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Keywords:

  • socioeconomic status;
  • poverty duration;
  • chronic stress;
  • self-esteem;
  • symptoms of depression;
  • the transition to adulthood

Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Background
  5. Method
  6. Results
  7. Discussion
  8. Acknowledgments
  9. References

Although several longitudinal studies have demonstrated that having a disadvantaged family background is a risk factor for subsequent symptoms of depression, few studies have examined the mediating mechanisms that explain this long-term relationship. Thus, this study uses US national longitudinal data and integrates social stress theory with the life course perspective by focusing on two mediating mechanisms—the chronic stress of poverty and self-esteem during the transition to adulthood. Results reveal that self-esteem largely mediates the inverse relationship between parental education and levels of depressive symptoms in young adulthood. However, the inverse relationship between parental occupational prestige and depressive symptoms among young adults is not mediated by self-esteem, but rather long durations of poverty across 16 years. Overall, these findings suggest that different components of family socioeconomic status can leave a lasting imprint on mental health via the self-concept and the chronic stress of poverty throughout the journey to adulthood. Copyright © 2013 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.


Introduction

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Background
  5. Method
  6. Results
  7. Discussion
  8. Acknowledgments
  9. References

A number of longitudinal studies have demonstrated that having a disadvantaged family background is a risk factor for symptoms of depression in subsequent life stages (Duncan, Brooks-Gunn, & Klebanov, 1994; Elovainio et al., 2012; Gilman, Kawachi, Fitzmaurice, & Buka, 2002; Goosby, 2007; Harley & Mortimer, 2000; Harper et al., 2002; Kosidou et al., 2011; Lee, Wickrama, & Simons, 2013; McLaughlin et al., 2011; McLeod & Shanahan, 1993, 1996; Melchior et al., 2013; Mossakowski, 2008a; Power, Stansfeld, Matthews, Manor, & Hope, 2002; Ritsher, Warner, Johnson, & Dohrenwend, 2001; Stansfeld, Clark, Rodgers, Caldwell, & Power, 2010; Turner, Taylor, & Van Gundy, 2004). More longitudinal research, however, needs to examine the mediating mechanisms that explain this relationship early in the life course (Franziska, 2013). Furthermore, life course researchers argue that it is imperative to investigate longitudinally both risk factors and protective factors during the transition to adulthood because early adulthood is the stage at which the onset of depression can occur (Kessler et al., 2003). According to social stress theory, a major risk factor for depression is exposure to stress, whereas vulnerability to stress depends on protective factors, such as psychosocial resources (Pearlin, Menaghan, Lieberman, & Mullan, 1981). Guided by social stress theory and the life course perspective, the current study uses national longitudinal survey data to focus on two mediating mechanisms—self-esteem (a psychosocial resource) and the chronic stress of poverty (a risk factor) during the transition to adulthood—to help explain why disadvantaged family background can lead to symptoms of depression among young adults in the United States.

Background

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Background
  5. Method
  6. Results
  7. Discussion
  8. Acknowledgments
  9. References

Social stress theory

A number of mechanisms that link family socioeconomic status (SES) to depression have been examined, such as exposure to stressful life events, financial strain, parenting behaviours, family structure, social networks, victimization, neighbourhood disorder and psychosocial coping resources (Barrett & Turner, 2005; Conger, Ge, Elder, Lorenz, & Simmons, 1994; Ge, Conger, Lorenz, & Simons, 1994; Harris & Marmer, 1996; Hill, Kaplan, French, & Johnson, 2010; Pearlin et al., 1981; Ross & Huber, 1985; Thoits, 2013; Turner et al., 2004). From the standpoint of social stress theory, disadvantaged SES increases exposure to stressors and vulnerability to stress due to limited coping resources, which in turn, lead to symptoms of depression (Pearlin et al., 1981). Sociologists have highlighted key coping resources as stress mediators: perceived social support from friends and family, a sense of personal control over life or mastery and self-esteem (for reviews see, Pearlin & Bierman, 2013; Ross & Mirowsky, 2013; Thoits, 2013; Turner & Turner, 2013). Longitudinal research is still needed, however, to demonstrate that the effect of stress is being channelled through the intervening mechanism of self-esteem to influence subsequent symptoms of mental illness (Thoits, 2013, p. 365).

According to the social stress process model, the self-concept is an intervening mechanism through which stress can lead to mental illness (Pearlin et al., 1981). The self-concept encompasses an individual's thoughts and feelings about herself or himself (Rosenberg, 1989). Self-esteem is a dimension of the self-concept that involves judgments that an individual makes about his or her own self-worth and competence (Rosenberg, 1989). Research has shown that low self-esteem is associated with symptoms depression in young adulthood and adulthood (Pearlin et al., 1981; Pearlin & Schooler, 1978; Turner & Lloyd, 1999; Turner et al., 2004). Research also indicates that the development of self-esteem during the transition to adulthood is influenced in part by parents' levels of SES (Demo & Savin-Williams, 1983; McLeod & Nonnemaker, 1999; McLeod & Owens, 2004; Rosenberg & Pearlin, 1978; Wiltfang & Scarbecz, 1990). Thus, low self-esteem is a potential mediating mechanism in the relationship between earlier disadvantaged levels of parental SES and symptoms of depression in young adulthood.

