Children from low-income backgrounds are less likely to have economically successful role models and mentors in their own families and neighborhoods, and are more likely to spend time with media. In this article, Melissa Kearney and Phillip Levine review the theoretical and empirical evidence on how these external forces can influence children’s development. The authors also document income-based differences in exposure to social influences. They show that well-designed programs involving role models, mentors, and the media can be deployed deliberately, effectively, and often inexpensively to improve children’s social and economic outcomes.
After highlighting the theoretical reasons why role models, mentors, and the media could alter a child’s life trajectory, the authors report a descriptive analysis showing differences over time and across income class in exposure to these influences. They show that compared to children four decades ago, today’s children spend much more time in school and with media, and less time with parents, peers, and other adults. They also show that young children with low socioeconomic status (SES) spend considerably more time exposed to media and considerably less time in school, as compared to higher-SES children, and encounter very different role models in their neighborhoods.
Kearney and Levine focus on large-scale analyses that credibly claim that a specific intervention had a causal impact on children’s outcomes. The beneficial impact of role models is evident in teachers’ ability to positively influence the educational performance and career decisions of students who share the teacher’s gender or race. Children who participate in formal mentoring programs see improvements in their school performance and are more likely to avoid the criminal justice system. Exposure to specific media content with positive messaging can lead to improved social outcomes. The authors conclude that interventions designed to improve the social influences encountered by children can make an important contribution toward the goal of increasing rates of upward mobility for children in low-income homes in the United States.