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Adolescent poverty is associated with increased antisocial and decreased prosocial behaviors. Attenuating these negative effects is relevant for both individual and societal well-being. Research exploring how youth in poverty can escape antisocial behaviors and move toward prosocial behaviors has been limited primarily to risk factors. From a strengths perspective, we sought to understand how a potential resiliency factor—purpose in life—could protect youngsters from the deleterious effects of poverty. We conceptualized purpose in life as a central, future-oriented, goal-organizing framework that provides adolescents reasons to resist antisocial behavior and engage in prosocial behaviors. In moderation analyses, purpose in life mitigated the effects of poverty on antisocial behavior (i.e., disobedience and bullying), but failed to boost prosocial traits and behaviors for youth in poverty. We emphasize the importance of developing a sense of purpose in economically disadvantaged youth for bettering their lives and communities.
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Buffering the Negative Impact of Poverty on Youth: The
Power of Purpose in Life
Kyla A. Machell David J. Disabato Todd B. Kashdan
Accepted: 22 February 2015
Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2015
Abstract Adolescent poverty is associated with increased antisocial and decreased
prosocial behaviors. Attenuating these negative effects is relevant for both individual and
societal well-being. Research exploring how youth in poverty can escape antisocial be-
haviors and move toward prosocial behaviors has been limited primarily to risk factors.
From a strengths perspective, we sought to understand how a potential resiliency factor—
purpose in life—could protect youngsters from the deleterious effects of poverty. We
conceptualized purpose in life as a central, future-oriented, goal-organizing framework that
provides adolescents reasons to resist antisocial behavior and engage in prosocial behav-
iors. In moderation analyses, purpose in life mitigated the effects of poverty on antisocial
behavior (i.e., disobedience and bullying), but failed to boost prosocial traits and behaviors
for youth in poverty. We emphasize the importance of developing a sense of purpose in
economically disadvantaged youth for bettering their lives and communities.
Keywords Purpose in life Positive youth development Poverty
1 Introduction
In 2013, approximately 20 % of youth under the age of 18 in the United States lived in
poverty
1
(Census 2014), and the number of U.S. children living in poverty has been on an
upward trend since 2000 (Moore et al. 2009). Youth raised in poverty are at increased risk
for numerous negative outcomes (Bradley and Corwyn 2002; Brooks-Gunn and Duncan
1997), including academic difficulties and high school dropout (Teachman et al. 1997;
Youngblade et al. 2007), behavioral and emotional problems (McLoyd 1997), and a greater
likelihood of living in poverty as adults (Corcoran and Chaudry 1997; Vartanian 1999).
K. A. Machell D. J. Disabato T. B. Kashdan (&)
Department of Psychology, George Mason University, MS 3F5, Fairfax, VA 22030, USA
e-mail: tkashdan@gmu.edu
1
Poverty is defined as an income of $23,283 or less in 2012 for a family of four with two children.
123
Soc Indic Res
DOI 10.1007/s11205-015-0917-6
Furthermore, adolescents living in poverty are more likely than their middle or upper class
peers to engage in risk-taking and antisocial behaviors (Moore and Glei 1995; Sampson
and Laub 1994). This body of research supports the notion that youth poverty is a major
concern for psychosocial development.
Given the substantial literature demonstrating the negative impact of poverty on youth
development, it is essential that we identify factors that might mitigate these deleterious
effects. The emerging positive youth development (PYD) model emphasizes strength-
based approaches (Sesma et al. 2005). If we want to understand how to promote well-being
and support the optimal development of young people, research has to include healthy as
well as unhealthy outcomes (Lippman et al. 2011). Not all children and adolescents
growing up in poverty engage in antisocial behaviors or befall the negative effects outlined
above (Conger et al. 1997). Identifying and understanding the resiliency factors against
poverty is one way to promote the well-being of disadvantaged youth.
Purpose in life could be one such factor by insulating youth against the risks associated
with living in poverty and supporting PYD. Much like the adult literature on purpose in life
(McKnight and Kashdan 2009), youth purpose researchers have yet to agree on the
definition of the construct (Burrow et al. 2010). However, much of the emerging literature
on youth purpose converges on purpose in life as a ‘‘stable and generalized intention to
accomplish something that is at once meaningful to the self and of consequence to the
world beyond the self’’ (Damon et al. 2003, p. 121). A purpose in life creates an over-
arching, future-oriented framework for youth to organize and focus their goals (Damon
2008). In addition, the drive to make a difference and contribute to the world is central to
purpose in life.