Social evaluation theory argues that youths and young adults from families with low SES can feel inferior and internalize their perceived disadvantage when they judge themselves compared with others with higher status lifestyles (Rosenberg & Pearlin, 1978). Accordingly, when adolescents and young adults have a disadvantaged family background, they may unfavourably compare themselves to those of higher SES, and the negative self-evaluations can damage their self-concepts by weakening self-esteem (McLeod & Nonnemaker, 1999). In addition to social comparisons, individuals also make self-evaluations by interpreting how their SES is evaluated by family and friends, referred to as reflected appraisals (Rosenberg, 1989). In other words, the reflected appraisal process involves individuals basing their self-worth on how they think others see them (Cooley, 1922; Mead, 1934; Rosenberg & Pearlin, 1978). For example, adolescents from low-income families may receive degrading comments about their poverty status and experience unfair treatment because of the stigma, which could reduce their self-esteem and infect the formation of their self-concepts. In contrast, families with high levels of SES can specifically provide an advantaged social status for their children and opportunities that can enhance their socioeconomic attainment. For example, educational success itself can lead to positive self-attributions through a sense of competence, which bolsters self-esteem during the pivotal stage of adolescence (Rosenberg & Pearlin, 1978; Ross & Broh, 2000). Therefore, adolescents and young adults who come from families with privileged SES may not only be endowed with the educational, financial and material assets to help them to succeed but also the psychological asset of strong self-esteem. Moreover, there is evidence that the effect of family SES on self-esteem is stronger after childhood because social class becomes more salient in adolescence and young adulthood (Demo & Savin-Williams, 1983; Rosenberg & Pearlin, 1978; Wiltfang & Scarbecz, 1990). To summarize, self-attributions, reflected appraisals and social comparisons explain how family SES can become internalized through the development of self-esteem and thus leave a lasting imprint on mental health.

Strong self-esteem is a valuable psychosocial resource because it can be a motivational force and a stress-buffer that protects mental health, thus reducing the likelihood of becoming depressed in young adulthood (Pearlin et al., 1981; Rosenberg, 1989). The social stress model predicts that those young adults from families with histories of disadvantaged SES are more likely to be exposed to the stress of economic hardship and be more vulnerable to the stress because of their eroded self-esteem and limited ability to cope, which make them more prone to depression (Pearlin et al., 1981). Yet, some scholars claim that American culture has overestimated the disadvantages of low self-esteem and the advantages of high self-esteem for the life course of adolescents and young adults (Baumeister, Campbell, Krueger, & Vohs, 2003; Crocker & Park, 2004). Therefore, the first part of this study was inspired by social stress theory to evaluate whether earlier self-esteem is an important mediating mechanism that helps to explain why different components of family background (parental education and parental occupational prestige) have enduring effects on symptoms of depression among young adults in the United States.

The life course perspective

Studying chronic stress integrates social stress theory with the life course perspective (Pearlin, Schieman, Fazio, & Meersman, 2005; Pearlin & Skaff, 1996). The life course perspective recognizes the timing and duration of an experience (Elder, Johnson, & Crosnoe, 2004). The duration of stress has been examined by sociological studies, which have shown that chronic stressors have stronger associations with symptoms of depression than acute stressors (Avison & Turner, 1988; Pearlin et al., 1981; Ross & Huber, 1985). Thus, it is important to measure chronic stress to advance our understanding of mental health problems. A limitation of the literature on mental health is that most studies measure stress at one point in time with cross-sectional data.

According to the life course perspective, one way to examine chronic stress is by measuring disadvantaged family SES at multiple points in time longitudinally. The stress of family economic hardship can be perceived to be chronic not only when poverty is ongoing but also when it is intermittent, such as when a family's income falls below the poverty line and then hovers slightly above for a number of years (Ross & Huber, 1995). Moreover, the cumulative disadvantages can make it difficult for young adults to escape poverty with their own achievements after they have left the parental home (Conger et al., 1994; O'Rand, 1996). Research on status attainment has established that parental poverty significantly impacts the socioeconomic achievements of the next generation (Duncan, Featherman, & Duncan, 1972). To be sure, the intergenerational transmission of poverty still persists especially in the United States.

The life course perspective has guided medical sociologists to measure the length of time that American families have experienced poverty to capture chronic stress and the extent of the deleterious effects on mental health. Important predictors of entry into poverty status are parents' low levels of education and occupational prestige. Experiencing poverty involves chronic stressors, such as economic hardship (e.g. struggling to find employment or stay employed, and difficulties paying bills and providing adequate food, shelter, clothing and healthcare), and being anchored in a low-income area surrounded with household disrepair and neighbourhood disorder (e.g. graffiti, litter, loitering and broken windows), which can generate feelings of shame, fear of crime, anxiety and sadness (Hill et al., 2010; Lee et al., 2013; Ross & Huber, 1985). According to the life course perspective, the effects of chronic stressors add up over a number of years and can significantly damage mental health by intensifying symptoms of depression over time (Pearlin et al., 2005; Pearlin & Skaff, 1996).

