It’s Who You Know That Matters: How capital mentoring relationships can promote economic mobility for marginalized youth

Gowdy, G., & Spencer, R. (2021). It’s Who You Know That Matters: Identifying Which Type of Informal Mentor Is Most Likely to Promote Economic Mobility for Vulnerable Youth. The Journal of Primary Prevention.

Summarized by Ariel Ervin

Notes of Interest: 

  • Evidence has shown that youths who grow up in poverty (especially children of color) have a significant chance of remaining poor throughout their lives. 
  • Although informal mentoring is associated with common pathways to economic mobility, it’s unclear whether this also applies to low-income youths and youths of color.
  • This study explores which types of informal mentoring can best support the economic mobility of vulnerable children. 
  •  “Capital” mentoring relationships can have a positive impact on low-income youths’ and youths of color’ economic mobility. 

Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract)

Children who grow up in low-income households are likely to remain poor throughout their lives. The odds of spending a lifetime in poverty are even greater for children of color, who are more likely to be born into poverty and are less likely to be economically mobile than their White counterparts. Informal mentoring (i.e., a positive relationship with a caring, non-parental adult) has been associated with key steps towards economic mobility, such as educational attainment and workforce participation. Yet previous research also suggests that some mentors may be in a better position to promote the accumulation of these building blocks than others. Our study used data from three waves of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, a cluster analysis, and a series of logistic regressions to examine which types of mentors were associated with the promotion of upward mobility for youth most vulnerable to intergenerational persistence of poverty. Findings demonstrated that the presence of “capital” mentors, or adults who connected youth to other important relationships and resources, was associated with upward economic mobility. Our findings suggest that those who are interested in promoting economic mobility for vulnerable youth should consider investing in ways to connect youth with adults outside their immediate social networks.

Implications (Reprinted from the Discussion)

This study is the first published work to use cluster analysis with AddHealth data to generate a typology of informal mentorship. We found two distinct informal mentoring relationship types: core and capital. Core relationships were most typically with someone from inside a young person’s family. In contrast, a capital relationship was with someone from a formal institution and was not marked by feelings of closeness or frequent communication. Young people vulnerable to intergenerational persistence of poverty were more likely to be economically mobile when they had a capital mentor. This underscores the importance of examining differences within mentoring relationships to better understand which types are likely to make the biggest positive difference.

It is notable that capital mentoring relationships provided both bridging and bonding capital. This is a surprising finding in light of previous research that has suggested that bonding capital would likely be found in relationships with family members and also would be unlikely to promote upward mobility (Raposa et al., 2018). Because bonding capital is marked by feelings of belongingness and trust, we operationalized it within this study to include any relationship that bolsters a young person’s feelings of connectedness to their existing community (Ashtiani & Feliciano, 2018; Larsen et al., 2004; Putnam, 2000). While some might consider this as incongruent with previous operationalizations of bonding capital, we believe that by expanding our definition, we were able to recognize some bonding relationships that were outside of the restrictive definition of friends and family. Future research should continue to consider the role of both forms of social capital in the promotion of upward mobility for young people.

It is also important to note that the young people who reported capital mentors were significantly older than those who reported core mentors (17 years old versus 9, respectively). This speaks to an important issue of timing. An asset of capital mentorships may be the fact that they occur later in adolescence and thus may make a bigger difference in the promotion of economic mobility, as older adolescents are making key decisions around educational pathways and early workforce participation that have significant implications for the opportunities that will be available to them in adulthood.

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