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Minority teens are less hopeful they’ll live to see age 35

Brian Resnick is Vox’s science and health editor, and is the co-creator of Unexplainable, Vox's podcast about unanswered questions in science. Previously, Brian was a reporter at Vox and at National Journal.

There are many ways to quantify racial disparities in the United States. Health care outcomes, economic attainment, and high school test scores are just a few of the measures that show clear differences between, say, white and black experiences in this country.

What these measures don't get at, however, is people's subjective sense of opportunity, their feelings of hope. In a recently published study in the journal Health and Social Behavior, researchers showed that there are huge differences here, too.

The researchers mined the data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health — a cohort that initially included 20,745 teens questioned every few years between 1994 and 2008 on topics regarding their health and well-being. In each interview, the participants were asked the question: "How likely are you to live to age 35?" The response choices ranged from "almost no chance" to "almost certain."

What they discovered was striking: "Relative to white youth (at age 12), youth from almost all other racial, ethnic, and immigrant groups were less optimistic about their chances of surviving to age 35."

Foreign-born Mexicans were the least optimistic, followed by second-generation Mexicans, then black teens, and then Puerto Ricans. Asian teens were also "significantly less optimistic about future survival relative to whites," the study notes. The only outlier among the minority groups were the American-born Cubans, whose optimism for survival didn't look all that different from that of the white teens. (The study notes that Cubans are more likely than their other Hispanic peers to live in wealthy communities.)

The chart below plots the odds ratio — the relative likelihood a participant would say he or she expected to live to age 35 — for each ethnic group over their teen years and early 20s.

Journal of Health and Social Behavior=

That minorities feel less hope for their own well-being isn't a trivial matter. Not only can objective poverty and disadvantage during youth chart the course of a person's life, it's possible that people's subjective feelings of that disadvantage can also keep them on a rougher track. "Pessimistic survival expectations have been linked to numerous problem behaviors, including 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-food consumption," the authors note.

Even controlling for neighborhood factors like violence and poverty, the authors found the hope gap to largely persist between black and white participants. Black youth, at least, appear to believe the world is more dangerous to them, regardless of where they live.

There is one cause for optimism in the study, however. The chart shows a U-shaped curve for all the racial and ethnic categories. The older the teens grew, the more certain they were that they'll survive.