The social causation of depression involves the stressful conditions of poverty early in life leading to symptoms of depression (Dohrenwend et al., 1992; Miech, Caspi, Moffitt, Entner Wright, & Silva, 1999; Ritsher et al., 2001). The causal or temporal ordering of the relationship between poverty and depression can be determined with longitudinal data. Longitudinal studies have demonstrated that the number of years that American families have experienced poverty status significantly increases levels of depressive symptoms among children, adolescents and young adults, regardless of current socioeconomic conditions and earlier mental health problems (Duncan et al., 1994; Goosby, 2007; Lee et al., 2013; McLeod & Shanahan, 1993, 1996; Mossakowski, 2008a). Taking into account earlier mental health problems tests for selection effects or whether earlier depression may explain this long-term relationship between family SES and depression. Together, these longitudinal findings provide compelling evidence for the intergenerational social causation of depression via the chronic stress of a family's poverty status. Therefore, the second part of the current study was guided by the life course perspective and examines the extent to which the effects of different components of earlier family SES (i.e. parents' education and occupational prestige) on a young adult's symptoms of depression are each explained by the stress of long durations of poverty.

In sum, the social causation of depression can be an intergenerational process that initially operates through a family's achieved SES, namely parents' education and occupational prestige. The consequent stressful conditions in which the family raises their children (e.g. persistent poverty and economic hardship) as well as the socialization of their children (e.g. self-esteem development), ultimately lead to their susceptibility to symptoms of depression during young adulthood (please see the conceptual model in Figure 1). Thus, self-esteem and the chronic stress of poverty could be mediating mechanisms that partially explain this long-term relationship. Accordingly, this study tests three main hypotheses:

Hypothesis 1. Lower levels of earlier family SES (parental education and parental occupational prestige) will predict higher levels of depressive symptoms among young adults in the United States.

Hypothesis 2. The depressive effects of low levels of parental education and parental occupational prestige will each be partially mediated by low self-esteem during the transition to adulthood.

Hypothesis 3. The depressive effects of low levels of parental education and parental occupational prestige will each be partially mediated by the chronic stress of long durations of poverty.

image

Figure 1. Conceptual model

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Method

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Background
  5. Method
  6. Results
  7. Discussion
  8. Acknowledgments
  9. References

Data

This study uses data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY) 1979, based on a nationally representative probability sample of young adults in the United States (U.S. Department of Labor, 1999). The NLSY began in 1979 and sampled 12,686 individuals at ages 14 to 22. The respondents were interviewed annually from 1979 to 1994, and then, they were interviewed every 2 years. Therefore, their cumulative exposure to poverty status could be measured each year from 1979 to 1994 to estimate the chronicity of economic hardship. Essentially, the NLSY79 was designed to study the transition to adulthood, and the duration of poverty can be measured over a longer span of time than other US surveys on the mental health of young adults, which make it an ideal dataset for this study. These young adults are the younger cohort of the Baby Boom generation, born between 1 January 1957 and 31 December 1964.

The retention rate for the NLSY79 is excellent (95.7% for the year after the survey began and 89.2% for the 1994 wave). Because of attrition, 1050 respondents were excluded from the 1994 wave; two sub-samples (2923 respondents from the military sample and the economically disadvantaged non-Black/non-Hispanic sample) were also excluded from the analyses in this study because they were discontinued before 1994, decreasing the eligible sample size to 8713. The final sample size is 8215 for the ordinary least squares (OLS) regression models that examine whether self-esteem (1980 wave) is a mediating mechanism in the relationship between disadvantaged family background (1979 wave) and depressive symptoms (1994 wave), controlling for prior depressive symptoms (1992 wave). Most of the sample reduction was from listwise deletion of missing data because of attrition. Mean imputation was used to replace missing values for the following independent variables: family background and prior self-esteem. Because imputation techniques can provide biased results, sensitivity analyses confirmed that the results did not substantively vary when listwise deletion was used rather than mean imputation (Allison, 2002). The sample size is smaller (n = 6936) for the OLS regression models that evaluate the mediating effect of poverty duration (1979 wave to 1994 wave) because of listwise deletion of missing data that accumulated primarily from attrition across multiple waves. Therefore, the data for the OLS regression analyses were weighted using the sample weight created by the National Opinion Research Center, which readjusts for non-responses from year-to-year attrition, differential probabilities of selection and post-stratification to known sub-population sizes (NLSY User's Guide, 1999). Another sensitivity analysis compares the commensurate findings for the two sample sizes in the results section (Allison, 2002).

