An article recently published in The Counseling Psychologist investigated through two related studies whether one’s subjective sense of social class mobility is associated with increased psychological distress. The researchers from the University of Houston and Purdue University, led by Taewon Kim, found that subjective social mobility, whether upward or downward, was associated with increased depressive symptoms in the general population and in students seen in college counseling centers who also showed increases in academic distress.
These findings contradict common sense notions that upward mobility improves mental health and provides evidence for the psychological costs associated with changes in social class-related identity, worldview, and discrimination. When discussing how social class mobility might heighten conflict and distress, the authors note that:
“The disequilibrium of social class worldviews and experiences of classism are critical to understanding social mobility-related distress. Social class groups develop shared understandings of appropriate capital, socialization, behaviors, and lifestyles, which contribute to a person’s social class worldview. When social mobility threatens homeostasis—what is expected of a person based on their social class people may experience psychological distress. Particularly, changes in economic culture and economic privilege may prime financial tensions. In this regard, the loss of resources, capital, and privilege, as well as the identity-related stress with downward mobility, could compromise mental health.
However, while downward social mobility is often thought to lead to poorer health outcomes, the authors noted “additional stressful experiences specific to upward mobility. Notably, people with marginalized identities that experience subjective upward mobility face increased pressure to overcome barriers at the cost of their health.”
While the costs of downward social mobility have been firmly established, including greater distress, impairment, and disorder, research on upward mobility and well-being has produced mixed results. The authors suggest that this may be due to methodological issues in this research base, such as a reliance on objective measures of socioeconomic status (SES) like changes in income and assigning people to class categories (e.g., middle class). These can lack the variability and complexity of how social status is experienced by people, in addition to assuming a linear relationship between changes in social status and well-being.
Instead, the researchers used subjective measures of social status in their studies that are more strongly predictive of psychological outcomes. To capture how relations between childhood subjective social status and current subjective social status were associated with psychological distress, polynomial regressions with a quadratic equation were used to depict a three-dimensional representation of the data. The researchers hypothesized that subjective downward and upward social mobility would be negatively associated with life satisfaction and positively associated with depressive symptoms.
Two studies were conducted in this investigation of social mobility and psychological distress. The first examined social mobility’s association with the general population’s life satisfaction and mental health concerns. The second study focused on a clinical population with particularly salient social mobility issues – students seeking treatment in college counseling centers. This study examined social mobility (defined in Study 2 as financial stress) with depressive symptoms, generalized anxiety symptoms, and academic distress.
The sample for the first study consisted of 567 adults recruited from Mechanical Turk (MTurk). While life satisfaction did not significantly impact the quadratic model, depressive symptoms were significant. The authors note their results:
“Participants who remained in a low or high social status reported more depressive symptomatology than those who stayed in the middle class… [W]hen people reported greater [subjective downward mobility], they reported more depressive symptomatology than those who experienced subjective upward mobility. However, as [social mobility in either direction] increases, depressive symptomatology increases.”
The authors summarize these findings by saying, “both downwardly and upwardly mobile people tend to experience more depressive symptomatology than those who maintain their social status.”
The second study obtained data from 7,598 participants from about 135 counseling centers. Like study one, participants at the extremes of subjective social status reported higher depressive symptom severity. In addition, those who reported subjective downward mobility also reported more depressive symptoms than upwardly mobile participants, though again, social mobility (either downward or upward) positively predicted depressive symptoms.
Regarding generalized anxiety symptoms, only downwardly mobile participants saw an increase compared to upwardly mobile participants. For academic distress, those downwardly mobile reported higher levels of it than the upwardly mobile, while the upwardly mobile experienced more than those who stayed within a middle or upper social status.
While the authors note some interesting findings supporting most of their hypotheses about social mobility and psychological distress, they note some significant limitations. First, due to the statistical modeling techniques used in this study, they were limited in their ability to test for any moderating factors, such as age or other marginalized identities based on race, gender, disability, or sexual orientation.
It is worth considering that the study generally mentioned social status as being defined by social class identity based on variables like income, education, wealth, and occupation. However, these are done without mentioning how modern society’s class stratification causes many mental health issues due to capitalist economic systems that define class by one’s relation to the means of production (capitalist versus working class).
The authors offer several implications for these findings on social mobility and psychological distress, many of which are echoed in the recent publication of the American Psychological Association’s guidelines for working with individuals who are low-income and economically marginalized (LIEM).
They advise clinicians to consider the complexities of social class and mobility in their practice, integrate it as a part of multicultural training, and advocate for services that are responsive to the needs of economically marginalized people. They note:
“First, clinicians can assess clients’ social class trajectory over the lifespan to incorporate their social class identity and economic culture into case conceptualizations. Moreover, clinicians may consider both downward and upward mobility as potential sources of distress, with downward mobility being more strongly related to mental health outcomes. Clinicians might also ask their clients about trajectories in their subjective social status, financial stress, and the extent to which they relate their status-based identity to social mobility.”
For future directions in research, the authors suggest developing scales of social mobility and using longitudinal study designs to examine the interplay of psychological distress and social mobility over the life span. They also encourage more direct studying of how social status disequilibrium and classism relate to mental health rather than proxies of social mobility.
Kim, T., Shein, B., Joy, E. E., Murphy, P. K., & Allan, B. A. (2023). The myth of social mobility: Subjective social mobility and mental health. The Counseling Psychologist, 51(3), 395–421. https://doi.org/10.1177/00110000221148671