Am. Polit. Sci. Rev. (2018)

The question of how best to promote social equality in the context of racial and economic divides has long remained open. One possibility is that the privileged may change their behaviour if they were encouraged to see the world from the perspective of the less advantaged.

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Kayode Fashola/Alamy Stock Photo

A new paper by Cecilia Mo, of the University of California, Berkeley, and Katharine Conn, of Columbia University, asks whether taking part in national service programmes changes the perspectives of participants and encourages relatively privileged citizens to see the world through the lens of the less-advantaged populations in which they serve. The authors used data on Teach For America applications to compare the attitudes of applicants who nearly joined the programme with applicants who did join and served for two years in disadvantaged communities.

Although the two groups were demographically similar, the beliefs of individuals who fell just above the threshold admissions score (and participated in the programme) differed substantially from those who just missed selection into the programme. Participation in Teach For America caused individuals to adopt beliefs about the fairness of the economic and political systems and the role of individual traits in determining economic outcomes that more closely matched the beliefs of the communities in which they served.

This finding suggests that national service programmes can build bridges and increase understanding across socioeconomic divides.