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Professor Christina Gibson-Davis

In a groundbreaking endeavor to unravel the hidden ties between economic well-being, wealth, and the mental health of adolescents, Sanford Professor Christina Gibson-Davis, in partnership with esteemed colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh, has been awarded a grant of approximately $2.7 million from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD).

This collaboration aims to advance research on the relationship between economic well-being, wealth, adolescent functioning and mental health. University of Pittsburgh researchers Portia Miller, Jamie Hanson, and Elizabeth Votruba-Drzal bring their extensive expertise to this collective project.

"We congratulate Christina Gibson-Davis on securing this significant grant. This research will provide valuable insights into the relationship between economic well-being, wealth, and adolescent mental health," remarked Sanford Dean Judith Kelley. "This interdisciplinary effort exemplifies the power of partnerships in addressing pressing societal issues. We are proud to support Professor Gibson-Davis's innovative work and anticipate its profound impact on policy and improving the lives of young individuals."

Gibson-Davis's research, the first of its kind, will not only examine income but also delve into the impact of wealth deprivation on adolescent mental health. By collecting data on specific assets and debts relevant to lower-resourced families—such as payday loans and criminal justice debt, often overlooked in wealth surveys—the study seeks to provide a comprehensive understanding of wealth disparities and racial and ethnic inequalities among adolescents, a critical developmental period as they approach adulthood.

This joint grant between Duke University and the University of Pittsburgh will facilitate data collection at both institutions. By investigating how the lack of wealth, beyond just income, may contribute to risks in healthy adolescent development, the research aims to shed light on critical societal issues. Furthermore, it will contribute to a deeper understanding of how racial and ethnic disparities in wealth impact the life chances of teenagers and their families as they transition into adulthood.

The research project will address gaps in current knowledge and provide insights into adolescent well-being and mental health. By considering the role of economic well-being, wealth, and racial and ethnic disparities, the study will uncover how these factors influence the life trajectories of young individuals. This collaborative effort between Duke University and the University of Pittsburgh signifies a significant step forward in advancing our understanding of the complex dynamics in adolescent development.

Gibson-Davis is optimistic about the research.

“There is a mental health crisis in this country. The absence of wealth isn’t its only cause, but it can’t help, either.  With this grant, we will hope to do policy-relevant work that illustrates how wealth deprivation is a risk factor for healthy adolescent development.”


More Research from Christina Gibson-Davis

The dynamics of racial/ethnic wealth inequality among U.S. families with resident children (child households) have been understudied, a major oversight because of wealth’s impact on child development and intergenerational mobility. Using data from the Survey of Consumer Finances (2004–2016), the authors find that wealth gaps between black and white households are larger in, and have grown faster for, child households relative to the general population. In contrast, black-white income gaps for child households have remained largely unchanged. Wealth trends for black and Hispanic child households have diverged, and by 2016, Hispanic child households had more net worth than black child households. Between 2004 and 2016, home ownership rates and home equity levels for black child households decreased, while educational debt increased. In 2016, black child households had just one cent for every dollar held by non-Hispanic white child households. These findings depict the extreme wealth fragility of black child households.

Read the research: A Penny on the Dollar: Racial Inequalities in Wealth Among Households with Children   



The authors investigate whether net worth poverty (NWP) reduces children’s well-being. NWP—having wealth (assets minus debts) less than one fourth of the federal poverty line—is both theoretically and empirically distinct from income poverty (IP) and is the modal form of poverty among children. Data come from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics and its Child Development Supplement on children ages 3 to 17 years observed between 2002 and 2019. The authors use linear mixed-effects models to investigate the associations among NWP, IP, and four cognitive and behavioral outcomes. NWP reduces children’s cognitive scores and was associated with increases in both problem behavior scores. Negative associations for NWP are similar in magnitude to those found for IP. Much of the NWP effect operates through asset deprivation rather than high debt. The results illustrate the potential risks many children, previously overlooked in studies of IP, face because of wealth deprivation.

Read the research: Net Worth Poverty and Child Development 

Wealth inequality—the unequal distribution of assets and debts across a population—has reached historic levels in the United States, particularly for households with children (Pfeffer and Schoeni 2016; Saez and Zucman 2016; Gibson-Davis and Percheski 2018). Among households with a resident child under eighteen (child households), levels of wealth inequality are higher than those of income inequality and higher than wealth inequality in other household types (Gibson-Davis and Percheski 2018). In 2019, among child households, those in the top 1 percent of the wealth distribution accounted for 43.5 percent, those in the bottom 50 percent for –0.36 percent.1 Given low rates of intergenerational wealth mobility, children who grow up in low-wealth households are likely to have low wealth in adulthood (Pfeffer and Killewald 2018). ....

Read the paper: Childhood Wealth Inequality in the United States: Implications for Social Stratification and Well-Being 



This study is the first to examine net worth poverty, and its intersection with income poverty, by race and ethnicity among child households in the United States.

Read the research: Net Worth Poverty in Child Households by Race and Ethnicity, 1989–2019