Research of Note for March 2004

Print More

Can bad news about suburban kids provide hope for urban youth? Can randomly assigning a roommate of a different race influence youth attitudes and behaviors? This month’s Research Watch looks at those questions, and describes a new study of adults that shows the long-term consequences of bad experiences during childhood.

Suburban and Urban Kids: Disturbingly Similar?

Sex, Drugs, and Delinquency in Urban and Suburban Public Schools

Jay P. Greene, Ph.D., and Greg Forster, Ph.D.
Manhattan Institute for Policy Research Education Working Paper No. 4, January 2004
Available free at

This new report by the conservative Manhattan Institute has a split personality. It points out that youth attending “those shiny schools in the suburbs” are not much different from inner city youth: “The paint may be fresher, and the faces may be whiter, but the students are just as likely to have sex, use controlled substances, and break the law.” That conclusion sounds almost liberal in its “kids are the same no matter how much money they have or where they live” theme.

On the other hand, the authors remind us that the public “has been inundated with statistics about children in poverty, disadvantaged minorities, and the ‘urban underclass’” – which seems to imply that we needn’t worry about poverty because the rich kids in the suburbs are no better off. Regardless of the politics underlying the report, the data are based on the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, a solid, comprehensive study of high school students in the United States. This report finds:

• Urban and suburban high school youth are virtually identical in terms of sexual experiences. Half of all high school students and two-thirds of all 12th-graders have had sexual intercourse. Even more disturbing, 43 percent of suburban 12th-graders and 39 percent of urban 12th-graders have had sex with a person with whom they did not have a romantic relationship.
• Pregnancy rates are higher in urban schools (20 percent among 12th-grade girls) but they’re quite high in suburban schools (14 percent among 12th-grade girls).
• On virtually every measure of substance abuse, suburban teens are equally or more likely to abuse drugs. Among 12th-graders: Approximately 40 percent in both urban and suburban schools have used illegal drugs, although those in the suburbs are more likely to have driven while high on drugs; almost three out of four in both the suburbs and cities have tried alcohol more than two or three times; 63 percent of the suburban kids and 57 percent of the urban youth drink alcohol without family members present; 22 percent of those in the suburbs and 16 percent of those in cities have driven while drunk; and suburban youth are more likely to smoke.
• Urban and suburban youth are about equally likely to engage in other delinquent behavior, such as fighting and stealing. Even stabbing and shooting someone is reported by a similar percentage of students – 2.3 percent of urban high school youth compared with 1.6 percent of those in suburban high schools.

In a survey that poses a lot of questions, as the longitudinal study does, it’s easy to choose the findings that illustrate a particular point of view. It’s not always possible to tell if that’s what has happened in a report based on that study. This report doesn’t give all the details, but the tables show the responses to dozens of questions broken down by grade, and the results are amazingly similar for urban and suburban students – and frequently worse for suburban students.

Important differences between urban and suburban youth, such as higher grades among those in the suburbs, are not described in this report.

Should reading this report make us stop caring about inner city youth? Obviously not. But the implications for youth workers are interesting: Many suburban kids overcome drug abuse, casual sex and other problem behaviors and go on to live productive and successful lives. That seems to indicate that these behaviors, which are often cited as reasons for trouble in the inner cities, aren’t the main obstacles facing urban youth.

The Impact of Racial Diversity

Empathy or Antipathy: The Consequences of Racially and Socially Diverse Peers on Attitudes and Behaviors
Greg Duncan, Johanne Boisjoly, Dan M. Levy and colleagues
Joint Center for Policy Research, May 16, 2003
Available free at

One rationale for affirmative action policies in schools is that contact with members of other racial and ethnic groups is good for everyone, not just the minority group member. This study indicates that a diverse student body can have a positive impact on white students’ attitudes and behaviors.

The study was conducted on 1,100 students at a selective, large state university (which is not named). They were randomly assigned dormitory roommates by lottery for their freshman years in 1998, 1999 or 2000. The only student preferences taken into consideration were having a smoking/nonsmoking roommate, rooming with one or two people, where the dorm was located on campus, and whether the dorm corridor would be co-ed.

Of the 1,100 students, 918 were white, and almost 700 of them agreed to be interviewed in 2002, when they were more than halfway through their sophomore, junior or senior years.

White students who had been randomly assigned to minority roommates tended to report having more contact with minority students and feeling more comfortable with them. These differences were statistically significant for Asian and “other races” (the largest minority groups) but not for black students. In contrast, there was no difference in these attitudes or behaviors for whites with Hispanic roommates. Only 28 of the students in the sample were black. Because statistical significance is more likely with larger samples, it is possible that the difference for black roommates would have been significant if there had been more.

