It can be easy to think of United States as a classless society. It isn’t. And the growing disparity in income, compliments of the recent recession, is likely to have a strong effect on those children born into disadvantage.

The term income inequality is used to describe a gap between the highest and lowest wage-earners in any given area. Two British authors, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, blame such disparity — in part — on income gaps in their new book called Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better. According to their research, the larger the income disparity in a region, the lower the life expectancy of the people living there, and the higher the rates of:

  • Infant mortality
  • Mental illness
  • Murder rates
  • Drugs

Wilkinson and Pickett lay primary blame on a general inequality that exists in nations around the world. Even when they looked at other factors, this one element stood out the most in their research.

Economic Success and Young People

In 2005, The New York Times ran a series on social class and its effect on young people living in poverty or who were otherwise economically disadvantaged. The first piece, Shadowy Lines Still Divide, highlighted several areas of research about the effect of financial advantage and disadvantage for children growing up in the United States. Although having financial advantage in America provides young people with tremendous opportunities, social mobility is extremely difficult for those who are born into poverty, more so than in several other countries.

“One surprising finding about mobility is that it is not higher in the United States than in Britain or France. It is lower here than in Canada and some Scandinavian countries.”

In the States, living in disadvantage can be a real detriment to future success. And the ability to rise above generational poverty is increasingly more difficult in America.

On the elementary playgrounds of America, it might seem inconsequential. But after a few years, it’s likely that Johnny on the monkey bars and Maria on the swing may have drastically different opportunities, simply because of a disparity in financial “success.”

What Can Parents Do?

There are plenty of questions about the effect a gap in income could have for societies, governments, and individuals. The answers aren’t always easy, and solutions may be hard to come by. But as parents, we can help influence our children in the right direction.

1. Do what you can to teach your children that all people are valuable. Children are going to ask questions about that man sleeping on the street. Think beforehand what you will tell them.

2. Teach children that service to others is important, not for credit or reward, but because it’s the right thing to do.

3. Hold high expectations for children, regardless of your income status, and expect your child’s teachers to do the same. Most school districts have parent resources; take advantage of them.

4. If you’re in a position to improve poor working condition of those in a company, think about what you would like your children to do if they’re in that same position someday, or if they were one of your workers. Then do it, knowing you’re the best role model for your child.