibilities may be that poor and working-class people are largely excluded from national governing structures. Some elected officials may have grown up in impoverished circumstances, and those experiences undoubtedly enhance their understanding of the challenges faced by the poor. That is not the same, however, as having people involved in making contemporary housing, welfare, and Medicaid policy whose lives are actually altered by those policies. Currently, all those decisions, which intimately affect the lives of poor families, are made by groups that do not include any representation at all by the poor.

Similarly, restrictions on labor union membership and bargaining rights exert their impact most directly in the lives of working-class men and women, yet are made by governing bodies that are increasingly referred to as “millionaires' clubs.” Such decisions might unfold differently if they were deliberated by groups that did not exclude those who will live with the immediate consequences. Theoretically, of course, our nation could reform its campaign and election procedures so that representation by people from different walks of life was assured within our democracy (or at least, was more likely). It would simply require the political and moral will to address a system in which it currently costs approximately $1,376,254 to win a seat in the House of Representatives and $7,014,767 to win a seat in the Senate, as estimated by the Campaign Finance Institute. Indeed, such measures are periodically proposed by legislators, but again and again, they are undermined or derailed completely.

Ongoing exclusion from the company and activities of mainstream society could contribute to self-defeating behavior, unhealthy styles of living, and emotional numbness

We can see, therefore, how social class marginalization not only comprises the scarcity and suffering that accompanies a lack of resources, it also encompasses a relational component by which the poor (and to a lesser extent, working-class people) are excluded from the protections, experiences, opportunities, and civic roles that constitute taken-for-granted reality for many members of other classes. Social exclusion and its direct effects not only accompany the other forms of harm that derive from poverty—there is reason to believe that this exclusion is a source of harm in and of itself.

This point is supported by findings from laboratory research conducted by psychologists Jean Twenge, Roy Baumeister, and their colleagues. Creating experimental paradigms in which participants were rejected by peers or given bogus feedback about isolated future lives, the researchers found that social exclusion was consistently associated with unfavorable results: Excluded participants behaved more aggressively; they made more high-risk, self-defeating decisions; and they gave up sooner on frustrating tasks and increased their consumption of unhealthy foods. Exclusion had affective consequences as well in that socially excluded participants were more likely to agree that “life is meaningless,” to avoid emotional language, and to face away from mirrors, suggesting to the researchers a kind of “inner numbness.”

Obviously, the social exclusion experienced by the poor cannot be equated with these experimental situations, yet it seems reasonable to suppose that the research evidence is applicable to some limited extent. It does not require a lengthy stretch of the imagination to surmise that one's ongoing exclusion from the company and activities of mainstream society—from the lives that are represented everywhere in the news, on television, and in dominant cultural narratives—could contribute to self-defeating behavior, unhealthy styles of living, and emotional numbness.

Just as society could more consistently enact policies that would decrease the exclusion of the poor from public spaces and mainstream opportunities, our nation could also more consistently regulate and protect working-class occupations so that repeated financial settlements for known safety violations could not threaten to become one more “cost of doing business,” as a New York Times editorial termed it in 2006.7 The editors' observation was offered as part of their commentary on the predicament of “a forgotten corner of society”: the working people of the West Virginia coalfields, where the latest in a decades-long stretch of deadly mining tragedies had just unfolded. Undoubtedly, all Americans grieved along with the families of the Sago miners, and there is also no doubt that terrible, unforeseeable accidents will happen occasionally in industrial settings and workplaces where physical labor is required.

At the same time, there is something that prevents us from collectively connecting the dots when it comes to the hazardous conditions that too many working people face—even after deaths occur in their industries—and even after the industries themselves have received warning after warning that specific, fixable, and dangerous conditions exist. In an effort to learn how our nation responds to employers who knowingly continue to violate workplace safety laws, reporter David Barstow provided an analysis of data from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA):

Every one of the deaths was a potential crime. Workers decapitated on assembly lines, shredded in machinery, burned beyond recognition, electrocuted, buried alive—all of them killed, investigators concluded, because their employers willfully violated workplace safety laws. . . .On the broadest level, it revealed the degree to which companies whose willful acts kill workers face lighter sanctions than those who deliberately break environmental or financial laws.” 8

It is the willful violation of safety laws that is at issue here. Overwhelmingly (93% of the time), however, such companies were not prosecuted, even when the companies had previously been found guilty of the very same safety violations and even when workers had been killed in those instances as well. Frequently, companies settled any resulting claims out of court; Barstow quoted an industry lawyer as remarking that “[w]hen you are talking settlement, essentially the rules go away.”

