Perspective | Published:

How economic inequality shapes mobility expectations and behaviour in disadvantaged youth

Nature Human Behaviourvolume 3pages214220 (2019) | Download Citation


Economic inequality can have a range of negative consequences for those in younger generations, particularly for those from lower-socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds. Economists and psychologists, among other social scientists, have addressed this issue, but have proceeded largely in parallel. This Perspective outlines how these disciplines have proposed and provided empirical support for complementary theoretical models. Specifically, both disciplines emphasize that inequality weakens people’s belief in socioeconomic opportunity, thereby reducing the likelihood that low-SES young people will engage in behaviours that would improve their chances of upward mobility (for example, persisting in school or averting teenage pregnancy). In integrating the methods and techniques of economics and psychology, we offer a cohesive framework for considering this issue. When viewed as a whole, the interdisciplinary body of evidence presents a more complete and compelling framework than does either discipline alone. We use this unification to offer policy recommendations that would advance prospects for mobility among low-SES young people.

Access optionsAccess options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Additional information

Publisher’s note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.


  1. 1.

    OECD. Income inequality. OECD Data (2018).

  2. 2.

    Saez, E. Striking it richer: the evolution of top incomes in the United States. University of California, Berkeley (2016).

  3. 3.

    Stone, C., Trisi, D., Sherman, A. & Taylor, R. A guide to statistics on historical trends in income inequality. Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (2018).

  4. 4.

    Duncan, G. J. & Murnane, R. J. Whither Opportunity? Rising Inequality, Schools, and Children’s Life Chances. (Russell Sage Foundation, New York, 2011).

  5. 5.

    Markus, H. R. & Stephens, N. M. Editorial overview: Inequality and social class: The psychological and behavioral consequences of inequality and social class: a theoretical integration. Curr. Opin. Psychol. 18, iv–xii (2017).

  6. 6.

    Lewis, O. The culture of poverty. in On Understanding Poverty: Perspectives from the Social Sciences (ed. Moynihan, D. P.) 187–200 (Basic Books, New York 1969).

  7. 7.

    Wilson, W. J. The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass and Public Policy. (Univ. Chicago Press, Chicago, 1987).

  8. 8.

    Wilson, W. J. When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor. (Knopf, New York, 1996).

  9. 9.

    Markus, H. R. & Nurius, P. Possible Selves. Am. Psychol. 41, 954 (1986).

  10. 10.

    Oyserman, D. & Destin, M. Identity-based motivation: implications for intervention. Couns. Psychol. 38, 1001–1043 (2010).

  11. 11.

    Oyserman, D. Social identity and self-regulation. in Social psychology: Handbook of Basic Principles 2nd ed. (eds. Kruglanski, A. W. & Higgins, E. T.) 432–453 (Guilford Press, New York, 2007).

  12. 12.

    Oyserman, D. Not just any path: implications of identity-based motivation for disparities in school outcomes. Econ. Educ. Rev. 33, 179–190 (2013).

  13. 13.

    Roese, N. J. & Sherman, J. W. Expectancy. in Social Psychology: Handbook of Basic Principles 2nd ed. (eds. Kruglanski, A. W. & Higgins, E. T.) 91–115 (Guilford Press, New York, 2007).

  14. 14.

    Simons, J., Vansteenkiste, M., Lens, W. & Lacante, M. Placing motivation and future time perspective theory in a temporal perspective. Educ. Psychol. Rev. 16, 121–139 (2004).

  15. 15.

    Hershfield, H. E. et al. Increasing saving behavior through age-progressed renderings of the future self. J. Mark. Res. 48, S23–S37 (2011).

  16. 16.

    Hershfield, H. E., Cohen, T. R. & Thompson, L. Short horizons and tempting situations: Lack of continuity to our future selves leads to unethical decision making and behavior. Organ. Behav. Hum. Decis. Process. 117, 298–310 (2012).

