related problems, obesity and other health issues, Chen has
found. In a 2013 paper in Child Development, for example, she
and colleagues found that young people who used the strategy
most had lower levels of interleukin- 6, a marker of inflammation
that can lead to cardiovascular disease. The protective effect
didn’t show up in adolescents with higher socioeconomic status,
who have other resources for coping with stressors.
Parental income doesn’t just have an impact on young children.
Parents’ financial circumstances continue to affect children even
as they move into early adulthood, says Mindi N. Thompson,
PhD, an associate professor of counseling psychology at the
University of Wisconsin-Madison.
In a qualitative study published in 2013 in the Journal of
Counseling Psychology, Thompson and colleagues found that
undergraduates with an unemployed parent or caregiver
reported financial struggles, stigma, difficulty concentrating and
a sense of having to grow up faster than peers. Some, however,
credited the experience with inspiring them to do what it takes
to achieve security in their own careers.
Classism, often combined with racism, can undermine that
sense of hope, however.
In a 2014 paper in the Journal of Career Assessment,
Thompson and co-authors found that experiencing classism
lowered “work hope” — the belief that one will be successful in
a future career — in undergraduates of varying socioeconomic
backgrounds from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups
who attended a predominantly white school.
For Thompson, the findings suggest the need for faculty,
staff and administrators in higher education to discuss openly
what’s often left unsaid — social class. Even one-on-one among
friends, she points out, it’s still taboo to ask or reveal how
much money one makes. While educators often shy away from
acknowledging class differences, she says, it’s important that
they acknowledge that classism exists in students’ lives and may
affect their ability to study effectively. “If we continue to ignore
it, we’re doing a disservice to students, especially as campuses
become increasingly diverse,” she says.
Educators can also help students from lower socioeconomic
status backgrounds by providing access to mentors and training
in such skills as writing or public speaking that can help them
in jobs or in college, says Thompson.
Psychologist Matthew Diemer, PhD, an associate professor
in the University of Michigan’s College of Education, is
investigating how “critical consciousness” can spur young
people to work for change.
Borrowed from Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, the concept
as developed in Diemer’s work involves people critically
reflecting on how inequitable treatment, exclusion from societal
institutions and limited access to resources have contributed to
one’s social standing, feeling motivated to effect change in the
world and taking action to create a more just world through
civic or political engagement.
Diemer’s earlier work indicated that critical consciousness
can have an impact on the lives of poor adolescents of color. In
a 2009 article in the Counseling Psychologist, he found that the
poor youth of color who had more critical consciousness in
10th and 12th grades went on to attain higher-paying, higher-status occupations in adulthood than other adolescents — even
after controlling for academic achievement.
“Teachers often redirect students away from conversations
about things being unequal or unfair,” says Diemer, explaining
that teachers may worry that talking about such subjects may
be discouraging and believe that students should just work hard
and hope for the best. “But it seems like critical consciousness
provides some armor against marginalization and oppression.”
The development of critical consciousness can be impeded
by psychological factors, however, says Erin B. Godfrey, PhD,
an assistant professor of applied psychology at New York
University. Godfrey has found that rather than being one end of
a continuum, critical consciousness can co-exist with a belief in
the fairness of the system and equality of opportunity — beliefs
that give people hope and make them feel better about their
own economic situation.
In a qualitative study of 19 low-income women published
this year in Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology,
Godfrey and psychologist Sharon Wolf, PhD, found that almost
all of the participants attributed poverty to character flaws, lack
of hard work and other individual factors. Fewer than half cited
structural explanations, and when they did, it was almost always
in tandem with individual explanations. “People were really
relying on these myths about society — that you can get ahead
if you just try hard enough,” says Godfrey.
While interventions often focus on helping people in poverty
develop critical consciousness, says Godfrey, it’s important to
take into account the motivations people have to justify the
current system when developing such programs.
“People hold system-justifying beliefs for a reason,” says
Godfrey, explaining that it can be very demoralizing to believe
that structural factors can impede your success even if you
try hard. “We should incorporate this into how we try to help
people develop critical consciousness so that we can still give
them a sense of efficacy and hope.”