Freshman-year roommates were as likely to remain friends when they were of different races as when they were both white.

However, the questions about friendships were not answered by everyone in the study, so the results were based on very small numbers of white students with minority roommates.

The greatest change in attitudes involved questions about affirmative action. Upon entering college, black students were much more in favor of affirmative action than white students were. However, white students with minority roommates developed more favorable attitudes toward affirmative action than did white students with white roommates.

In contrast, students’ attitudes about income redistribution statements – such as “wealthy people should pay more taxes” – were not influenced by the race of their roommates, but were influenced by their wealth or their roommates’ wealth. Students from families earning more than $200,000 a year (the wealthiest category analyzed) and those with roommates from families at that income level were less likely to support higher taxes for the wealthy.

Roommates’ races did not influence attitudes about working to promote racial understanding, helping others in difficulty, actively participating in civil rights organizations or becoming politically active.

This study demonstrates solid methodology and statistical analysis, but with one big flaw: The sample of minority students, even in this large university with affirmative action, was still small. Of the more than 1,100 students eligible for the dorm room lottery, almost nine out of ten were white, leaving only 28 black students, 77 Asians, 35 Hispanics, and 49 who categorized themselves as “other.”

There were no social class differences between the white and black students, which would not necessarily be true at other schools. It is worth noting, however, that the impact of affirmative action for admission was positive, even though the admissions scores of the minority students were significantly lower, on average, than those of the whites.

The results suggest that forced familiarity with racial minorities, at least with roommates, helps to promote friendship, interpersonal comfort and positive attitudes toward affirmative action. It is not possible to know whether the results would be similar in high school classrooms or at youth agencies, but the results of this and other studies on race seem to suggest that the closer the contact, the better.

How Bad Childhood Events Affect Adolescents

The Association Between Adverse Childhood Experiences and Adolescent Pregnancy, Long-Term Psychosocial Consequences, and Fetal Death
Susan Hills, Ph.D., M.S., Robert Anda, M.D., M.S., Shanta Dube, M.P.H., and colleagues
Pediatrics, Vol. 113, No. 2, February 2004, pgs 320-327
Available free from Dr. Hills at or 4770 Buford Hwy NE, Atlanta, GA 30341-3724. CDC, Mailstop K-54

Abuse and neglect in childhood are expected to have long-term consequences, and this study of more than 9,000 women shows how bad that impact can be and how long it can last.

Women over 18 visiting their doctors in a large HMO in San Diego were asked about eight kinds of adverse childhood experiences (ACE) in this study, known as the ACE study. These eight kinds of negative experiences during the first 18 years of their lives included emotional, physical and sexual abuse; intimate partner violence; living with a substance-abusing, mentally ill or criminal household member; or having a parent who was divorced or separated. One point was allotted for having each of these eight experiences, for a total maximum score of eight.

The major focus of the study was adolescent pregnancy. The chances of an adolescent girl getting pregnant almost doubled for girls who had an incarcerated family member. Pregnancy was 60 percent more likely for adolescents with any of the following five experiences: household substance abuse, verbal abuse, sexual abuse, divorced or separated parents, or exposure to intimate partner violence involving one or both parents. Teen pregnancy was 50 percent more likely if the woman had been physically abused as a child, and only 20 percent more likely if a member of the household was mentally ill.

The negative impact of childhood experiences continued for years into adulthood. Although many of the women in the study were more than 50 years old when interviewed, those who had even one or two of these childhood experiences were more likely to report having “serious or disturbing” current family, job or financial problems, high levels of stress or fear of not being able to control their anger.

These problems were more likely for women who reported more ACEs. For example, women with one or two ACEs were 50 percent more likely to have serious family problems, while the chances of serious family problems more than doubled among women who had experienced three or four ACEs, and more than tripled among those with five or more.

Could the problems experienced as adults be related to their adolescent pregnancies? Apparently not, because women who did not experience any ACEs but became pregnant as teens did not have increased risk of any of these long-term problems.

The results indicate that abuse and serious difficulties in childhood have long-term negative consequences. This would seem to support the strategy of removing children from such environments whenever possible. However, the fact that parental divorce or separation also has very negative long-term consequences suggests that solutions that involve removal from even one parent can also cause long-term damage.

The findings clearly have implications for workers who need to make decisions about custody or removing a child from a dysfunctional home. They are useful for other youth workers as well. They indicate that even relatively commonplace family problems such as divorce and separation increase the chances of adolescent pregnancy as well as long-term problems.

Although these experiences might not seem so traumatic to youth workers and may seem to be for the best in the short term, the data indicate that the impact on children can still be severe.

Diana Zuckerman, Ph.D., is president of the National Center for Policy Research for Women and Families. Contact: