Research at UCLA Lab School Explores Children’s Attitudes on Poverty and Wealth

Professor Rashmita Mistry and a team of researchers at UCLA Ed&IS joined with teachers at UCLA Lab School to design and study new curriculum

By Joanie Harmon and John McDonald

The divide between rich and poor in the United States is greater than at any time since the Great Depression. In 2018, American earners in the top 10 percent average more than nine times as much income as those in the bottom 90 percent. And those in the top one percent average more than 40 times the income than those in the bottom 90 percent. With increases in homelessness, limited access to quality housing and other ills confronting our communities, that divide is often on display. Poverty in America has become plain to see.

But what do children think about poverty? And what can teachers do to help them to understand inequality and its implications for economic opportunity and social justice?

That’s what Professor Rashmita Mistry and a team of researchers at the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies wanted to know. To find the answers they joined with elementary school teachers at UCLA Lab School in an intervention study to design, implement, and evaluate an arts based inquiry guided unit focused on teaching children about wealth and poverty, and civic responsibility.

“Children today are growing up amid heightened levels of poverty and there is a need for schools to further their understanding of economic inequality.”
Rashmita Mistry
Professor of Education

“Children today are growing up amid heightened levels of poverty and there is a need for schools to further their understanding of economic inequality,” Mistry says.

“Teachers can help students to understand these issues, and even to begin to develop strategies for addressing the problems. But they may feel unprepared for these lessons and lack needed resources, training and support. Hopefully this project can provide some guidance.”

Mistry, together with researchers Lindsey Nenadal, Taylor Hazelbaker, and Katherine M. Griffin of UCLA, and Elizabeth S. White, at Illinois State University, teamed up with UCLA Lab School teachers to assess whether explicit instruction influenced students’ reasoning about the meanings, causes, and consequences of wealth and poverty. Mistry and the research team helped teachers develop curriculum that would enable them to discuss, explore, and ultimately, provide their students with an understanding of the many forces that shape socioeconomic status. Embracing the school’s processes of fostering inquiry, Professor Mistry and her team co-created interventions with the teachers that enabled them to have conversations with their students on economic inequality and how it happens.

Teachers engaged students in activities such as reading aloud from books including “A Chair for My Mother” and “Where Children Sleep,” and art activities such as making collage materials that represent feelings about the words “poor, rich, and in-between.” Students also participated in action-oriented projects such as a donation drive to meet children’s nighttime needs for blankets, toothbrushes, pajamas, and other items. Lessons included looking at the similarities and differences between people in different economic groups. Students and teachers discussed using the terms “none, some, most, all” to talk about people, and the difference between “wants” and “needs.” For example, in one classroom, the students worked together to compile a list of things that people need to survive such as food and water, and a list of things that people want, but do not necessarily need in order to live, such as candy and toys.

“The curriculum infused everything else that the teachers were doing,” says Mistry, “bringing in things they might be talking about in math, in their reading circles and language arts. They drew on books and materials with themes of some people having more than others, and how we treat people with respect and fairness and appreciation of those differences.”

To assess the effectiveness of the intervention effort, students from racially and ethnically diverse and mostly middle class backgrounds were enrolled in one of two kindergarten and two combined first and second grade classrooms. Students in one classroom at each grade level were taught the inquiry unit over 5–7 weeks, while students in the other classrooms acted as a comparison group and received instruction as usual. With their parents’ permission, students in both intervention and comparison classrooms were individually interviewed before and after about their conceptions and causes of wealth and poverty, their ideas about wealth distribution in society, and ways to help the poor.

The findings indicated that the curriculum intervention was related to students’ beliefs about wealth and poverty, economic mobility, and ways to help those in need. At the end of the project, students in the intervention classrooms were more likely to say that poverty can change over time and more likely to offer varied ways to help families that were poor beyond giving money, such as in-kind donations or help finding jobs. The results suggest that concrete and developmentally appropriate activities can be beneficial for fostering young students’ perspective and reasoning about economic differences. In addition to findings related to economic mobility and helping behavior, the study observed modest evidence of an impact of the curriculum intervention on students’ beliefs about wealth and poverty, and mixed evidence of impacts on their causal attributions for wealth and poverty.

“We asked the straightforward question, ‘If someone is rich, will they always be rich? And if someone is poor, will be they always be poor?’” Mistry says. “And we found that the kids in classrooms where the teachers were having these conversations were less likely to say yes, which I think is an important shift in terms of thinking about mobility, in the fact that it is changeable.”