Measures

Dependent variable

The dependent variable measures self-reported levels of depressive symptoms with the seven-item abbreviated Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression (CES-D) scale from the 1994 NLSY79 wave. Depressive symptoms were also measured in the 1998 wave at ages 33 to 41, but only respondents ages 40 and older were interviewed about depression, which would have drastically reduced the sample size and not included young adults. The original CES-D scale and the abbreviated scale are valid and reliable measures of depression for adolescents and young adults (Carpenter et al., 1998; Radloff, 1977, 1991). The CES-D scale has been one of the most widely used measures of depression in the United States and internationally (McDowell, 2006). The items were summed and coded so that higher values signified higher levels of depressive symptoms, yielding a range of 0 to 21. The internal consistency of the scale is high (Cronbach's alpha = 0.81). Preliminary OLS regression results (not shown) that logged the depressive symptom scale provided consistent results.

Independent variables
Family background

Two independent variables measure family background in the 1979 wave: parental education and parental occupational prestige. The respondents were asked about the highest grade or year of regular school ever completed by their mother and father. The highest level achieved by either parent was used to measure parental education. The respondents were also asked about the occupation of the adult man and woman in the household when they were age 14. The variable was constructed by matching the Hodge–Siegel–Rossi prestige scores with the three-digit 1970 US Census Bureau occupational classifications indicating the respondents' parents' occupations (Hodge, Siegel, & Rossi, 1964). Please see Appendix F in the General Social Surveys Cumulative Codebook 1972 to 2008 for a list of the corresponding occupation scores (National Opinion Research Center, 2013). The highest level for either parent was used to create parental occupational prestige.

Prior self-esteem

The first mediating mechanism that is examined in this study is prior self-esteem. It is measured with Rosenberg's (1989) self-esteem scale from the 1980 wave when the respondents were ages 15 to 23. The respondents were asked if they strongly agree, agree, disagree or strongly disagree with items, such as ‘I feel that I am a person of worth’ and ‘I take a positive attitude toward myself.’ The 10 items are coded so that higher scores correspond with higher levels of self-esteem, and the scale is summed. The minimum score for the self-esteem scale is 17 and, the maximum is 40. The reliability of the scale is very good (Cronbach's alpha = 0.82).

Poverty duration

The second mediating mechanism is the duration of poverty from the 1979 wave to the 1994 wave. Measures of ‘family poverty status’ in the NLSY79 were created by the Center for Human Resource Research, on the basis of annual household income, family size and the yearly poverty guideline from the US Department of Health and Human Services. Because respondents often do not feel comfortable disclosing their family's income, the per cent of the sample that had missing data for poverty ranged from 3.75% to 18.02% across the waves. Fortunately, the NLSY respondents who had missing values for poverty answered whether they had received Aid to Families with Dependent Children, food stamps or welfare assistance. Following other studies, ‘poverty status’ was assigned to those respondents who received Aid to Families with Dependent Children or food stamps, and respondents who had not received income assistance in the past year were assigned to the ‘not in poverty’ category (McLeod & Shanahan, 1996; Mossakowski, 2008a, 2008b). The number of years of poverty was measured from 1979 to 1994 because the respondents were interviewed annually during that period, and then, they were interviewed every 2 years. Dichotomous measures of poverty status from each of the 16 waves were summed to create the variable for poverty duration.

Control variables

Dummy variables were constructed to control for demographics, which include gender (female = 1), current marital status (1994 wave) (previously married = 1; never married = 1; married = reference category) and race/ethnicity (Black = 1; Hispanic = 1; White = reference category). The sample identification code that distinguishes the NLSY79 subsamples by Blacks, Hispanics and Whites is used, which is the standard NLSY variable for race/ethnicity (U.S. Department of Labor, 1999:261). The NLSY79 included an oversample of Blacks and Hispanics to ensure adequate sample sizes to control for race/ethnicity. Age is also a control variable ranging from 29 to 37 (1994 wave).

To evaluate the strength of the social causation of depression, it is important to take into account earlier symptoms of depression to test for mental health selection (Miech et al., 1999). Therefore, the 20-item CES-D scale in the 1992 wave (the first wave to measure depression) is used to control for prior depressive symptoms (Radloff, 1977). The respondents were asked how often in the past week they experienced 20 symptoms of depression. The frequency of depressive symptoms ranges from (0) rarely or none of the time or 1 day; (1) some or a little of the time or 1 to 2 days; (2) occasionally or a moderate amount of the time or 3 to 4 days; to (3) most or all of the time or 5 to 7 days. The items are coded so that higher values signify higher levels of depressive symptoms. The items are summed, yielding a range from 0 to 60 (Cronbach's alpha = 0.88).

Results

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Background
  5. Method
  6. Results
  7. Discussion
  8. Acknowledgments
  9. References

Table 1 shows the descriptive statistics, which include the means and ranges for the variables. As a sensitivity analysis, Table 1 compares the descriptive statistics for the sample (n = 8215) in column 1 with the smaller sample in column 2 (n = 6936). The sample in column 1 is used for the OLS regression analyses that examine whether prior self-esteem mediates the relationship between disadvantaged family background and depressive symptoms. The smaller sample in column 2 is used for the analyses of the mediating effect of poverty duration across multiple NLSY79 waves. The descriptive statistics in columns 1 and 2 are consistent, which suggests that the listwise deletion of missing data did not bias the results.