  17. 17.

    van Gelder, J.-L., Hershfield, H. E. & Nordgren, L. F. Vividness of the future self predicts delinquency. Psychol. Sci. 24, 974–980 (2013).

  18. 18.

    Van Gelder, J.-L., Luciano, E. C., Weulen Kranenbarg, M. & Hershfield, H. E. Friends with my future self: longitudinal vividness intervention reduces delinquency. Criminology 53, 158–179 (2015).

  19. 19.

    Schwarz, N. & Clore, G. L. Feelings and phenomenal experiences. in Social Psychology: Handbook of Basic Principles 2nd ed. (eds. Kruglanski, A. W. & Higgins, E. T.) 385–407 (Guilford Press, New York, 2007).

  20. 20.

    Markus, H. R. & Wurf, E. The dynamic self-concept: a social psychological perspective. Annu. Rev. Psychol. 38, 299–337 (1987).

  21. 21.

    McConnell, A. R., Shoda, T. M. & Skulborstad, H. M. The self as a collection of multiple self-aspects: structure, development, operation, and implications. Soc. Cogn. 30, 380–395 (2012).

  22. 22.

    Stephens, N. M., Markus, H. R. & Phillips, L. T. Social class culture cycles: how three gateway contexts shape selves and fuel inequality. Annu. Rev. Psychol. 65, 611–634 (2014).

  23. 23.

    American Psychological Association. Stress in America: Paying with Our Health. (2015).

  24. 24.

    GfK. Money and self-pressure are the leading major causes of stress internationally. (2015).

  25. 25.

    Cooperative Institutional Research Program at the Higher Education Research Institute. The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2015. (University of California, Los Angeles, 2015).

  26. 26.

    Chetty, R. et al. The fading American dream: trends in absolute income mobility since 1940. Science 356, 398–406 (2017).

  27. 27.

    Reardon, S. F. & Bischoff, K. More unequal and more separate: growth in the residential segregation of families by income. US2010 Project (2011).

  28. 28.

    Reardon, S. F. The widening academic achievement gap between the rich and the poor: new evidence and possible explanations. in Whither Opportunity? Rising Inequality and the Uncertain Life Chances of Low-Income Children (eds. Duncan, G. J. & Murnane, R. J.) 91–115 (Russell Sage Foundation, New York, 2011).

  29. 29.

    Reardon, S. F. & Bischoff, K. Income inequality and income segregation. Am. J. Sociol. 116, 1092–1153 (2011).

  30. 30.

    Owens, A., Reardon, S. F. & Jencks, C. Income segregation between schools and school districts. Am. Educ. Res. J. 53, 1159–1197 (2016).

  31. 31.

    Watson, T. Inequality and the measurement of residential segregation by income in American neighborhoods. Rev. Income Wealth 55, 820–844 (2009).

  32. 32.

    Hayes, T. J. Do citizens link attitudes with preferences? economic inequality and government spending in the “New Gilded Age”. Soc. Sci. Q. 95, 468–485 (2014).

  33. 33.

    Gilens, M. Affluence and Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America. (Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton, NJ, USA, 2012).

  34. 34.

    Bailey, M. J. & Dynarski, S. M. Inequality in Postsecondary Education. in Whither Opportunity? Rising Inequality, Schools, and Children’s Life Chances (eds. Duncan, G. J. & Murnane, R. J.) 117–132 (Russell Sage Foundation, New York, 2011).

  35. 35.

    Chetty, R., Friedman, J., Saez, E., Turner, N. & Yagan, D. Mobility report cards: the role of colleges in intergenerational mobility. NBER Working Paper Series, No. 23618 (2017).

  36. 36.

    Becker, G. S. & Murphy, K. M. The upside of income inequality. The American. May June (2007).

  37. 37.

    Becker, G. S. & Tomes, N. An equilibrium theory of the distribution of income and intergenerational mobility. J. Polit. Econ. 87, 1153–1189 (1979).

  38. 38.

