Examining Health Costs of Social Mobility Among Latino/a American Young Adults

Awarded Scholars:
Brenda Major, University of California, Santa Barbara
Tessa Dover, Portland State University
Project Date:
Dec 2017
Award Amount:

Co-funded with the Ford Foundation

A dominant belief in the U.S. is that social mobility is attainable for anyone through increased education, dedication, and hard work. Applying oneself in this manner is assumed to lead to positive life outcomes such as better earnings, employment and health. Yet, recent evidence suggests that upward mobility might compromise the health outcomes of members of marginalized groups. The positive relationship between socioeconomic status and health is most consistently seen for white men and is weaker or nonexistent for blacks, Latino/as and women. Although Latino/a immigrants have better physical health than native-born Latino/as, the longer those immigrants reside in the U.S., the poorer their health outcomes. Low-SES black youth who are high in self-control are more likely to thrive psychologically and academically, but they are also more likely to show greater indicators of biological health risk including higher allostatic load and faster epigenetic aging. Low-SES whites who are higher in self-control did not show this same pattern of health risks.

Brenda Major and Tessa Dover note that no study has investigated how factors that promote upward mobility might alter the health consequences of personal experiences with discrimination for members of marginalized groups. To address this, they have initiated a study that examines the extent to which endorsing cultural ideologies that foster high-effort coping (what they refer to as system trust) might simultaneously promote academic and psychosocial thriving while undermining the physical health of individuals experiencing discrimination. They have three key hypotheses: First, students who report greater increases in discrimination will have larger decreases in academic, psychosocial and physical health over time. Second, Latino/a students who are higher in system trust will fare better on measures of academic success, social engagement and mental health. Third, system trust will interact with experiences of discrimination such that high levels of system trust will exacerbate the harmful effects of discrimination on biological functioning.


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