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It Takes a Village to Support the American Dream

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This post launches our new blog series on poverty. As our nation reflects on its progress in fighting poverty over the last 50 years, this blog series will highlight how psychology can contribute further to this discussion.

By Erin Currier (Director, Financial Security and Mobility) and Sarah Sattelmeyer (Senior Associate, Financial Security and Mobility), The Pew Charitable Trusts

We live in an academically siloed world where cross-pollination between researchers is rare. But the study of poverty and access to opportunity does not fit neatly into one discipline. When President Lyndon B. Johnson declared the War on Poverty five decades ago, he called on experts to work across disciplines to address poverty and disadvantage and to achieve a common goal: a country in which opportunity is within reach of everyone.

In this spirit, The Pew Charitable Trusts published research that identifies factors across a number of fields that affect Americans’ ability to move up the economic ladder, over a lifetime and across generations. And this research opens up avenues for other disciplines, including psychology, to examine poverty in the United States and explore strategies to expand opportunity.

First, this research finds that continued access to education, especially postsecondary education, remains an important driver of American mobility. Adult children with a college degree are more likely to exceed their parents’ income and wealth across all levels of the economic ladder. But despite evidence that children raised at the bottom of the economic ladder reap especially large benefits from completing college—9 in 10 are able to move up from the bottom as adults—poor children continue to lag behind their higher-income peers on college completion. This remains true even when both groups have similar levels of college preparation and readiness.

Second, neighborhood poverty during childhood strongly affects access to opportunity and contributes especially to the mobility divide between blacks and whites. Children who are raised in a high-poverty neighborhood, which is much more often a reality for black children than white, have significantly higher chances of moving down the economic ladder over their lifetimes. In fact, neighborhood poverty contributes more to the racial gap in downward mobility than parental education, parental employment status, and family structure combined.

Finally, economic mobility and economic security go hand in hand. Kids raised at the bottom of the economic ladder who move out of the bottom as adults are also more financially secure than their childhood peers who remain stuck there. They tend to have bigger cushions of savings and wealth to fall back on during hard times and to invest in their future security and mobility.

Pew’s staff of social scientists and policy analysts will continue to examine barriers to educational attainment, characteristics of high-poverty neighborhoods, and perceptions about saving and wealth building. But these topics also fall squarely within the realm of psychology. For example, psychology-based research could augment antipoverty efforts when researchers seek to answer questions such as:

  1. How does the U.S. education system develop the cognitive capabilities of our children?

  2. Does the stress of living in a poor neighborhood affect childhood outcomes?

  3. Can behavioral economics approaches (e.g., cash prizes linked to savings accounts) overcome barriers to saving?

Experts still disagree on the success of the policies and programs put forth by President Johnson 50 years ago. However, there is widespread agreement that we have not yet achieved his vision of a nation of equal opportunity. Access to opportunity is not and should not be the responsibility of one academic department, government agency, think tank, or nonprofit organization. We welcome all disciplines and researchers, including those in the field of psychology, to join us as we strive to understand and overcome the barriers to achieving the American Dream.


Sarah Sattelmeyer (@sellensatt) is a senior associate for and Erin Currier (@CurrierErin) is director of family financial security and mobility at The Pew Charitable Trusts. The project conducts original research to assess differences in family balance sheets across diverse U.S. households and the degree to which Americans’ short-term economic security relates to their longer-term economic mobility. In their roles, Sattelmeyer and Currier explore the health and status of family finances, work with experts in the field and the financial security and mobility team on its comprehensive research agenda, and ensure that reports and publications are understandable to a variety of audiences, including policymakers and the public. Currier previously oversaw and Sattelmeyer was a senior associate for Pew’s economic mobility project, working to build broad and nonpartisan agreement on the facts and figures related to mobility and to encourage an active debate on how best to improve opportunity in America.

Before coming to Pew, Sattelmeyer was a research fellow in the Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation in the Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. She holds master’s degrees in public policy and public health from the University of California, Berkeley. Prior to Pew, Currier served as the acting CEO at Women Work! The National Network for Women’s Employment. Currier has a master’s degree in public policy and women’s studies from George Washington University.

Image source: Thinkstock Photos

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