A purpose is future-oriented and thus distinct from the short-term, low-level aims that
might comprise daily life (Bronk and Finch 2010). A global sense of purpose can motivate
the efforts of everyday living and give meaning to daily activities by connecting them to an
overarching life goal (Kashdan and McKnight 2013; Kashdan and Steger 2007). To give a
broad example, an adolescent might have the lower-level goal of practicing piano every
day. On a higher level, the adolescent’s larger purpose motivating this daily activity may
be the drive for continued musical self-improvement.
1.1 Purpose in Life and Antisocial Behavior
Adolescents living in poverty who do not have a broad purpose to motivate their goals
might struggle to engage in effortful, future-oriented activities. Instead, some adolescents
may resort to actions that provide only temporary benefits. One poignant example is that of
a teenage boy who, when asked about his future, stated, ‘‘I don’t try to have long term
goals. I don’t think too far in the future. It’s not important to have goals’’ (Damon 2008,
p. 62). The environmental risks and challenges associated with living in poverty are an
obstacle to future-oriented thinking and instead promote, and may even necessitate, a
short-term, self-focused frame of mind (Nurmi 1991; Nurmi et al. 1994). Short-term goals
might help youth survive the daily challenges associated with poverty, but will do little to
move youth forward toward a meaningful future.
Teens living in poverty who do think about their future tend to feel hopeless about their
prospects. Youth in poverty without a sense of purpose in life are more likely to experience
hopelessness, and in turn, engage in deviant and risky behaviors including violence,
substance use, early sexual activity, and even accidental injury (Bolland 2003; Damon
1995). Persistent poverty in childhood is linked with increases in antisocial behavior over
K. A. Machell et al.
123
time, suggesting that chronically poor youth become further and further detached from
appropriate social behavior (McLeod and Shanahan 1996).
Purpose in life may attenuate the relationship between economic disadvantage and
antisocial behaviors in adolescence. Adolescents who have meaningful purposes toward
which to direct their efforts may be less likely to engage in antisocial behaviors because
they have greater hope for a meaningful future. For example, teens dedicated to a life goal
of getting an education may choose to work a minimum wage job. This activity might
provide little meaning and satisfaction on its own, but if connected to the larger purpose of
putting oneself through college, could be quite rewarding and motivating. Alternatively,
teens that lack this same sense of purpose might be less likely to endure the temporary
displeasure of a low-wage job. Instead they may resort to antisocial actions motivated by
momentary gains, such as stealing.
This proposed function of purpose in life is consistent with existential theory, which
suggests that purpose in life provides a sense of potentiality, and instills possibilities for a
future life (May 1975). A belief in the possibility of a bright future may be the active
resiliency ingredient in a sense of purpose (Benard 1995). Adolescents with a concrete
image of future potential that they are working towards may motivate them to relinquish
interest in antisocial behaviors. This hypothesis aligns with early theorists’ characterization
of purpose as an asset that helps people endure, instead of relinquish to, life’s hardships
(Frankl 1959). Purpose in life may be particularly relevant for impoverished youth, who
experience more adversity than their financially stable peers.
1.2 Purpose in Life and Prosocial Traits
The majority of research on youth poverty focused on the increased risk for antisocial
behaviors while less attention has been given to how growing up in a disadvantaged
environment affects the positive aspects of youth development (Moore and Glei 1995). At
the individual level, prosocial traits facilitate greater well-being in both youth and adults
(e.g., Eisenberg 2003; Weinstein and Ryan 2010). Living in poverty as a young person is
associated with lower overall well-being (Bradley and Corwyn 2002; Moore and Glei
1995), life satisfaction (Diener et al. 2010) and happiness (Amato and Zuo 1992). At the
societal level, prosocial acts facilitate the reciprocity and cohesion necessary for a com-
munity to function. Childhood and adolescence are critical times to nurture these values
because this prosocial disposition tends to formalize before adulthood (Eisenberg 1992).
Youth poverty is associated with fewer prosocial acts (Lichter et al. 2002), and low income
during adolescence predicts less charitable giving and volunteering in young adulthood
(Bandy and Ottoni-Willhelm 2012). Given the number of low-income children and ado-
lescents, identifying ways to promote prosocial traits even in the context of poverty is
essential for supporting healthy functioning at both the individual and societal level.
