Journal of Youth and Adolescence

, Volume 45, Issue 11, pp 2218–2232 | Cite as

The Kids are All Right? Income Inequality and Civic Engagement among Our Nation’s Youth

Empirical Research


Prior work suggests that income inequality depresses civic participation among adults. However, associations between income inequality and youth civic engagement have not been assessed. This is true despite evidence that other features of communities influence youth civic development. To fill the gap, we examine associations between county-level income inequality and civic engagement among a nationally representative sample of 12,240 15-year-olds (50 % female). We find opposite patterns than those suggested by the adult literature. Higher county-level income inequality is associated with slightly more civic engagement (greater importance of helping others, higher rates of volunteering often), and this is particularly true for low-socioeconomic status and racial/ethnic minority youth. Potential developmental and structural explanations for these differences are offered. In addition, practical implications of these findings are drawn, and future research directions for scholars studying youth are proposed.


Income inequality Civic participation Adolescence Youth Civic engagement Socioeconomic status SES Poverty Racial/ethnic differences 



The authors wish to thank the anonymous reviewers and the editor of Journal of Youth and Adolescence for their helpful feedback on earlier versions of this manuscript.

Author Contributions

EG conceived of the study, advised the statistical analyses and drafted the manuscript; H-YSC helped to conceive the study, performed the statistical analyses, and drafted and revised the manuscript. Both authors read and approved the final manuscript.

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that they have no competing interests.

Ethical Approval and Consent to Participate

All data analyses in the current article were performed on anonymous and secondary data. This research is considered exempt by New York University’s human subjects review. Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).


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© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Applied Psychology, Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human DevelopmentNew York UniversityNew YorkUSA
  2. 2.Department of Humanities and Social Sciences in the Professions, Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human DevelopmentNew York UniversityNew YorkUSA

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