Table 1. Descriptive statistics: means and ranges
VariablesMeanMeanRange
 n = 8215 *n = 6936 * 
  • *

    n = 8215 for the ordinary least squares regression models that examine whether self-esteem mediates the relationship between disadvantaged family background and depressive symptoms. n = 6936 for the analyses of the mediating effect of the duration of poverty status.

  • Occupational prestige is measured with the Hodge–Siegel–Rossi scale.

  • Poverty duration is from 1979 to 1994. Poverty status is based on annual household income, family size and the annual poverty guidelines of the US Department of Health and Human Services.

Family background   
Parental education11.6611.740–20
Parental occupational prestige34.0034.370–86
Demographics   
Female0.520.530–1
Age33.0033.0029–37
Black0.300.300–1
Hispanic0.190.180–1
White0.510.520–1
Previously married0.180.180–1
Never married0.260.260–1
Married0.560.560–1
Mental health   
Depressive symptoms3.793.740–21
Prior Depressive symptoms9.739.680–60
Prior Self-esteem32.2232.2317–40
Poverty status   
Poverty duration3.000–16

According to Table 1, the average level of parental education is approximately 12 years (high school), and the average parental occupational prestige corresponds to occupations in sales. Column 1 indicates that the levels of depressive symptoms are within the range to be expected for a general population (Radloff, 1977, 1991), and the mean level of self-esteem is 32 with a minimum of 17 and a maximum of 40. Column 2 shows that the average duration of poverty from 1979 to 1994 is 3 years.

Model 1 in Table 2 evaluates the strength of the effects of parental education and parental occupational prestige on levels of depressive symptoms at ages 29 to 37 by controlling for gender, age, race/ethnicity and marital status. According to the standardized OLS regression coefficients in model 1, lower levels of parental education (beta = −0.054; p < 0.001) and parental occupational prestige (beta = − 0.059; p < 0.001) are statistically significant predictors of higher subsequent levels of depressive symptoms, adjusting for demographics. These findings confirm the first hypothesis of this study. Also, supplementary analyses reveal that parental education and parental occupation explain 2% of the variance in levels of depressive symptoms in young adulthood.

Table 2. Ordinary least squares regression models of family background, demographics,and prior mental health predicting symptoms of depression at ages 29 to 37
VariablesModel 1Model 2Model 3Model 4
  • Notes: n = 8215. Regression coefficients are standardized betas and the data are weighted.

  • Reference category is White.

  • Reference category is married.

  • §

    Prior self-esteem is at ages 15 to 23.

  • Prior depressive symptoms are at ages 27 to 35.

  • *

    p < 0.05,

  • **

    p < 0.01 and

  • ***

    p < 0.001 (two-tailed tests).

Family background    
Parental education−0.054***−0.025−0.029*−0.016
Parental occupation−0.059***−0.052***−0.048***−0.044**
Demographics    
Female0.168***0.162***0.129***0.127***
Age0.0020.028*−0.0020.011
Black0.0080.014−0.016−0.011
Hispanic0.0030.003−0.006−0.005
Previously married0.145***0.136***0.080***0.078***
Never married0.083***0.073***0.041**0.038**
Prior mental health    
Prior self-esteem§−0.160***0.370***
Prior depressive symptoms0.387***−0.083***
Intercept3.7276.8982.3254.023
R20.0660.0890.2060.212

Model 2 in Table 2 examines the second hypothesis, whether prior self-esteem at ages 15 to 23 is a mediating mechanism in the relationship between family background and depressive symptoms at ages 29 to 37. The effect of parental education on depressive symptoms is substantially reduced and no longer statistically significant when prior self-esteem is added to the equation, which suggests that it is a mediating mechanism (Baron & Kenny, 1986). More specifically, prior self-esteem explains more than half (53.7%) of the depressive effect of low parental education. As expected, lower levels of prior self-esteem predict (beta = −0.160; p < 0.001) increased levels of depressive symptoms. Supplementary analyses (available on request) indicate that parental education has a statistically significant and positive effect (beta = 0.180; p < 0.001) on self-esteem, which provides further evidence that self-esteem is a mediating mechanism in the relationship between earlier parental education and depressive symptoms in young adulthood (Baron & Kenny, 1986). Additionally, the Sobel test confirms that self-esteem is a significant partial mediator (z = −9.814; p < 0.001) (Baron & Kenny, 1986). Thus, the second hypothesis is proven for parental education. Interestingly, the relationship between low parental occupational prestige and depressive symptoms in model 2 is relatively unchanged (beta = −0.052; p < 0.001) compared with model 1 (beta = −0.059; p < 0.001). Prior self-esteem does not mediate that relationship.