Purpose in life may be one path toward the promotion of prosocial attitudes and be-
haviors. After all, purpose involves an intention to contribute to meaningful causes outside
the self. These causes may involve ‘‘acting in the larger world on behalf of others’’ (Cotton
Bronk et al. 2009, p. 501). Purpose predicts altruism among teens of all economic back-
grounds (Noblejas de la Flor 1997; Shek et al. 1994), but could be especially beneficial for
disadvantaged youth. According to Maslow (1958), the insecurity associated with living in
poverty threatens adolescents’ immediate physiological and safety needs making it difficult
to have prosocial aspirations or plans (Wyman et al. 1993). However, greater purpose in
life could work against this process by providing the sense of hope necessary for youth to
envision and act upon other-oriented goals (Burrow et al. 2010; Cotton Bronk et al. 2009).
Poverty and Purpose in Youth
123
For example, a teen in poverty may be so concerned about whether she will have food
tomorrow, she may not consider volunteering at a local homeless shelter or boys and girls
club. Yet if the teen has a life purpose to decrease poverty in her community, she may be
more likely to become involved in community service and volunteering activities. Not only
can purpose in life help impoverished youth adapt to the challenges of their environment,
but it can also serve as a ‘‘motivator of good deeds and galvanizer of character growth’
(Damon et al. 2003, p. 119) that may be otherwise missing for teens living in poverty.
1.3 The Current Study
The present study explored whether a sense of purpose in life can serve as a resiliency
factor for adolescents living in poverty. Specifically, we were interested in understanding
how a sense of purpose in life might impact the effects of poverty on both antisocial
behaviors (unhealthy outcomes) and prosocial behaviors (healthy outcomes). Antisocial
and prosocial behaviors served as our primary dependent variables to be predicted by
poverty and purpose in life. Our first hypothesis was that poverty would be negatively
related to prosocial traits, and positively related to antisocial behaviors. Our second hy-
pothesis was that purpose in life would moderate these relationships, such that purpose in
life would attenuate the negative effect of poverty on both antisocial and prosocial be-
haviors. We also expected an independent effect of purpose in life on prosocial traits and
antisocial behaviors, regardless of poverty status. Figure 1illustrates the hypothesized
relationships.
2 Method
2.1 Data Collection
This study is based on pilot data from The Flourishing Children Project conducted by Child
Trends, a nonprofit research center dedicated to understanding the well-being of children
and youth
2
. The Flourishing Children Project contains a nationally representative sample
of U.S. adolescents in both middle and high school. Data were collected from adolescents
aged 12–17 and one of their parents via web-based surveys. Four different survey batteries
were used, with dyads randomly assigned to each battery. The full pilot sample consisted
of 2,421 parents and 1,915 adolescents, with 1,846 complete parent-adolescent pairs. We
Poverty Prosocial Traits;
Antisocial behaviors
Purpose in Life
Fig. 1 Proposed theoretical model of purpose in life moderating the negative effects of poverty
2
ChildTrends bears no responsibility for the current analysis or interpretation by the authors of this
paper.
K. A. Machell et al.
123
only used data from the two survey batteries that included our constructs of interest. This
led to a sample of 1,256 adolescents with a mean age of 14.49 years (SD =1.68). Table 1
displays other relevant demographic characteristics of the final sample.
2.2 Measures
All scales were created by Child Trends for use in this study. Child trends conducted
literature and web reviews for existing measures of their constructs of interest. Following
these initial reviews, an expert consensus panel (including the third author) constructed
items for the scales through an iterative process. Next, three rounds of cognitive interviews
were conducted with adolescents and parents across 15 U.S. cities, and problem items were
then adapted for the current pilot survey. Additional information on the development of
measures, as well as the cognitive interview protocols for the Flourishing Children project,
can be found on the Child Trends website (www.childtrends.org).
The psychometrics of the scales have been established by Child Trends (Lippman et al.
2014). Confirmatory factor analyses supported the unidimensionality of each scale as each
model achieved satisfactory fit by conventional standards (Bentler 1990). Cronbach’s al-
phas supported the reliability of each scale by surpassing the cut-off value of .70 (except
for purpose in life—see below). Significant correlations between adolescent-reported
smoking, depression, and GPA provided evidence for each scales theoretical position
within the nomological network of constructs (Cronbach and Meehl 1955). We present the
reliability estimates observed in our particular sample below.
Besides demographic and single-item measures, unless stated otherwise, scale con-
structs of interest were measured on a five point Likert response scale ranging from
1=not at all like me (my child), to 5 =exactly like me (my child), 1 =strongly disagree,
to 5 =strongly agree,or1=none of the time,to5=all of the time. Total scale scores
were created by averaging the items.
