Helping Those Who Need It the Least: Can Informal Mentoring Promotes Economic Upward Mobility?

Gowdy, G., Miller, D. P., & Spencer, R. (2021). Helping Those Who Need It the Least: A Counterfactual and Comparative Analysis of Whether Informal Mentoring Promotes Economic Upward Mobility for Low- and Middle-Income Youth. Youth & Society, 53(7), 1152–1180.

Summarized by Ariel Ervin

Notes of Interest: 

  • Parents’ income is a significant predictor of their offsprings’ income.
  • Many people born in poverty experience barriers in achieving upward mobility. Informal mentoring relationships can help address this issue.
  • This study explores whether or not informal mentoring promotes upward mobility for low- and middle-income youth.
  • Middle-class youth who have an informal mentor were more likely to be more upwardly mobile than low-income youth.
  • There were no correlations between informal mentoring and upward mobility for low-income youth.
  • More work needs to be done to make mentors and other resources more equitable and accessible for youths from different income households.
  • Low-income youths with mentors might not have an increased chance of upward mobility since their mentors also have a similar income and aren’t likely to provide cultural capital.
  • Youth-initiated mentoring (YIM) might be a better alternative for low-income youths since it combines features from informal and formal mentoring relationships.

Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract)

Although there have been calls to expand mentoring as way to redress the growing problem of economic immobility in the United States, no study to date has directly examined whether mentoring and economic mobility are related. Using multiple waves of data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health and employing a propensity score matching approach, this quasi-experimental study compares youth who report having had an informal adult mentor in adolescence with those who did not from both low-income (N = 795) and middle-income (N = 3,158) samples to test whether having an informal mentor in adolescence is associated with economic mobility in early adulthood. We find that middle-income youth who report having had an informal mentor in adolescence are more likely to be upwardly mobile than those who did not but the same did not hold true for the low-income youth. Implications and directions for future research are discussed.

Implications (Reprinted from the Discussion)

Evidence suggests that informal mentoring in adolescence is associated with many of the building blocks to upward mobility (e.g., educational attainment, early employment, asset accrual) in adulthood (DuBois & Silverthorn, 2005; Greeson et al., 2010; Miranda-Chan et al., 2016) and in turn that informal mentoring can be conceptualized as a personalized intervention promoting such mobility (Ellwood et al., 2016). Despite these indications from previous work, this study was the first to directly examine whether informal mentoring can promote economic upward mobility for low-income and middle-income youth. The quasi-experimental approach of propensity-score matching made it possible to control for other factors known to contribute to upward mobility, such as neighborhood quality and parent education, providing a more rigorous test of the influence of mentoring.

Whereas having an informal mentor was associated with economic mobility for middle income youth, the same was not true for low-income youth. For middle-income youth, informal mentors appear to promote individual mobility in a time of stagnation for most (Chetty et al., 2014). Mentors are yet another asset that many middle-income young people have, providing a beneficial addition to those who likely already have other positive resources in their life (Mitnik et al., 2015; Putnam, 2015). Thus, this study lends further support for what has been called the Matthew Effect, which is the idea that advantage leads to greater access to more advantage across multiple domains (Merton, 1968; Rigney, 2010). Informal mentoring is an important resource and likely accumulates and builds on itself to contribute to increasing advantage for these already advantaged youth.

As noted above, the fact that informal mentoring does not have an association with economic mobility for low-income youth is troubling, because it is precisely this group of young people for whom economic advancement is most important. Thus, while informal mentoring has been associated with some immediate benefits like academic engagement and college graduation for low-income youth (Erickson et al., 2009; Raposa et al., 2018), these benefits are not strong enough or consistent enough to overcome the persistent structural barriers to mobility low-income youth face.

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