Model 3 in Table 2 adjusts for prior depressive symptoms to evaluate the strength of the intergenerational social causation of depression by accounting for selection effects. A mental health selection effect is when earlier symptoms of depression mediate or explain why past parental SES is linked with subsequent symptoms of depression in young adulthood. Results in model 3 reveal that parental education and parental occupation still have statistically significant, negative relationships with depressive symptoms over and above controlling for prior depressive symptoms, which is evidence for social causation. Supplementary analyses that used the abbreviated 7-item CES-D in both waves indicated that disadvantaged family background predicted an increase in levels of depressive symptoms between the two time-points.

Model 4 in Table 2 adjusts for demographics, prior self-esteem and prior depressive symptoms. In model 4, the inverse relationship between parental education and depressive symptoms is further reduced and is not statistically significant (beta = −0.016) because of the inclusion of self-esteem. The inverse effect of parental occupational prestige on depressive symptoms, however, is slightly reduced and continues to be significant (beta = −0.044; p < 0.01), net of demographics and prior mental health.

Table 3 examines whether cumulative exposure to poverty status across 16 years is a mediating mechanism in the lasting relationship between parental SES and depressive symptoms in young adulthood. Model 1 in Table 3 is a sensitivity analysis because the sample size is smaller for the analyses of poverty duration because of listwise deletion of missing data. Results in model 1 of Table 3 do not substantively differ from the results in model 1 of Table 2: parental education (beta = −0.057; p < 0.001) and parental occupational prestige (beta = −0.059; p < 0.001) have significant negative effects on levels of depressive symptoms, adjusting for demographics.

Table 3. Ordinary least squares regression models of family background, demographics, prior mental health and poverty duration predicting symptoms of depression at ages 29 to 37
VariablesModel 1Model 2Model 3
  • Notes: n = 6936. Regression coefficients are standardized betas and the data are weighted.

  • Reference category is White.

  • Reference category is married.

  • §

    The number of years of poverty status is from 1979 to 1994. Poverty status is based on annual household income, family size and the annual poverty guidelines from the US Department of Health and Human Services.

  • Prior self-esteem is at ages 15 to 23.

  • Prior depressive symptoms are at ages 27 to 35.

  • *

    p < 0.05,

  • **

    p < 0.01 and

  • ***

    p < 0.001 (two-tailed tests).

Family background   
Parental education−0.057***−0.035*−0.012
Parental occupation−0.059***−0.030−0.026
Demographics   
Female0.166***0.148**0.119***
Age0.0010.0100.013
Black0.002−0.039**−0.036**
Hispanic0.006−0.015−0.018*
Previously married0.152***0.125***0.072***
Never married0.081***0.054***0.023
Prior Poverty   
Poverty duration§ 0.165***0.085***
Prior mental health   
Prior self-esteem  −0.072***
Prior depressive symptoms  0.356***
Intercept3.8952.5543.275
R20.0680.0880.216

Poverty duration is added to model 2 in Table 3. The depressive effect of low parental education decreases by 38.6% compared with model 1 and has a lower level statistical significance (p < 0.05). According to the Sobel test, poverty duration is a significant partial mediator (z = −6.882; p < 0.001). The depressive effect of low parental occupational prestige is reduced by almost 50% and is no longer statistically significant while controlling for poverty duration. Supplementary analyses indicate that low parental SES is associated with significantly longer durations of poverty. The Sobel test further verifies that poverty duration is a significant partial mediator (z = −7.509; p < 0.001) of the relationship between parental occupational prestige and symptoms of depression. Additionally, results in model 3 in Table 3 show that poverty duration is a significant risk factor (b = 0.085; p < 0.001) for depressive symptoms at ages 29 to 37, independent of demographics, prior depressive symptoms and prior self-esteem. This is further evidence for social causation. As a whole, the results in Table 3 support the third hypothesis of this study. Results indicate that poverty duration partially mediates the effect of parental occupational prestige at age 14 on depressive symptoms at ages 29 to 37, and partially mediates the effect of parental education but to a lesser extent than self-esteem as a mediator. Like the results in Table 2, the effect of parental education on depressive symptoms becomes substantially diminished and loses its statistical significance because prior self-esteem is included in model 3 of Table 3 and is a mediating mechanism.

Discussion

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Background
  5. Method
  6. Results
  7. Discussion
  8. Acknowledgments
  9. References

Our knowledge remains limited about the mediating mechanisms that explain the lasting mental health consequences of having a disadvantaged family background in the United States. Thus, this study was inspired by social stress theory and the life course perspective to evaluate self-esteem and the chronic stress of poverty as mediating mechanisms. The central findings of this study are that these are important mediating mechanisms that help to explain this long-term relationship. Furthermore, the findings contribute to the literature by demonstrating two distinct social stress processes with national longitudinal data to bring us closer to understanding the intergenerational social causation of depression.

