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Press Release

Youth in Poverty Six Times More Likely to Experience Detrimental Levels of Adversity Than Higher-Income Peers

Center for Promise researchers at Boston University examine adversity’s effects on adolescents to support development of interventions leading to positive developmental outcomes

WASHINGTON AND BOSTON (March 30, 2017) – More than one-quarter of children living in poverty (28 percent) experience three or more reported adversities in their adolescence, a rate nearly six times that of their middle and upper class peers, according to a new report by the Center for Promise, the applied research institute of America’s Promise Alliance. Multiple adversities, the research shows, put young people at increased risk of performing poorly in school or dropping out.

Barriers to Success: Moving Toward a Deeper Understanding of Adversity’s Effects on Adolescents, funded by Target, is a collection of findings from four separate studies on the role that multiple adversities play in the developmental outcomes of youth and how social supports can buffer the effects of adversity.

Despite increased high school graduation and college completion rates, declining teen pregnancy rates and less risky behavior among teens, many young people – particularly those in low-income communities – are not thriving. Data from each of the four studies shows that young people in low-income communities experience cycles of adversity and trauma that halt social mobility, educational progress, and emotional and social development.

Adversities accounted for in the study include economic hardship, parental divorce, incarceration or death of a parent, domestic violence, neighborhood violence, mental illness in a family member, and a family member dealing with substance abuse.

Understanding these findings will help practitioners and policymakers develop tailored interventions to mitigate the effects of multiple adversities on the lives of America’s youth.

“This report presents us with insights into the severe struggles that too many youth in our country face and the long-term consequences of these struggles,” said Dr. Jonathan Zaff, executive director, Center for Promise. “Children of color and children living below the federal poverty line are much more likely to experience myriad adversities in their homes and throughout their communities. Despite these struggles, we see many of these same youth succeed in school and in life. Our research shows that social supports from family and other adults in their lives and social supports for young people’s parents can help youth overcome their struggles.”

Key Findings

  • Adversities experienced by youth differ by income, maternal education, and race and ethnic background. White youth are more likely to grow up without adversity. Over half of White youth reported none of eight adversities listed compared to a little more than one-third of Black youth. On the other hand, young people identifying as Black or multi-racial had the highest rates of three or more adversities, at 16.6 percent and 15.5 percent, respectively.
  • The cumulative number and type of adversities young people experience matters. Adolescents who experienced certain clusters of adversities had lower probability of flourishing than others who had experienced different clusters of adversities; some were more likely than others to graduate high school, attend college, and hold a stable job. For example, clusters like violence and the loss of a parent were found to be the most harmful to a young person’s development.
  • Relationships can buffer the effects of multiple adversities for young people. The study found that for each additional adverse family experience a young person encounters, neighborhood support buffered the negative effects. There was still an increase in parenting stress, but it was significantly lower for mothers who had neighborhood support than those who did not.

Barriers to Success builds off of the Center’s previous reports, Don’t Call Them Dropouts and Don’t Quit on Me, which shed light on the way adversities affect a young person’s decision to leave school before graduation and the relationships and supports that help them to stay on track or re-engage once they have left.

Report & Other Resources

To access the full report, graphics and other resources, please visit

Authors & Sponsors

Michelle V. Porche, Ed.D is a clinical associate professor associate of Applied Human Development at the Boston University School of Education. Jingtong Pan is a doctoral candidate in Child Study and Human Development at Tufts University. Jonathan F. Zaff, Ph.D., the executive director of the Center for Promise, is also a Research Associate Professor in Applied Human Development at the Boston University School of Education.

This research study, Barriers to Success, is generously supported by Target.

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About the Center for Promise

The Center for Promise is the applied research institute for America’s Promise Alliance, housed at the Boston University School of Education and dedicated to understanding what young people need to thrive and how to create the conditions of success for all young people.

About America’s Promise Alliance

America’s Promise Alliance is the nation’s largest network dedicated to improving the lives of children and youth. Together with more than 400 national organizations and thousands of community leaders, America’s Promise focuses the nation’s attention on young people’s lives and voices, leads bold campaigns to expand opportunity, conducts groundbreaking research on what young people need to thrive, and accelerates the adoption of strategies that help young people succeed. GradNation, its signature campaign, mobilizes Americans to increase the nation’s high school graduation rate to 90 percent by 2020.