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Privilege: Examining Socioeconomic Barriers to Success

Updated: Nov 13

The role of privilege in shaping one’s path to success cannot be denied, as the ever-widening economic disparities within our society serve as a stark reminder of the significant advantages or disadvantages individuals may encounter on their journey toward achievement.

Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers” explores the idea that success isn’t solely a product of individual merit but rather heavily influenced by external factors, such as culture, environment, and opportunities.

In Gladwell’s book, he examines Lewis Terman’s Genetic Studies of Genius, later known as the Terman Study of the Gifted. The early 20th century study set out to investigate whether high IQ students were more successful in life. While the studies have received some criticism for a lack of sample size, the data reveals a somber truth.

When the study subjects were into their adulthood, Terman reviewed the progress of each individual. The top 20% fell into what Terman called the A group. They were deemed the successful candidates by way of their merits. Lawyers, physicians, engineers, and academics. 98% of the As graduated from college and among them had earned 98 graduate degrees. The middle 60% were the B group, those who were gaged as doing “satisfactorily.” The remaining study subjects, the Cs, were the ones who Terman judged to have done the least with their superior mental abilities.

One third of the Cs were college dropouts. A quarter only had a high school diploma, and of the total 150 Cs – all of whom were dubbed geniuses –a mere 8 had earned graduate degrees.

Terman exhaustively examined various factors to understand their impact. These factors included the participants' physical and mental well-being, their scores on masculinity-femininity assessments, their hobbies, and career preferences. He also studied when they began to walk and talk and their exact IQ scores during their elementary and high school years. However, after all the analysis, one factor stood out as the most significant: their family background.

Socioeconomic status (SES) is a term used to describe an individual’s or a family’s position within a society based on a combination of factors, including income, education, occupation, and subjective factors. SES is a way to categorize and measure the relative social and economic standing of individuals or groups in a given community or society.

Socioeconomic status is used as a sociological and economic tool to analyze and understand patterns of inequality and disparities in society. Individuals with higher SES tend to have better access to quality healthcare, education, housing, and other resources. They may also enjoy greater social and economic mobility. Conversely, individuals with lower SES often face barriers to these opportunities, which can result in a cycle of poverty and limited access to resources.

Further studies through the National Institute of Public Health in Denmark have shown that schoolchildren from lower socioeconomic backgrounds have higher odds for daily emotional symptoms and lower levels of high self-efficacy and high social competence compared to schoolchildren from higher socioeconomic positions.

Self-efficacy, a concept popularized by psychologist Albert Bandura, relates to an individual’s belief in their capacity to achieve specific goals or tasks. In essence, it’s about confidence in one’s ability to perform successfully. People with high self-efficacy tend to set more ambitious goals, persevere through challenges, and bounce back from failures. They view setbacks as opportunities for learning and growth. Developing a strong sense of self-efficacy is crucial for building resilience and maintaining motivation, which are vital components of achieving success.

The day-to-day lives of many low-income families are marked by a series of stressors that not only occur frequently and persistently but are also largely beyond their control, presenting significant barriers to their success. For instance, within the family context, children from low-income backgrounds often grapple with unstable and chaotic home environments. This instability can make it difficult for them to establish consistent daily routines, which are crucial for academic and personal development.

Children from low socioeconomic backgrounds also perceive family life as less predictable. On average, they encounter more frequent conflicts and lower-quality family interactions. They tend to experience harsh and punitive parenting methods, along with inconsistent parenting. These family settings are often described as "cold" and "neglectful." It's important to understand that while these labels may be fitting, they are mainly a result of the challenging life circumstances and numerous pressures that low socioeconomic status parents face, rather than deliberate parenting styles.

In turn, these experiences within the broader family and neighborhood social environments provide a framework that shapes the ways in which individuals perceive and respond to stressors.

Research indicates that the economic conditions of the area in which people live can impact how effective their strategies for dealing with stress are. Children who come from low socioeconomic backgrounds tend to develop coping methods that are well-matched to the challenges they face due to limited resources. In such circumstances, individuals place a high value on their ability to handle stress by using techniques like reevaluating their situation and managing their emotions (often called "shifting"). Furthermore, in a low socioeconomic setting, successful adaptation includes the ability to withstand adversity with resilience, find meaning in tough situations, and maintain a positive outlook in the face of difficulties (referred to as "persisting").

Conversely, high SES individuals often find proactive efforts to eliminate stressors more effectively due to their generally greater resources for engaging in preventative actions, resolving problems, and influencing outcomes. This perspective is supported by various studies.

Shifting involves employing strategies to adapt to the external environment. It may encompass altering the interpretation or significance of a stressor to make it seem less threatening, and preventing the stressor from triggering negative emotional reactions in an individual. The advantages of shifting within a low socioeconomic status context are well documented in the fields of developmental psychopathology, lifespan development, and cultural psychology.

Additional studies show that socioeconomic factors such as education had substantial effects on coping strategies and that there was a positive relation between high education level and adaptive coping strategies and a negative relation between low education level and maladaptive coping strategies. Low SES in childhood is related to poor cognitive development, language, memory, socioemotional processing, and consequently poor income and health in adulthood. The school systems in low-SES communities are often under resourced, negatively affecting students’ academic progress and outcomes.


Socioeconomic status has a significant impact on the overall well-being of individuals, influencing both their physical and mental health. Low SES, coupled with factors like lower educational attainment, poverty, and poor health, has far-reaching consequences in society. Inequities in the distribution of health, resources, and quality of life are on the rise, both within Canada and on a global scale. There is a growing need for society to place greater emphasis on addressing the root causes of socioeconomic disparities and take steps to narrow the profound gaps in socioeconomic status, both domestically and internationally for the betterment of all.

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