More specifically, the findings suggest that the two components of family background (parental education and parental occupational prestige) each have distinct mechanisms that link them to mental health in young adulthood. First, results reveal that self-esteem at ages 15 to 23 is a mediating mechanism that helps to explain why there is an inverse association between parental education and subsequent levels of depressive symptoms at ages 29 to 37. Yet, self-esteem does not mediate the relationship between parental occupation and depression. Prior studies have found that father's education has a positive effect on self-esteem in adolescence, but father's occupation does not significantly influence self-esteem (Rosenberg & Pearlin, 1978; Wiltfang & Scarbecz, 1990). According to social stress theory, self-esteem is a vital dimension of the self-concept through which the stress of disadvantaged SES can damage mental health (Pearlin et al., 1981). Second, the current study finds that the duration of family poverty status across 16 years largely mediates the depressive effect of disadvantaged parental occupational prestige and parental education. It is plausible that parents with low prestige jobs and limited educations could have household incomes that fall below the poverty line for long periods, and the family's exposure to the chronic stress of economic hardship and job insecurity could elevate their children's risk for symptoms of depression. From the standpoint of the life course perspective, chronic stress is a more powerful predictor of depression than acute stressors (Avison & Turner, 1988). Few studies have measured chronic stress with longitudinal data at multiple points in time. More longitudinal studies should examine specific components of parents' SES (e.g. education, occupational prestige, poverty and net worth) and identify other unique mediating mechanisms or pathways that link each to the onset, persistence and severity of the next generation's mental health problems (Adler & Newman, 2002; McLaughlin et al., 2011).

Although many American families have experienced persistent or episodic poverty in the course of their lives, only a few longitudinal studies have examined the influence of the duration of poverty on mental health (e.g., Duncan et al., 1994; Goosby, 2007; McLeod & Shanahan, 1993, 1996; Mossakowski, 2008a, 2008b). An advantage of the NLSY79 data used for the present study is that family poverty status was measured annually across 16 years. Findings indicate that the average duration of poverty status was 3 years. ‘The experience of poverty can thus be viewed within the wider context of the life course as a normative American event’ (Rank, 2001, p. 886). It is noteworthy that the duration of poverty measured in this study is not necessarily consecutive years, and poverty was assessed annually. However, the stress of poverty across a number of years can be perceived to be chronic even when poverty is episodic because these families are ‘living on the edge’ (Ross & Huber, 1985, p. 313). An annual household income that is slightly above the cusp of the poverty line can be a financial predicament that brings with it constant worries about slipping into poverty again, and thus, it can become a daily stressor. Future studies on mental health should measure consecutive years and/or continuous poverty throughout each year to better assess the stress of chronic poverty and use self-reports to determine whether it is actually perceived to be a chronic stressor. Another direction for future research is the use of biomarkers (e.g. cortisol) to test physiological levels of chronic stress due to poverty.

It is possible that the economic recessions in the 1980s and 1990s could have affected the durations of poverty experienced and the mental health of the NLSY79 cohort of younger American Baby Boomers examined in the present study. Research has shown that economic downturns are associated with mental health problems (Cooper, 2011; Tausig & Fenwick, 1999). Accordingly, the findings of this study are timely because they suggest that the recent economic recession in the United States and its detrimental impact on the SES of parents could have long-term and harmful mental health consequences for their children because symptoms of depression could eventually manifest during young adulthood. Furthermore, the Baby Boomers of the NLSY79 are now between the ages of 49 to 56, and research warns that if they experienced poverty and suffered from depression throughout the transition to adulthood and into midlife, they could have a significantly elevated risk of developing physical health problems (Power & Hertzman, 1997). Future research is also needed to examine the influence of poverty duration on the mental health of young adults today and other generations of young adults, such as Generation X and the Boomerang Generation, as well as cohorts in other countries. The findings could be different in other countries, economic climates, life stages and historical periods.

The NLSY79 used for this study is one of the premier datasets to examine SES during the transition to adulthood, but it was not originally intended to investigate the aetiology of mental illness. If depression was measured before the 1992 wave, it would have been a better test for selection effects. A limitation of this study is that simultaneous trajectories of depression, self-esteem and SES could not be analysed. Recent research has shown a socioeconomic gradient in long-term depression trajectories across 13 years, indicating that low SES can lead to persistent depression (Melchior et al., 2013), but the effect of childhood SES on symptoms of depression appears to weaken over time (Elovainio et al., 2012). By discovering the social and psychological antecedents of depression during the passage to adulthood, we can better target the prevention of mental illness in young adulthood and later life stages.

It should be acknowledged that there are other reasons not addressed by this study that could explain why coming from a family that had disadvantaged SES increases the risk of mental illness. One predominant theory is that the influence of parental SES on their children's well-being is explained by parenting behaviours (Conger et al., 1994; Harris & Marmer, 1996). For example, unsupportive parenting behaviours involve neglect, abuse, withholding affection and being unresponsive to a child's socio-emotional needs, which can be traumatic experiences. In contrast, parenting that provides a supportive and stimulating environment can nurture resilience in a child, which is useful for counteracting the stress of poverty (Bradley et al., 1994). Studies have found, however, that parenting attitudes and behaviours vary within economically deprived family environments (Bradley et al., 1994; Conger et al., 1994).