Table 1 Demographic
characteristics Variable Relative frequency (%)
Gender
Male 52.5
Female 47.5
Race
White 74.6
Hispanic 13.8
Black 9.2
Other/mixed 2.5
Grade
High school 50.4
Middle school 49.6
Annual family income
Mid-upper class 65.6
Lower class 21.3
Poverty 13.2
Poverty and Purpose in Youth
123
2.2.1 Purpose in Life—Adolescent Report
Purpose in life was measured with the following three adolescent reported items: (1) Iam
doing things now that I feel I am meant to do in my life, (2) My life has no meaning (reverse
scored), and (3) My life will make a difference in the world. In the current sample,
reliability was in the marginally acceptable range (alpha =.58). Although this is below
conventional standards, the small numbers of items in the scale likely deflate the estimate
(Cortina 1993).
2.2.2 Annual Household Income—Parent Report
Annual household income was used as a proxy for poverty status of the adolescent par-
ticipants. Although Child Trends categorized each adolescent based on poverty status (a
function of annual household income, the number of individuals in the household, and the
number of children under 18 in the household) into one of three ordinal categories: below
the poverty line, between the poverty line and two times the line, and above two times the
poverty line, trichotomizing the continuous construct of poverty decreases statistical
power, attenuates effect size, decreases reliability, and does not allow for several nonlinear
relationships (MacCallum et al. 2002). Therefore, rather than this three-level ordinal
variable, we elected to instead use the continuous variable of annual household income to
measure poverty. Annual household income was measured by directly asking parents to
report their household income before taxes. Parents responded to one of 18 income ranges
from less than $5,000 to more than $175,000 with variable intervals. Household incomes
were then rounded to the median of each response interval. For example, any parent who
reported their household income to range from $35,000 to $39,999, received an estimated
value of $37,500. Incomes of the current sample formed a normal distribution with slight
negative skew. The average income for the current sample was $67,548 (SD =$38,838).
2.2.3 Prosocial Traits
Adolescent prosocial traits were assessed by creating a composite variable that was com-
prised of three separate scales: altruism, generosity, and empathy (individual scales described
below). Altruism involves a tendency to be motivated to increase others’ welfare, and is
linked to prosocial behaviors (Batson and Powell 2003). Generosity is a personality trait
characterized by willingness to give time, attention, or resources to others without necessarily
expecting benefits to the self (Child Trends 2014), and represents another facet of a prosocial
disposition (Grusec et al. 2002). Finally, a vast body of literature suggests that empathy, an
affective motivational component of helping behavior (Hoffman 2008), is linked with
prosocial acts (for reviews, see Dovidio et al. 2006; Eisenberg and Miller 1987) and is thought
to be an integral component of a ‘‘prosocial personality’’ (Penner et al. 2005). We considered
these three constructs to represent a cluster of prosocial traits. Details on the creation of this
composite variable are described in the results section.
2.2.3.1 Altruism—Parent and Adolescent Report Altruism was measured with the fol-
lowing four items in response to the stem ‘‘I (My child) go out of my way to help
others’: (1) Only when it is easy for me (reverse scored), (2) Even if it requires a lot of
time, (3) Even if the person is a total stranger, (4) Even if it is hard for me. We used both
the adolescent and parent reported versions of the scale. In the current sample, the
K. A. Machell et al.
123
adolescent and parent reported measure both demonstrated acceptable reliability (al-
pha =.72 and .85, respectively).
2.2.3.2 Generosity—Parent and Adolescent Report Generosity was measured with six
items. The following three items contained no stem: (1) I(My child)enjoy sharing my
things with others, (2) When I (my child)help out a friend, I (my child)expect something in
return (reverse coded), (3) I(My child)do nice things for others without being asked. The
following three items contained the stem ‘‘If needed, I (my child) am willing to help my
family by’: (1) Buying fewer things for myself, (2) Giving up activities and trips that
cost money, (3) Giving up free time to help around the house. We used both the adolescent
and parent reported versions of the scale. In the current sample, the adolescent and parent
reported measure both demonstrated acceptable reliability (alpha =.69 and .70,
respectively).
2.2.3.3 Empathy—Parent and Adolescent Report Empathy was measured with the fol-
lowing five items: (1) I feel bad when someone gets their feelings hurt, (2) I am happy
when others succeed, (3) I understand how those close to me feel, (4) It is important for me
to understand how other people feel, (5) I am not happy when others succeed (reverse
coded). We used both the adolescent and parent reported versions of the scale. In the
current sample, the adolescent and parent reported measure both demonstrated marginal
(alpha =.59) and acceptable (alpha =.72) reliability, respectively.
2.2.4 Prosocial Behavior—Parent Report
In addition to considering adolescent prosocial traits, we also included a behavioral
indicator of prosocial tendencies. Volunteering was measured with the following parent
reported item: ‘‘During the past 12 months, how often has your child been involved in any
type of community service or volunteer work at school, church, or in the community?’
