Skip to main content

Economists and Psychologists Agree: Inequality Saps Opportunities and Motivation

March 2, 2019
mesmin destin (r)
Mesmin Destin (right)

Rising economic inequality makes people less likely to believe that upward mobility is possible, shaping both their motivation and behavior, according to a research review published in the journal Nature Human Behavior.

The study, co-authored by Northwestern University’s Mesmin Destin, is unusual in that it brings together parallel findings by both economists and psychologists, who traditionally work in separate spheres. 

The interdisciplinary approach helped create a more complete framework for understanding the issue and affecting policy changes, the researchers say in the perspective piece, titled "How Economic Inequality Shapes Mobility Expectations and Behavior in Disadvantaged Youth.”

“As higher income and wealthier people create greater economic distance between themselves and less economically advantaged people, pathways toward economic advancement become less available,” said Destin, a psychologist and associate professor of human development and social policy at the School of Education and Social Policy. 

Economic research has shown that behaviors that would help with upward mobility, such as staying in high school and avoiding teen pregnancies, are less common among disadvantaged youth when inequality is high.

Experimental research in psychology, meanwhile, has explored how inequality can weaken a young person’s faith in moving up the economic ladder and make it even harder to break out of the cycle of poverty.

By integrating these social sciences, the researchers found strong evidence that economic inequality can contribute to negative outcomes for disadvantaged youth by weakening the motivating belief that they can have socioeconomic success in addition to limiting access to actual opportunities.

When discussing the policy implications of this integrated model, the authors advocate for more immediate interventions that could increase the chances of upward mobility among low socioeconomic status youth by increasing their access to "mobility-promoting" opportunities such as mentoring programs.

They also cite that interventions such as providing free or substantially subsidized college tuition to youth living in poverty have successfully improved their opportunities because they offer a tangible means to completing post-secondary programs.

The researchers stress that students living in poverty do not simply hold misguided beliefs about mobility and just need to be convinced otherwise. Instead, the link between inequality and low mobility is often accurate and those who believe that moving between different levels of society is unrealistic “likely hold those beliefs because society has not historically provided viable opportunities for or pathways to advancement,” they wrote in the study.

“Interventions should entail real, systemic changes to educational, occupational and social environments that provide high-poverty youth with concrete and viable routes to future socioeconomic success and mobility in an increasingly unequal society."

 The study was co-authored by Boston College's Alexander S. Browman, a post-doctoral fellow in the Lynch School of Education and Human Development; Melissa S. Kearney, professor at the University of Maryland's Department of Economics; and Phillip B. Levine, professor of Economics at Wellesley College.