Another theory is that if parents do not cope adequately with their own stressful life events or financial strain, especially single parents, it can increase the risk that their children will develop depressive symptoms in adolescence and young adulthood, and this relationship is mediated by parents' depressive symptoms, parenting behaviours and SES (Barrett & Turner, 2005; Ge et al., 1994). A limitation of the current study is that the mental health of the parents of the NLSY79 young adults was not assessed. A study using data from the Children of the NLSY79 Survey, however, found that the influence of maternal poverty duration on an adolescent's depressive symptoms is mediated by the mother's depressive symptoms, regardless of her marital status and supportive parenting behaviours (Goosby, 2007). Thus, the stress of economic hardship can negatively affect child development by intensifying parents' distress.

To advance our understanding of the link between family SES and depression in young adulthood, we need to acknowledge perspectives that range from the microlevel to the macrolevel. A microlevel lens focuses on the social and psychological development of the child in the family environment and the interaction of stress with the child's genetics. Social scientists should not overlook that genetic expression can be triggered by stress in a family environment. Research indicates that childhood deprivation can exacerbate the inherited predisposition for depression, whereas protective genotypes can suppress the effect of childhood adversity, and social network structures (e.g. family social support) can minimize genetic risk (Caspi et al., 2003; Pescosolido et al., 2008). Next, the mesolevel lens expands the focus to include the economic conditions of the family's low-income neighbourhood context (e.g. social disorder and crime) and limited access to healthcare. Finally, the macrostructural perspective more broadly acknowledges SES at the level of the national economy and the cultural norms in a historical period. Future interdisciplinary studies that use structural equation modelling and hierarchical linear modelling may be ideal ways to explore these complex, multilevel indirect pathways from family SES to mental illness, which involve the intersections of unobserved latent variables, social antecedents, psychological predispositions, stressors and behaviours, as well as genetics.

There are public policy implications for the current study's findings that focus on family SES, the chronic stress of poverty, self-esteem and depression during the transition to adulthood. Public policy initiatives, social welfare programmes and medical interventions should not only target the reduction of poverty duration and improve access to mental health treatment but also aim to prevent poverty and mental illness early in the life course. From a macrostructural perspective, social policies that stimulate economic growth and reduce wealth inequality will benefit the economic and psychological well-being of the US population as a whole.

Public policies need to also target socioeconomic attainment at the individual-level, such as improving access to college educations and creating better bridges from school to work and to homeownership. First, to achieve a higher education and other credentials valuable in the labour market, poverty alleviation programmes need more funding to provide scholarships, grants, tutoring and improve schools in low-income neighbourhoods for youths. Second, for youths to find employment and remain employed, welfare-to-work programmes, employment agencies, retraining courses and internships with employers need to be expanded (Cooper, 2011). Third, family support programmes for low-income groups should include childcare allowances and better tax incentives for families to buy their first homes in safe neighbourhoods. More support is needed for neighbourhood stabilization initiatives designed to fund systemic reform to mitigate the impact of the foreclosure crisis, and more debt relief programmes are needed to help build a family's net worth to escape or prevent poverty (Cooper, 2011).

To prevent or treat symptoms of mental illness during the transition to adulthood, improving access to mental health services is an ongoing goal for healthcare reform. The Affordable Care Act now allows young adults to stay on their parents' health insurance plans until age 26. Unfortunately, young adults have the lowest access to employer-based health insurance because they often enter the labour market in low prestige jobs and part-time positions: approximately one-third of young adults are uninsured, which is a higher rate than any other age group in the United States (U.S. Department of Labor, 2013). To prevent mental health problems among youths and young adults, affordable community mental health services need more funding, as well as interventions in elementary schools, high schools and colleges so that there is better access to free psychological counselling during school days to address coping with stressors from different environments—school, family and their community—to enhance resiliency, such as via self-esteem (Reback, 2010). Yet, some scholars question American culture's preoccupation with an individual's self-esteem as a psychosocial resource and caution that it may not necessarily be the key to success and health (Baumeister et al., 2003; Crocker & Park, 2004).

In conclusion, more longitudinal research is needed to explore other resources for coping with stress (e.g., perceived social support and a sense of personal control over life) to guide public health policies, medical interventions and social welfare programmes. Reducing socioeconomic health disparities requires policy initiatives that acknowledge the different dimensions of family SES and their distinct pathways early in the life course to prevalent mental disorders, such as depression. Finally, international research should investigate whether long durations of disadvantaged family SES lead to depression in countries that have less of an emphasis on self-esteem and very different social welfare policies than the United States.

Acknowledgments

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Background
  5. Method
  6. Results
  7. Discussion
  8. Acknowledgments
  9. References

I would like to thank Jane McLeod, Eliza Pavalko, Bernice Pescosolido and Brian Powell for their help. Versions of this paper were presented at the American Sociological Association Annual Meeting and the Annual Conference of the Adler Institute on Social Exclusion: Social Determinants of Mental Health.

References

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Background
  5. Method
  6. Results
  7. Discussion
  8. Acknowledgments
  9. References
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