Parents responded on a four point likert count scale ranging from 1 =never,to4=once a
week or more. In the current subsample, the item demonstrated concurrent validity with
significant positive relationships between gratitude, spirituality, and life satisfaction, and
significant negative relationships between smoking and depression symptoms.
2.2.5 Antisocial Behavior
Antisocial behaviors are actions that harm or lack consideration for the well-being of
others and go against social norms (Berger 2015). To measure antisocial behaviors in the
present study, we used single-item measures of disobedience, bullying, and fighting. Many
studies have operationalized antisocial behavior similarly, including aggressive (e.g.,
fighting) and non-aggressive (e.g., lying) acts (e.g., Donnellan et al. 2005). We separated
antisocial behaviors by informant (parent vs. adolescent) due to issues of
commensurability.
2.2.5.1 Parent Report Parent perceptions of antisocial behavior were measured with the
following two parent reported items in response to the stem ‘‘During the past month, how
often have the following been true for your child’’: (1) was disobedient, and (2) bullied or
was cruel or mean to others. In the current sample, the measure demonstrated marginal
reliability (alpha =.59).
Poverty and Purpose in Youth
123
Table 2 Zero-order correlations, means, and standard deviations for observed measures
123456789 1011
1. Income
2. Purpose .07*
3. Altruism (A) .04 .25***
4. Generosity (A) -.02 .40*** .53***
5. Empathy (A) .03 .48*** .43*** .61***
6. Altruism (P) -.08** .31*** .50*** .47*** .37*** –
7. Generosity (P) -.06* .24*** .31*** .48*** .29*** .58***
8. Empathy (P) -.01 .37*** .34*** .44*** .53*** .60*** .48***
9. Antisocial (P) -.05 -.28*** -.16*** -.27*** -.20*** -.31*** -.41*** -.42*** –
10. Fighting
pb
-.11** -.12** -.05 -.13** -.16*** -.07* -.16*** -.16*** .22*** –
11. Volunteering .10** .23*** .19*** .18*** .10** .22*** .17*** .16*** -.12** .00 –
Mean 6.75
3.94 3.28 3.60 3.87 3.31 3.46 3.75 16.6 0.16 1.18
SD 3.88
0.76 0.79 0.72 0.65 0.83 0.46 3.42 3.14 0.37 0.94
Cronbach’s a .58 .72 .69 .59 .77 .70 .72 .59
*p\.05, ** p\.01, *** p\.001, Aadolescent report, Pparent report, 10,000 s, pb point-biserial correlation
K. A. Machell et al.
123
2.2.5.2 Adolescent Report Adolescent perceptions of antisocial behavior were measured
with the following adolescent reported item: During the past 12 months, how many times
were you in a physical fight? Adolescents responded on an eight point likert count scale
ranging from 1 =0 times,to8=12 or more times. Because most of the variance was
represented as either zero or any times, the responses were dichotomized for ease of
interpretation.
3 Results
To examine how poverty (estimated using a continuous measure of annual household
income) and purpose in life impact prosocial traits and antisocial behaviors, three pri-
mary analyses were conducted. First, we confirmed the initial validity of the measure-
ment scales of interest by testing relationships between gratitude, spirituality, and life
satisfaction, depression, and smoking. Second, correlations were run to assess the rela-
tionships between annual family income, purpose in life, and our outcomes of interest.
Second, we tested whether purpose in life attenuated the negative effects of poverty on
adolescent prosocial and antisocial outcomes. We followed the procedures of Aiken and
West (1991) to test interaction effects via multiple regression. We centered both the
predictor (i.e., annual household income) and moderator (i.e., purpose in life) to have a
mean of zero, but kept the standard deviations constant. We performed simultaneous
multiple regressions where with the main effects interaction term entered together. If a
significant interaction was found, simple slope analyses were conducted to determine the
strength and significance of the annual household income and outcome relationship at
various levels of purpose in life.
3.1 Preliminary Analyses
3.1.1 Descriptive Statistics
A summary of descriptive statistics and bivariate correlations can be found in Table 2.
Annual household income was unrelated to both parent and adolescent reports of an-
tisocial behaviors, but was positively related to purpose in life and negatively related to
parent reported altruism and generosity. Purpose in life was negatively related to parent
reports of antisocial behavior, and positively related to parent and teen reported altruism,
generosity, and empathy.
