Depressing Study Suggests The Racial Life Expectancy Gap Is A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

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While most white teens are confident they’ll reach age 35, a staggering percentage of their minority peers don’t share their optimism, according to a new study in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior.

Researchers analyzed survey data from over 17,000 students across the country, who were surveyed in three waves: first in grades 7-12, then one year later, then again six years later. The key question asked participants to rate how certain they felt that they would survive until age 35, along with questions about environmental factors — such as socioeconomic status, exposure to violence, and personal health — that can have a negative effect on people’s perception of survival.


The results are stark: Compared to 66 percent of white teens, only 50 percent of black students are “almost certain” they’ll reach 35.

The study’s authors also made a point of breaking down the category of “Hispanic,” to account for the fact that Hispanic adolescents often have vastly different experiences and backgrounds based on factors such as ethnicity and immigrant generation. By teasing the categories apart, they were able to find that while Cuban youth, for example, are almost as optimistic as white youth, Mexican immigrant and first generation adolescents are among the most pessimistic. Only 38 percent of non-native Mexican teens are almost certain they’ll see 35 — and 6 percent are almost certain they won’t live that long.

The Consequences

While low survival expectations are troubling in and of themselves, they can also have long-reaching tangible impacts.

“Expectations about future outcomes shape our behavior,” Dr. Tara Warner, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the study’s lead author, told ThinkProgress. “Being pessimistic about one’s future survival may lead to a ‘nothing to lose’ attitude, which increases the likelihood that individuals will engage in risk-taking behaviors…behaviors that very well could put one’s future in jeopardy.”

According to the study, pessimistic survival expectations are linked to a slew of harmful behaviors: “fighting, weapon use, delinquency, unsafe sexual behavior, HIV/AIDs transmission, depression, low self-esteem, high school dropout, unemployment, suicide attempts, cigarette use, and even fast-fast food consumption.”

Furthermore, Warner said, the point at which survival expectations are the lowest, ages 14-18, is the same period when youth are at the highest risk of health-compromising behavior, such as drug use — so if you compound that risk with a “nothing to lose” attitude, the results can be dire. They are also the ages that set the stage for future economic prosperity — or lack thereof.

“Adolescence is a critical stage when they are supposed to be planning for their future,” said Warner. If students don’t believe they have a future, they are unlikely to invest in it.

Negative expectations about survival can thus create a self-fulfilling prophecy, whereby students who don’t believe they will survive make it more likely that it’s true. Pessimistic perceptions set the teens up for long-term health consequences and economic disparity even if they beat their self-perceived odds. And because survival expectations differ along racial, ethnic, and immigrant lines, they are one mechanism by which disparities affecting health, well-being, and economic status are carried from one generation to the next.

What Creates A Survival Expectation

Previous research has shown that environmental factors such as family and neighborhood poverty, lack of health care access or anticipation of health care access, and exposure to violence are all risk factors for low survival expectations. As Warner says, these risk factors themselves are stratified by race and ethnicity:

“Living in a poor neighborhood is significantly associated with diminished survival expectations. The chances of living in a poor neighborhood differ dramatically by race and ethnicity, and these impoverished neighborhoods are often plagued with violence.”

Though these factors are all likely connected, they don’t entirely account for the disparities Warner found. Although controlling for socioeconomic status lessened the difference between white and non-white survival expectations, this study shows that race, ethnicity, and nativity status are themselves factors in how likely teens believe they are to survive.

In a way, these pessimistic expectations are linked to reality: Black Americans, who are at a higher risk of incarceration, are also at a higher risk of the associated economic burdens, psychological stresses, and health issues that accompany spending time behind bars. Constant economic stress contributes to a host of illnesses, and is as draining as constantly pulling all-nighters. Even among white Americans, wealthy Americans are healthier and live-longer than their working-class counterparts. And on top of that, Black and Latino youths often have to contend with the stress of daily racial discrimination, which can cause mental and physical trauma.

That’s why Warner’s team of researchers speculates that discrimination “may be a key factor contributing to the racial, ethnic, and immigrant disparities in survival expectations we observe.” Racialized policing and police violence in minority neighborhoods may also be factors in the low survival expectations among black and Latino youth.

“Such disproportionate minority contact — occurring at all stages of the criminal justice system — further stigmatizes and marginalizes minority youth,” Warner said.

What’s Happening To Mexican Immigrant Youth?

One surprising finding of the study was that Mexican immigrant youth are the most pessimistic about their survival expectations.

Usually, Hispanic immigrants fall under something called the “immigrant health advantage,” sometimes also called the “Hispanic Paradox.” Essentially, despite their socioeconomic disadvantage and potential stress from their immigrant experience, Hispanic immigrants in the U.S. often enjoy better health than researchers would expect. Usually, Warner said, this is seen among Hispanic adults and children, but it’s also been shown that Hispanic and immigrant youth are actually less likely to engage in risky behaviors — such as violence and risky sex — than native-born Americans. They even have lower obesity rates.

Yet in this study, Mexican immigrant youth were the most pessimistic about their future.

Warner speculates that may be due the constant threat of deportation looming over immigrants. “Other recent research highlights both an increase in deportations over the last 15 years and the social, emotional, and psychological harm of deportation among the families affected,” she said.