For people at the bottom of the social class spectrum, protective rules do seem to go away

A social exclusion perspective implies that, with regard to people closer to the bottom of the social class spectrum, some of the rules do seem to go away—or at least, some people seem relegated to a social space where the usual rules and safeguards do not operate as they do elsewhere. It is difficult to imagine an analogous situation in which members of owning- and middle-class families were suffering recurring, foreseeable, possibly preventable deaths in their workplaces with no lasting consequence to the perpetrators. It is difficult to imagine a middle-class person (such as most mental health practitioners) being rousted from his or her seat in a public place and asked to move along. Middle-class people take for granted their opportunities to join organizations that advocate for people who do similar work—like the associations to which mental health professionals belong. They commonly see people of their social class represented in the media as credible, upright citizens, and civic leaders. Middle-class people are accustomed to experiences of social inclusion in these and countless other ways that poor and working-class people cannot take for granted.

There are other aspects of life where, in a certain sense, society very much counts on the inclusion of poor and working-class people: when we expect to make use of the essential services that they provide every day. The low-wage workers who serve food and operate cash registers and clean offices help life go more smoothly for people at other class locations. Nevertheless, in these instances, it is almost as though the services themselves are what we are inclusive of, rather than the people who perform them.

If the latter were true, middle-class Americans might attend more consistently to the lack of a minimum wage that would allow these workers to lift their families out of poverty, which is sometimes called a living wage. (Penn State's living wage calculator at provides estimations of a living wage for cities and counties around the country. For example, in Oakland, California, a living wage for a single adult with no children is $11.23 per hour; in Norfolk, Virginia, it is $9.30.) Like class-inclusive housing policies and campaign finance reforms, living wage legislation is not a far-fetched humanitarian daydream. It has already been successfully enacted in some American cities (like Santa Fe), but national interest in its adoption has never been sustained. Similarly, although it may take headlines announcing a strike or a mining disaster to bring their circumstances to our full awareness, we also count every day upon the working-class people all around us. The products of their labor are so close and so vital, yet the workers themselves can seem far away, as observed by sociologist Leonard Beeghley:

Average middle-class Americans use electricity generated by coal that others have to mine, consume meat that others have to cut or grind, work in buildings that others have to build and maintain, and use paper made from trees that others have to log. Those “others” are working-class people.9

  1. 1

    Lee Rainwater, Neutralizing the Disinherited, in Psychological Factors in Poverty 9, 10 (Vernon L. Allen ed., 1970).

  2. 2

    Phoebe Kazdin Schnitzer, “They Don't Come in!” Stories Told, Lessons Taught About Poor Families in Therapy. 66 Am. J. Orthopsychiatry 572, 572 (1996).

  3. 3

    Hilary Silver, Social Exclusion and Social Authority: Three Paradigms, 133 Int'l Lab. Rev. 531, 541 (1994).

  4. 4

    Bernice Lott, Cognitive and Behavioral Distancing From the Poor, 57 Am. Psychologist 100, 100 (2002).

  5. 5

    Rafael Art Javier & William G. Herron, Psychoanalysis and the Disenfranchised: Countertransference Issues, 19 Psychoanalytic Psychol. 149, 157 (2002).

  6. 6

    bell hooks, Where We Stand: Class Matters 2 (2002).

  7. 7

    The Sago Mine Disaster, N. Y. Times, Jan. 5, 2006,

  8. 8

    David Barstow, U.S. Rarely Seeks Charges for Deaths in Workplace, N. Y. Times, Dec. 22, 2003,

  9. 9

    Leonard Beeghley, The Structure of Social Stratification in the United States 228 (Pearson 5th ed. 2008).

Suggestions for Further Reading

  1. Top of page
  2. Insiders and Outsiders
  3. Opening Our Eyes to Social Exclusion
  4. Suggestions for Further Reading
  5. Concluding Comments

Concluding Comments

  1. Top of page
  2. Insiders and Outsiders
  3. Opening Our Eyes to Social Exclusion
  4. Suggestions for Further Reading
  5. Concluding Comments

As helping professionals who seek to raise awareness of structural forms of privilege and oppression, mental health service providers who work from a social justice framework can deepen their consideration of all forms of sociocultural marginalization by incorporating considerations of social exclusion and social class within their theorizing, research, and practice. Furthermore, for practitioners, a focus on social exclusion is immediately relevant.

Social exclusion is a relational construct—it implies an us, a them, and an imperative to close the distance between the two. That distance may be experienced as one between our clients and ourselves, as has been described by commentators on the class-related dimensions of psychotherapeutic practice; it may otherwise be manifested by the general invisibility of poor and working-class people throughout psychological theory, research, and graduate curricula. Addressing social exclusion could contribute to the closing of all these relational gaps, so that mental health practitioners can strengthen their alignment with the possibility of a future where no one is kept on the outside looking in.