How economic inequality shapes mobility expectations and behaviour in disadvantaged youth

Abstract

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.

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Fig. 1: Unified theoretical framework.
Fig. 2: Inequality, maternal education, and high school dropout rates for boys.
Fig. 3: Motivation to persist academically by mobility beliefs and SES.

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Browman, A.S., Destin, M., Kearney, M.S. et al. How economic inequality shapes mobility expectations and behaviour in disadvantaged youth. Nat Hum Behav 3, 214–220 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-018-0523-0

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