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Psychologist Receives Award for Public Policy Contributions

Steve Howe was recognized by the APA for his work as a community psychologist.

Date: 7/6/2009
By: Kim Burdett
Phone: (513) 556-8577
Photos By: Melanie Cannon
Steven Howe, professor and department head of psychology, was recently recognized by the Society for Community Research and Actionóalso known as Division 27 of the American Psychological Associationówith a career award for special contributions to public policy. A community psychologist, Howe focuses his work on policy research, evaluation research and program planning, in particular around issues related to urban poverty.

Tell us about your work.

The work that I care most about is how to create and improve systems designed to give people opportunities for economic self-advancement. It can range anywhere from evaluating a local system of job training programs to state work on improving the public adoption system to efforts to influence national housing and health care policy. In the work done by others, I often see well-intentioned but misdirected efforts to make folks in poverty more comfortable. My goal is to help people not be poor. In other words, Iím concerned that some anti-poverty programs are actually sustaining poverty.

Steve Howe.
Howe's work in public policy focuses on urban poverty.

What got you interested in urban poverty?

My mentor was William Meyers, who was a pioneer in community psychology and who was doing what would be recognized now as urban psychology 20 years before almost anyone else. And Bill had been research director at the Peace Corps back in the 1960s, so urban poverty is encoded in my intellectual DNA. Even before graduate school I did some medical social service work and criminal justice planning, so I had practical experience in the field as well. But I think probably the most important early experiences were working on a NIMH grant on the mental health status of the homeless in the mid-80s around the same time that I was helping Al Tuchfarber (we were both at the UC Institute for Policy Research) consult with the City of Cincinnati on a housing plan. And it just became obvious to me that advocates for services for people in poverty had no understanding of how to construct neighborhoods and systems that would create and support economically successful people.

How does policy research tie into the field of psychology?

The natural gradients of our life spaces facilitate some behaviors and impede others. Policies are efforts to carve the natural landscape of human behavior. When you think about it in those terms, policy is everywhere. It determines the schools we have, who pays for them, when children start their educations, how they are encouraged to stay in school and so forth. Indeed, we have to look to novels like Lord of the Flies to see unsculpted terrains upon which human behavior is staged.

You received an award by the APA for your contributions to the field of public policy. What are some of those contributions and what do they mean for the public?

With a lot of policy work you have to be content with mere slivers of recognition. I think the best work I was ever involved in producing was as a member of the Ohio Housing Research Group. Over a 10-year period we developed a sophisticated understanding of how the dynamics of suburbanization contribute to the perpetuation of urban poverty. Based on the advocacy of David Rusk, that work helped pave the way for eliminating the capital gains tax on the sale of primary residences. As another example, I provided some analytic support to policy advocates who ultimately succeeded in greatly expanding the availability of Medicaid coverage to low income Ohioans. But my contributions to these efforts would have been meaningless without the talents of people like David Rusk and others such as Tom Bier at Cleveland State University or Col Owens at the Greater Cincinnati Legal Aid Society. Policy successes have many, many parents. And I just sit in my office and do the numbers. I donít like the lobbying side of the game.

What are you working on next?

Now that health care reform is near the top of the national agenda, Iím concerned about how little most mental health professionals know of mental health finance. When the average clinician has no clue how much money is spent on mental health in America, or more importantly how that money is spent, it is difficult for the profession to be engaged in the policy debate. So Iíve developed this idea that psychologists and psychiatrists and counselors and social workers have abdicated their policy turf to specialists in health care financing, who publish in their journals not ours. I deeply believe in the efficacy of clinical interventions, and am even more passionate about the value of prevention, but I cannot recall a single article that Iíve ever seen in a psychology journal about the economics of mental health. So with a couple of students, Kellana Hindert who begins graduate school at UC this fall and Claudia Feldhaus from DePaul, Iím trying to pose and answer some really basic questions in ways that my colleagues can understand. Weíre starting by trying to figure out if anyone really knows how much money is spent each year in America on promoting positive mental health and preventing trauma and disorders. Right now Iím drowning in data and itís not clear that I understand anything but itís early innings.

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