3.1.2 Prosocial Traits Composite Variable
We created the composite variables of both adolescent and parent reported prosocial
traits by conducting exploratory factor analyses (EFA). The principle axis factoring
estimation method was used in order to minimize measurement error when capturing a
latent construct (Fabrigar et al. 1999). The total altruism, generosity, and empathy scale
scores were used in the EFAs. The correlations between the adolescent and parent
reported scales are bolded in Table 2. Only one factor was extracted without rotation as
we were only interested in the communalities between the three manifest indicators.
Over half of the variance was extracted for both the adolescent reported (k=1.62;
54.0 %) and parent reported (k=1.69; 56.5 %) factors. Table 3reports the factor
loadings for each EFA. Standardized factor scores were saved via Bartlett’s method
Poverty and Purpose in Youth
123
because it is shown to create unbiased estimates of a participant’s score on a latent
variable (DiStefano et al. 2009).
3.2 Primary Regression Analyses
We tested the hypotheses that purpose in life would moderate the relationship between
annual household income and the outcomes of interest. We transformed annual household
income using the natural logarithm to model the stronger influence of lower income rates
of change compared with higher income rates of change. Table 4shows the results from
the multiple regression analyses. Ordinary least squares (OLS) regression was used for the
outcomes of prosocial traits, prosocial behavior, and parent reported antisocial behaviors.
The t-values indicate statistical significance, while the squared semi-partial correlations
indicate effect size. Binary logistic regression was used for the outcome of adolescent
reported antisocial behaviors. Wald Zstatistics indicate statistical significance, while the
odds ratios and McFadden’s pseudo r squared indicate effect size.
3
Annual household
income had main effects on parent reported prosocial behavior and adolescent reported
antisocial behavior. There was a main effect of purpose in life on all outcomes. Purpose in
life only moderated the effect of annual household income on parent reported antisocial
behavior, which is bolded in Table 4.
3.3 Simple Slope Analyses
To better understand the significant interaction between income and purpose in life pre-
dicting parent-reported antisocial behavior, we conducted simple slopes analyses according
to Aiken and West (1991). Simple slopes analyses test whether the annual household
income and antisocial behavior slopes are significantly different than zero at various levels
of purpose in life; more specifically, at one standard deviation above and below mean
purpose in life. At one standard deviation below mean purpose in life, the household
income and antisocial behavior slope was significantly different from zero (Beta =-.161;
b=-.13; t =-2.94; p\.01). The nonsignificant main effect of annual household in-
come in the primary regression analysis states that the annual household income and
antisocial behavior slope does not significantly differ from zero at the mean of purpose in
life (Beta =-.058; b =-.047; t =-1.69; p=.095). At one standard deviation above
mean purpose in life, the household income and antisocial behavior slope was not sig-
nificantly different from zero (Beta =.045; b =.037; t =1.04; p=.231). Although
annual household income did not have a significant effect on antisocial behavior when
purpose in life was moderate to high, it did have a significant effect when purpose in life
Table 3 Factor loadings for prosocial traits composite variable
Indicator Adolescent report Parent report
Altruism .61 .86
Generosity .86 .68
Empathy .71 .70
3
The squared semi-partial correlation for the interaction term is equal to the change in R
2
from a hier-
archical regression analysis where the main effects are entered in step 1 and the interaction effect, after
controlling for the main effects, is entered in step 2.
K. A. Machell et al.
123
was low. Figure 2displays the simple slopes with annual household income transformed
back into its original units.
4 Discussion
The current study examined purpose in life as a potential resiliency factor for low-income
adolescents. We considered how purpose in life might moderate the relationships between
poverty, prosocial traits, and antisocial behaviors. Purpose in life did not influence the
relationship between poverty and prosocial traits, behaviors or adolescent-reported anti-
social fighting behaviors. Purpose in life did, however, attenuate the relationship between
poverty and parent-reported antisocial disobedience and bullying behavior. Youth in
poverty engaged in fewer instances of disobedience and bullying behaviors when they had
a greater sense of purpose in life.