Mistry’s team also found that the children’s solutions to poverty were not limited to simply handing out money.

“Their responses around how you can help someone—a family or a child that is experiencing financial hardship— tended to give us more different kinds of [solutions] rather than just giving money. In fact, they were less likely to say to give them money than they were to say that you could help by giving material goods or providing shelter or helping them get or train for a better job, things like that.

“The kids in the intervention classes were more likely to mention these kinds of structural attributions. They were more likely to say that you could be rich or poor because of the kind of job you have or because you have a better education. Pretty simple, but still, this idea that it’s not just about how you behave. So, you’re not poor because you’ve spent all your money or because you’re not working hard. There can be other reasons that are outside of your own control that can make it more or less likely.”

Professor Mistry added that the kindergarten-age children are aware of wealth and poverty, although at first it tends to run to extremes.

“The results suggest that concrete and developmentally appropriate activities can be beneficial for fostering young students’ perspective and reasoning about economic differences.”

“We know that their concepts are pretty concrete,” she says. “If you give them photographs of houses and cars and different kinds of possessions, they are able to sort them into piles pretty accurately, what is rich and what is poor. Little kids tend to equate being rich with having lots of nice things. Being poor is the absence of possessions [or being] homeless, and being rich means you have a nice, fancy house. It’s not just about the amount of [things], but the quality of those things as well.

“As they get a little bit older—like between the ages of five and seven— we know they’re starting to develop some idea of the causes of why people become rich or poor. Seven and eight year- olds have this sense that you get money from work or because you did well at school. The little ones think you find money—they associate it with treasure or someone stole your money—that is a typical response we would get.”

Mistry notes that eventually, the children’s thinking would evolve into the concept of a middle class.

“The teachers were trying to get them to think about distribution and dispersion,” she says. “At one point, the students themselves started outlining a continuum. They said, ‘At one end, you have people who have nothing. You can have someone who is homeless, who doesn’t even have shelter. But you can also have a place to live but not have enough money for food or you don’t have nice clothes.’ So, they started talking about this and at one point they decided, ‘There are people who have enough. They have enough food, they have a place to live, they have a good job. But they don’t have extras.’”

Professor Mistry says that the yearlong observations of UCLA Lab School teachers utilizing the specially designed curriculum revealed that, “When you have these carefully scaffolded and guided conversations with students, you can extract that level of understanding. It’s there, but it has to be guided. The nice thing about the Lab School is that they have mixed-grade classrooms. Even though that level of understanding may have been coming from the older children in the classroom, the younger children were a part of this conversation, so they were at least, exposed to it.”

Mistry says that while the study revealed only gradual shifts in children’s thinking about poverty and wealth, the ability to observe these students further as their thinking matured might show the curriculum as building blocks for a better understanding about economic inequality.

“We’re not thinking that this is, in and of itself, going to shift their thinking,” says Mistry. “Part of it is that they’re already thinking of these things. So, you’re helping children understand how they should be taking in information and processing it, rather than necessarily saying there’s a right and wrong answer.”

In their research, Mistry and her team conclude that it is imperative that schools foster students’ understanding and reasoning about economic inequality. They believe that instruction about poverty and economic inequality should start early and be delivered in coordination with efforts to help students become justice-oriented citizens. They also argue there is a compelling need for more resources to help educators engage in such dialogue and inquiry with their students, especially in the early grades and that such efforts should be taken up systematically by schools, at a district, state, and national level to more optimally influence young minds about economics and civics more generally.

“As adults, we tend to do a lot of victim blaming [toward] the poor, so our attributions tend to be overwhelmingly individual: you are poor because you have failed to work hard. You have failed to get a good education. If we can do something that helps younger children reflect on that more and reflect on whether all poor people didn’t work hard enough, or whether all rich people worked really hard … we can get them to step back and think about some other reasons.”

This article draws on “Promoting Elementary School-Age Children’s Understanding of Wealth, Poverty, and Civic Engagement,” Rashmita S. Mistry, Lindsey Nenadal, Taylor Hazelbaker, and Katherine M. Griffin, University of California, Los Angeles; and Elizabeth S. White, Illinois State University, excerpted from PS: Political Science & Politics, October 2017. To read the full article: