Compared to whites, more minority youth expect to die young

Released on 11/18/2015, at 2:00 AM
Office of University Communications
University of Nebraska–Lincoln
Lincoln, Neb., November 18th, 2015 —
Tara Warner
Tara Warner

Minority youth in the United States are more likely to doubt they will live to be 35 than their white counterparts, according to a new study led by University of Nebraska-Lincoln sociologist Tara Warner.

Mexican immigrants and black youth, in particular, are dramatically less likely to believe they will make it into their 30s. On average, approximately 66 percent of white youth said they were "almost certain" they would survive to age 35, while only 38 percent of foreign-born Mexican youth, 46 percent of second-generation Mexican youth and 50 percent of black youth expressed similar confidence about their prospects for survival.

Released Nov. 18, the study is the first to examine patterns of survival expectations among adolescents across racial, ethnic and immigrant groups. It looked at survival expectations among Asian, Cuban and Puerto Rican ethnic and immigrant groups, as well as Mexican and African-American youth.

"Thinking about and planning for the future are important tasks for adolescents," Warner said. "If they believe they have no chance of a next step, that's pretty concerning."

Contrary to popular belief that youth engage in risk-taking behaviors because they think they're invincible, sociological research has found that youth who don't expect to live long are more likely to become involved in violence, substance abuse and risky sex.

Indeed, Warner and her colleague, Raymond R. Swisher, a sociologist at Bowling Green State University, have co-authored two previous papers that found youth who grow up in poor neighborhoods tend to be pessimistic about their odds for survival and that youth who witness violence or who are victims of violence also have low expectations for their own survival.

Their research is based on data collected from 17,100 youth in grades 7 through 12 who participated in Add Health, a nationwide longitudinal study from 1995 to 2009.  

"We'd probably see even more stark differences today, given persistent racism and discrimination and the high-profile issues we're witnessing with urban violence, police violence and immigration reform," she said. "Those things continue to influence young people, perhaps even more today than they did 20 years ago when the survey first launched."

U.S.-born Cuban youth were the only group whose survival expectations were comparable to white youth.

Warner said she and Swisher were most surprised that survival expectations were lowest among foreign-born Mexican youth. Previous research has documented an "immigrant advantage" among Hispanics (mostly older adults and infants), where individuals display better well-being despite socioeconomic disadvantages.

"They are even more pessimistic than their black peers," Warner said. "This pessimism remains even after accounting for a number of risk factors known to undermine survival, such as a lack of routine health care, exposure to neighborhood poverty and experiences with violence."

Such pessimism may result from discrimination or from heightened immigration enforcement and the threat of deportation, Warner said.

Black youth are significantly more pessimistic about their future survival even after controlling for their self-reported health and unmet medical needs.

"The lower survival expectations of black youth may reflect their anticipation of lower overall life expectancy, a concern given the growing gap in life expectancy between racial and ethnic groups in the United States," Warner wrote. "This may also reflect unmeasured stressors associated with discrimination and concerns about increasing police surveillance, harassment and violence, as well as the health detriments of incarceration disproportionately affecting lower socioeconomic status blacks."

The study appears in the December issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior.

Writer: Leslie Reed, University Communications

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