Socioeconomic and Racial Gaps in Schools: Implications for Health and Employment

Project: Research project

Project Details


For lower SES and racial minority children, school experiences are often characterized by inequalities in which they are disadvantaged relative to higher SES and White children. In many schools, lower SES children and African-American and Hispanic children are more likely to be disciplined, are tracked into lower level courses, and have lower grades than their higher SES and White peers1, 2. Both gaps have been persistent, with the racial achievement gap holding steady over the past several decades, and the socioeconomic achievement gap increasing2, 3.
We propose that attending school in environments with racial and socioeconomic inequality in academic outcomes may have long-run implications for life outcomes of members of disadvantaged groups. Existing research has begun to highlight some potential negative impacts of these types of disparities. For example, exposure to and awareness of socioeconomic and racial inequality in academic outcomes undermine the academic persistence and achievement of lower SES and racial minority students, who may believe that the deck is stacked against them and they lack chances to succeed4-6. Indeed, being told about inequality in which one’s own group underperforms relative to another impairs students’ academic performance7, 8.
Research on the consequences of school inequality has focused mainly on academic outcomes. However, we propose that racial and socioeconomic inequality in schools may have implications for other outcomes as well, including health. Specifically, we suggest that attending schools where there are large gaps between the academic performance of Whites and racial minorities and large gaps between the academic performance of children with higher and lower socioeconomic status has the potential to undermine the health of racial minorities and lower SES children, with potential consequences for educational and occupation trajectories.
In formulating this hypothesis, we draw on a literature on the health effects of socioeconomic inequality. Even controlling the absolute level of resources in a geographic location, children and adults who live in states or countries with higher levels of socioeconomic inequality (e.g., greater income inequality) have worse health, especially if they are from lower socioeconomic backgrounds9-14. This may occur because greater inequality undermines trust and social cohesion15, 16. Among those with fewer financial resources, socioeconomic inequality also increases psychological distress and lowers people’s subjective sense of where they fall in the social hierarchy17, 18. These psychological and social experiences, in turn, negatively impact physical health19-21. We propose that similar effects could emerge in the school context among children in groups that are disadvantaged.
Initial support for this hypothesis comes from a study on gender-based academic inequality in two independent samples (approximately 250 children in each), one sample focused on cardiovascular disease risk in healthy children and the other on asthma outcomes in children with asthma. In both cases, we examined the interaction between children’s gender and the gap in standardized test scores between boys and girls in their school. Almost all participants attended schools where girls performed better on standardized tests than did boys, as is consistent with national trends22. The greater the gap in standardized test scores (i.e., the more girls did better than boys), the worse the health of boys in both samples. In the sample of healthy children, this gap predicted a greater num
Effective start/end date12/1/1711/30/18


  • Russell Sage Foundation (96-18-01)


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