4.1 Purpose in Life and Antisocial Behavior
Purpose in life might reduce antisocial behavior among impoverished youth because a
sense of purpose creates hope for a better future. Purpose in life allows youth to envision
Table 4 Multiple regression results
Bb t sr
2
Prosocial traits (A)
Income -.020 -.024 -0.69 .000
Purpose .45 .54 15.3*** .200
Interaction -.043 -.067 -1.46 .002
Prosocial traits (P)
Income -.020 -.023 -0.63 .000
Purpose .35 .43 11.3*** .125
Interaction .016 .026 0.50 .000
Prosocial behavior (P)
Income .086 .10 2.56* .007
Purpose .23 .29 6.86*** .051
Interaction .00 .00 .04 .000
Antisocial behavior (P)
Income -.057 -.047 -1.69 .003
Purpose -.28 -.24 -8.55*** .078
Interaction .096 .011 2.87** .009
OR b Wald Z Pseudo-DR
2
Antisocial behavior (A)
Income 0.77 -.026 -2.36* .006
Purpose 0.67 -.40 -3.56*** .015
Interaction 1.11 .11 0.76 .001
*p\.05, ** p\.01, *** p\.001, Bstandardized beta weight, bunstandardized regression weight,
ttvalue, sr
2
squared semi-partial correlation, OR odds ratio, Pseudo-DR
2
McFadden’s pseudo r squared
Poverty and Purpose in Youth
123
and produce effort toward a more idealized version of themselves (compared with their
current sense of self or trajectory) such as going to college or reaching the upper social
class (Oyserman and Markus 1990). Other research has linked positive expectations for the
future with better adjustment, even in the face of high stress (Wyman et al. 1993). Youth
may disincentive behaviors that put these potential ideal selves at risk of never developing.
But without these potential ideal selves and the hope that they can become a reality,
adolescents might look to other sources of information to guide their behavior. For ex-
ample, low-income adolescents who lack a sense of purpose might instead look to the
normative potential selves in their communities, which may be characterized by antisocial
behaviors ranging from school bullying to more serious criminal activity (Hurd et al.
2009).
Furthermore, purpose in life may generate feared potential selves that motivate teen-
agers to steer clear of delinquent behaviors by preventing a bad outcome, rather than
creating a good one (Oyserman and Markus 1990). For example, a disadvantaged
youngster may have the life purpose to not end up like one of his or her parents (e.g., jail
inmate). While positive purposes and potential selves can be thought of as approach
purposes, their feared versions can be thought of as avoidance oriented purposes, analo-
gous to the literature on approach/avoidance motivation (Elliot 2006). Although avoidance
oriented purposes tend to predict lower well-being (Coats et al. 1996; Kashdan et al. 2010),
they may be helpful in the specific context of preventing adolescent antisocial behaviors.
The protective effect of purpose in life was only significant for the parent-reported
antisocial behaviors of disobedience and bullying. Purpose in life did not significantly
influence the relationship between poverty and the adolescent-reported antisocial behavior
of fighting. Although physical fighting overlaps with bullying behavior, most bullying
involves nonviolent teasing and rumor spreading (Craig and Edge 2008). One explanation
for this discrepancy may be that disobedience and bullying are qualitatively different from
fighting. While disobedience and bullying are initiated by the individual, a fight can be
started by an aggressive peer even when the individual has nonviolent intentions. Thus,
while teens may be able to use strengths such as purpose in life to steer clear of
0
0.2
0.4
0.6
0.8
1
1.2
28,700 67,500 1,06,400
Antisocial Behavior (P)
Annual Family Income
Simple Slopes
Low Purpose
Avg Purpose
Hi Purpose
Fig. 2 The moderating effect of
purpose in life on the relationship
between household income and
parent reported antisocial
behaviors
K. A. Machell et al.
123
disobedience and bullying, this may not be possible for all fights. Another potential ex-
planation is whether the behavior was reported by parents (i.e., disobedience, bullying)
versus adolescents (i.e., fighting). Parents may be quicker to report antisocial behaviors
compared with adolescents due to social desirability of self-enhancement biases. This
could have led to attenuated reliable measurement variance (unfortunately, with a single-
item measure, an estimate of internal consistency is not possible). We are unable to fully
explain why our results differed across type of antisocial behavior; however future research
should further explore this area to illuminate alternative explanations.
4.2 Purpose in Life and Prosocial Traits and Behaviors
Although there was a main effect of purpose in life on prosocial traits and behavior for all the
teens in our sample, we did not find that purpose in life uniquely predicted increases in these
outcomes for teenagers in poverty. It may be that youngsters in poverty do not have more
prosocial purposes than their middle to upper class peers. In general, teenagers have the
same number of purposes related to the self as they do related to others (Bronk et al. 2010).
Self-oriented purposes may reflect high school life (e.g., academics, sports, music, social
status) or future adult life (career, wealth, fame) and be unrelated to the domain of prosocial
activity (Kashdan and McKnight 2009,2013; McKnight and Kashdan 2009). Purpose in life
may still promote prosocial values and behavior when the content of the purpose is other-
oriented (e.g., purposes related to family, romantic relationships, or social justice) for
teenagers in poverty; however, the non-significant interaction suggests that this benefit is no
greater than for their more financially secure peers. This does not diminish the importance of
encouraging prosocial purposes for adolescents in poverty. The literature clearly demon-
strates the benefits of prosocial purposes, with positive links to academic motivation and
achievement and healthy identity formation in adolescence (Damon 2008). While we did not
measure these outcomes in the present study, future adolescent purpose research should
consider these potential benefits of prosocial purposes for low-income youth.
