Across a lifetime, people encounter crossroads moments that affect the trajectories of their lives. Crossroads moments include such decisions as what job to take, where to live, whether to go back to school, and what program to enroll in if they do. The options available to people at these crossroads moments and the decisions they make—or that are made for them—are influenced by many things, such as where they live, how much money they have, and what structural barriers they face.
To better understand how structural factors influence crossroads moments and how changes at those moments in adolescence and young adulthood can influence long-term adult outcomes, we use the Social Genome Model. This microsimulation model can project how changes early on can influence well-being later in life. It’s ideal for asking “what if” questions about factors that promote or impede future success.
We use the model to conduct eight virtual experiments, exploring the costs of structural racism for Black and Hispanic people; the potential benefits of criminal justice reform for young Black men; the benefits of improving the quality of low-wage jobs for young adults; and the benefits of expanding various programs proven to improve schools, increase the attainment of educational degrees, and provide job training to workers.
Our experiments show that the cost of structural racism is high, reducing the discounted present value of lifetime earnings by more than $250,000 for Black people and by about $130,000 for Hispanic people.
Other experiments show that people who directly benefit from specific interventions or changes at crossroads moments can experience substantial increases in lifetime earnings. For the most part, those benefits are not widespread enough to greatly affect population averages and disparities between groups.
Overall, no single crossroads moment can consistently place adolescents and young adults on a path to better lifetime outcomes. But the results suggest that interventions that touch on multiple aspects of young people’s lives and that begin earlier in their lives show great potential to generate broad-based improvements in lifetime earnings. Our simulations show that these interventions can be especially meaningful to people who directly benefit from changes in policies, programs, and practices—in other words, those who came to crossroads moments and were able to take a different path.