    Solon, G. A model of intergenerational mobility variation over time and place. in Generational Income Mobility in North America and Europe (ed. Corak, M.) 38–47 (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 2004).

  39. 39.

    Kearney, M. S. & Levine, P. B. Income inequality, social mobility, and the decision to drop out of high school. Brookings Pap. Econ. Act. 2016, 333–396 (2016).

  40. 40.

    Kearney, M. S. & Levine, P. B. Income inequality and early non-marital childbearing. J. Hum. Resour. 49, 1–31 (2014).

  41. 41.

    Genicot, G. & Ray, D. Aspirations and inequality. Econometrica 85, 489–519 (2017).

  42. 42.

    Sewell, W. H. Jr. & Hauser, R. M. Education, Occupation, and Earnings: Achievement in the Early Career. (Academic Press, New York, 1975).

  43. 43.

    Akerlof, G. A. & Kranton, R. E. Economics and identity. Q. J. Econ. 115, 715–753 (2000).

  44. 44.

    Kraus, M. W., Piff, P. K., Mendoza-Denton, R., Rheinschmidt, M. L. & Keltner, D. Social class, solipsism, and contextualism: how the rich are different from the poor. Psychol. Rev. 119, 546–572 (2012).

  45. 45.

    Wegner, D. M. & Gilbert, D. T. Social psychology: the science of human experience. in The Message Within: The Role of Subjective Experience in Social Cognition and Behavior (eds. Bless, H. & Forgas, J. P.) 1–9 (Psychology Press, London, 2000).

  46. 46.

    Payne, B. K., Brown-Iannuzzi, J. L. & Hannay, J. W. Economic inequality increases risk taking. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 114, 4643–4648 (2017).

  47. 47.

    Nishi, A., Shirado, H., Rand, D. G. & Christakis, N. A. Inequality and visibility of wealth in experimental social networks. Nature 526, 426–429 (2015).

  48. 48.

    Browman, A. S., Destin, M., Carswell, K. L. & Svoboda, R. C. Perceptions of socioeconomic mobility influence academic persistence among low socioeconomic status students. J. Exp. Soc. Psychol. 72, 45–52 (2017).

  49. 49.

    Day, M. V. & Fiske, S. T. Movin’ on up? How perceptions of social mobility affect our willingness to defend the system. Soc. Psychol. Personal. Sci. 8, 267–274 (2017).

  50. 50.

    Shariff, A. F., Wiwad, D. & Aknin, L. B. Income mobility breeds tolerance for income inequality: cross-national and experimental evidence. Perspect. Psychol. Sci. 11, 373–380 (2016).

  51. 51.

    McCall, L., Burk, D., Laperrière, M. & Richeson, J. A. Exposure to rising inequality shapes Americans’ opportunity beliefs and policy support. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 114, 9593–9598 (2017).

  52. 52.

    Davidai, S. Why do Americans believe in economic mobility? Economic inequality, external attributions of wealth and poverty, and the belief in economic mobility. J. Exp. Soc. Psychol. 79, 138–148 (2018).

  53. 53.

    Côté, S., House, J. & Willer, R. High economic inequality leads higher-income individuals to be less generous. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 112, 15838–15843 (2015).

  54. 54.

    Davidai, S. & Gilovich, T. Building a more mobile America--one income quintile at a time. Perspect. Psychol. Sci. 10, 60–71 (2015).

  55. 55.

    Laurin, K., Fitzsimons, G. M. & Kay, A. C. Social disadvantage and the self-regulatory function of justice beliefs. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 100, 149–171 (2011).

  56. 56.

    Wilkinson, R. G. & Pickett, K. E. The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone. (Bloomsbury Press, London, 2009).

  57. 57.

    United Nations. Goal 10: Reduce inequality within and among countries. UN Sustainable Development (2015).

  58. 58.