4.3 Practical Implications
This research highlights the importance of helping youth in poverty develop a sense of
purpose in life. Youth in poverty engaged in fewer instances of disobedience and bullying
behaviors when they had a greater sense of purpose in life, suggesting that purpose may be an
important protective factor for disadvantaged adolescents. How might parents or teachers
help teens cultivate this protective factor? Emphasizing a future-oriented time perspective
may be one way to increase the number of youth who feel a sense of purpose. A general
future time perspective is linked to greater achievement of future goals, more desire for
consistency, and fewer risk behaviors and impulsivity (Zimbardo and Boyd 1999). Teachers
and parents should focus on helping youth see beyond short-term gains (i.e., a score on a
single exam) to focus on long-term goals (i.e., finding a passion to build a career with) that
have the potential to provide fulfillment and meaning (Damon 2008). School-based inter-
ventions should include conversations about what adolescents find meaningful and impor-
tant; parents should seek to help their children identify goals and commitments that are
consistent with their larger life aspirations (Wong and Wong 2012). Caregivers and
educators alike must work against the ‘‘culture of short horizons’’ (Damon 2008, p. 105) to
steer youth away from temporary, short-lived endeavors and toward a purpose-driven life.
Poverty and Purpose in Youth
123
4.4 Limitations and Future Directions
The current findings should be interpreted with several caveats. Direction of causality
cannot be inferred from the current study because constructs of interest were measured at
the same time point. While we found a moderating effect of purpose in life, we cannot
determine whether purpose in life influences a decrease in antisocial behavior over time for
adolescents living in poverty. Notably, it is possible that the effect may strengthen over
time. Adolescents who are just beginning to discover a purpose may commit to more
purposeful behaviors as time goes on. Future research should examine how these rela-
tionships function longitudinally or at the minimum, examine within-person behavioral
changes over time.
Another important limitation is the possibility that several measures lack sufficient
construct validity. All measures in our study were created by Child Trends for The
Flourishing Child Project, meaning that these measures have not been previously used in
other samples. Although the measures demonstrated sufficient unidimensionality and
convergent and divergent validity, it is unclear whether similar results would be obtained
using different methods of assessment. The observed relationships should be replicated
using alternative measures of purpose in life, antisocial behaviors, and prosocial traits and
behaviors.
A relevant direction for future research on adolescent purpose is to examine the specific
types of purposes that adolescents create. This would advance our efforts to understand
what types of purposes are healthiest to aim for. Do self-oriented or prosocial, approach or
avoidance oriented, family or career oriented purposes, result in greater well-being and
optimal functioning? Which type of purpose is most protective for adolescents living in
poverty? These questions could be addressed by research that includes assessments of the
types of purposes adolescents create, in addition to whether or not they feel they have a
sense of life purpose (e.g., Bronk et al. 2010). More sophisticated methodology could also
enhance our understanding of the potential benefits of youth purpose. Daily diary studies
can investigate whether adolescents might engage in fewer antisocial behaviors on days
when they feel a greater sense of purpose in life (for an example of this within-person
approach in adults, see Kashdan and McKnight 2013). Finally, if purpose in life is a robust
resiliency factor, the next stage of work will need to focus on the mechanisms that account
for when and why.
5 Conclusion
The current study demonstrated the potential of purpose in life to serve as a resiliency
factor for adolescents living in poverty. Purpose in life diminished the relationship
between poverty and antisocial behaviors for the youth in our study. It may be especially
important to consider purpose in life for adolescents, as many researchers consider
adolescence a critical period for developing and committing to identity and goals for the
future (Hill and Burrow 2012). Theories of personality development have suggested that
it is during the teenage years when it is critically important for healthy identity devel-
opment to become a fully functioning adult (Erikson 1950; Maslow 1958; May 1975)—
and thus, an ideal period to dedicate time and effort toward the identification of a sense
of purpose, and experimentation with ways in which to devote effort toward a purpose.
Antisocial behavior in adolescence is associated with a wide range of individual and
community problems (Farrington 2005). This highlights the necessity of identifying and
K. A. Machell et al.
123
promoting resiliency factors, such as purpose in life, that can reduce adolescent antisocial
behavior.
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