Relative deprivation theory suggests that perceived socioeconomic standing has implications for multiple aspects of life. Early childhood is critical for later development and concern about effects of rising inequality on children has grown along with inequality in recent decades. However, one of the key requirements for relative deprivation to matter for child outcomes is that children must have a sense of social class and their socioeconomic standing. Because the voices of children are often lost among current debates, this paper poses two questions: 1) How do young children conceive of social class and their standing in the distribution in the context of high inequality; and 2) How do these conceptions develop over time? We conducted longitudinal, semi-structured interviews with 44 young children (ages 5–6), who attend the same three elementary schools in a small Midwestern city. By following the same children over two years, this study is uniquely able to shed light on how conceptions of class develop over time. We found that, as children got older, they increasingly associated money with differences in quality, became more likely to assign value judgements to money, and became less reliant on verbal proof of wealth. Although many children misreport their own socioeconomic standing, our findings suggest young children are aware of social class inequality and may therefore experience relative deprivation. Reducing inequality could mitigate potential implications of relative deprivation for child development.
Year of publication
Children and Youth Services Review