    Herrera, C., Grossman, J. B., Kauh, T. J. & McMaken, J. Mentoring in schools: an impact study of Big Brothers Big Sisters school-based mentoring. Child Dev. 82, 346–361 (2011).

  59. 59.

    Lynch, M., Astone, N. M., Collazos, J., Lipman, M. & Esthappan, S. Arches Transformative Mentoring Program: an implementation and impact evaluation in New York City. The Urban Institute (2018).

  60. 60.

    College Advising Corps. Our Results. (2018).

  61. 61.

    Levine, P. B. Designing effective mentoring programs for disadvantaged youth. Brookings Institution (2014).

  62. 62.

    Stephens, N. M., Hamedani, M. G. & Destin, M. Closing the social-class achievement gap: a difference-education intervention improves first-generation students’ academic performance and all students’ college transition. Psychol. Sci. 25, 943–953 (2014).

  63. 63.

    Dobbie, W. & Fryer, R. G. Getting beneath the veil of effective schools: evidence from New York City. Am. Econ. J. Appl. Econ. 5, 28–60 (2013).

  64. 64.

    Yeager, D. S. et al. Breaking the cycle of mistrust: wise interventions to provide critical feedback across the racial divide. J. Exp. Psychol. Gen. 143, 804–824 (2014).

  65. 65.

    Bartik, T. J., Hershbein, B. & Lachowska, M. The effects of the Kalamazoo Promise Scholarship on college enrollment, persistence, and completion. SSRN (2017).

  66. 66.

    Cornwell, C., Mustard, D. B. & Sridhar, D. J. The enrollment effects of merit-based financial aid: evidence from Georgia’s HOPE program. J. Labor Econ. 24, 761–786 (2006).

  67. 67.

    Mayer’s Press Office. City Colleges’ star scholars thrive in second year with a 20 percent increase in enrollment, and overall higher retention rates and gpa than their peers. Office of the Mayor of the City of Chicago (2016).

  68. 68.

    Chetty, R., Hendren, N. & Katz, L. F. The effects of exposure to better neighborhoods on children: new evidence from the Moving to Opportunity experiment. Am. Econ. Rev. 106, 855–902 (2016).

  69. 69.

    Roderick, M. What’s happening to the boys? Early high school experiences and school outcomes among African American male adolescents in Chicago. Urban Educ. 38, 538–607 (2003).

  70. 70.

    Jachimowicz, J. M., Chafik, S., Munrat, S., Prabhu, J. C. & Weber, E. U. Community trust reduces myopic decisions of low-income individuals. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 114, 5401–5406 (2017).

  71. 71.

    Sánchez-Rodríguez, Á., Willis, G. B. & Rodríguez-Bailón, R. Economic and social distance: perceived income inequality negatively predicts an interdependent self-construal. Int. J. Psychol. (2017).

  72. 72.

    Jachimowicz, J. M., Szaszi, B., Lukas, M., Prabhu, J. & Weber, E.U. The rising tide sinks the smallest boats: why higher economic inequality intensifies the poor’s financial hardship. in Behavioral Decision Research in Management Conference (2018).

Download references

Author information


  1. Lynch School of Education, Boston College, Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, USA

    • Alexander S. Browman
  2. School of Education and Social Policy, Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, USA

    • Mesmin Destin
  3. Department of Psychology, Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, USA

    • Mesmin Destin
  4. Institute for Policy Research, Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, USA

    • Mesmin Destin
  5. Department of Economics, University of Maryland, College Park, Maryland, USA

    • Melissa S. Kearney
  6. National Bureau of Economic Research, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA

    • Melissa S. Kearney
    •  & Phillip B. Levine
  7. Department of Economics, Wellesley College, Wellesley, Massachusetts, USA

    • Phillip B. Levine


  1. Search for Alexander S. Browman in:

  2. Search for Mesmin Destin in:

  3. Search for Melissa S. Kearney in:

  4. Search for Phillip B. Levine in:

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Phillip B. Levine.

About this article

Publication history




Issue Date