The blog of the Urban Institute
February 22, 2021

New Data Show Stark Racial and Ethnic Differences in Young People’s Healthy Development

February 22, 2021

Young people’s healthy development is critical to the country’s social and economic future. But not all children have equal opportunities to thrive. Because of discriminatory, institutionalized policies and practices, children of color are more likely to face unique challenges, such as loss of family income, learning loss, and housing instability, than white children. The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated these challenges.

New data from the Social Genome Model (SGM)—a tool that identifies developmental and social mobility patterns from birth through adulthood—illustrate this problem. They show Black and Latinx young people are much less likely to be on track for healthy development than white peers, resulting in markedly different levels of well-being as young adults. The data underscore the need for policies and programs that break down the structural economic and social forces that create these inequitable outcomes.

At every stage of life, Black and Latinx children are less likely to be on track for healthy development

The SGM tracks children’s development from birth through age 30 by assessing their well-being at eight developmentally critical ages (birth and ages 5, 8, 11, 15, 19, 24, and 30). At each stage, the tool classifies people as being “on track” or “off track,” according to specific outcomes across four developmental domains: cognitive, behavioral/social, psychological/emotional, and physical and mental health. At birth, being on track (or being born into advantaged circumstances) is based on family income relative to the federal poverty level, the mother’s age and marital status, and the child’s birth weight. As children move into adulthood, being on track incorporates measures of self-sufficiency. Children can be on or off track in different ways and at different stages of their lives. A more detailed description of the SGM model is available here.

SGM data add to the evidence base by showing how disparities in advantage manifest during different periods of childhood and the young adult years. Nearly two-thirds of white children are born on track, compared with less than one-quarter (17 percent) of Black children. By age 30, two-thirds of white adults (66 percent) are still on track, compared with fewer than 40 percent of Black 30-year-olds. And though Black children gradually improve their on-track status from birth through age 30, they consistently lag behind white children at every developmental stage. Latinx children fall between the Black and white experience, with 34 percent on track at birth and 54 percent on track at age 30.

Bar chart showing Black and Latinx kids are less likely than white kids to be on track for healthy development

How can we get more children and young adults on track for healthy development?

Protecting the healthy development of today’s children and young adults will require policymakers, service providers, advocates, and funders to take rapid, expansive action. They will need to dismantle the structural economic and social forces that make it hard for Black and Latinx children to overcome disadvantage and stay on track.

Stakeholders can start by using the SGM to inform their decisionmaking. Policymakers currently lack sufficient evidence to identify the combination or sequence of policies and programs that could ultimately get more children on track by adulthood. The SGM helps fill this gap by illustrating which factors influence child development. Using the SGM would benefit not only Black and Latinx children but also white children—more than 25 percent of whom are off track at age 30. SGM findings suggest evidence-based policies and programs that target children with disadvantaged circumstances can help narrow racial and ethnic disparities in adulthood.

But the SGM has limitations. It sheds light on individual developmental pathways and racial and ethnic disparities but doesn’t give us enough information to tackle the structural context of these disparities, that is, the discriminatory policies and institutional practices at the root of advantage and disadvantage.

Investing in expanding the evidence base to address structural inequality can help create real, lasting change and better outcomes for children. The American Transformation Project, a new Urban Institute research program, is exploring what it would take to advance racial equity and dismantle structural racism, with a focus on Black, Latinx, Native American, and Asian young people in the United States. It’s exploring how solutions aimed at closing the wealth gap, providing quality public schools in all communities, closing gaps in employment and earnings, and ending punitive policing can help tear down barriers to an equitable future.

We need to understand how to better support children during their crucial formative years, because their well-being has far-reaching consequences for families and for America’s future. Now is the time to reconsider—and increase—the country’s investment in children

NickyLloyd/Getty Images

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As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.