Research Networks: Transitions to Adulthood and Socioeconomic Status and Health
February 17, 2005 | Grantee Publications | Policy Research

About 25 percent of the MacArthur Foundation’s grantmaking budget each year is devoted to research, the vast majority of which is designed to have practical application and to inform policy. Over the years, support for research has included grants of several types, including support for individuals, research related to programs, and support for academic and policy centers.

The Foundation’s signature contribution to research, however, has been through the MacArthur Research Networks. These efforts focus on big problems, involve large-scale collaboration among able researchers, are broadly interdisciplinary, frequently involve up to ten years of work, and typically build and examine large data sets.

Since the first networks were established in 1983, a total of 31 such networks or major initiatives have received more than $310 million in support.

A monograph about the network approach, An Experiment in Scientific Organization, was written by Robert Kahn, professor emeritus of psychology and public health at the University of Michigan. It explores the Foundation’s reasoning in developing an approach to research based on the efforts of an interdisciplinary group, with members from many different institutions and organizations, as opposed to more traditional models of university-based research.

The research networks have explored topics such as successful aging, midlife, mental health and the law, and relationship between the mind and body. Each has yielded important new insights, and set the stage for future research in each field.

In this issue of the Foundation’s newsletter, we discuss the work of two current research networks, Socioeconomic Status and Health and the Transition to Adulthood.

As always, we welcome your comments.

Jonathan F. Fanton
John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation



Research Network on Socioeconomic Status and Health
Research Network on Transitions to Adulthood
Foundation Announcements


Research Network on Socioeconomic Status and Health

Established: 1997
Director: Nancy E. Adler, Professor of Medical Psychology, University of California, San Francisco
Mission: To enhance understanding of the mechanisms by which socioeconomic factors affect the health of individuals and their communities.
Web site:

A few weeks ago the New York Times reported on a link between stress and aging. It is well known that stress can lead to poor health. But much less is known about the mechanisms through which stress triggers profound physical effects. The research establishing a connection between stress and the rate at which body cells age was published in the December issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The link appears to be a part of DNA called the telomere, found at the tip of each cell’s chromosomes. When a cell divides, the telomere shrinks a bit. It is rebuilt by a chemical called telomerase, but after many divisions the telomere becomes too small for the cell to split. The faster one’s cells age, the faster the body ages. The research found that in people facing consistently high levels of stress, telomeres are shorter and telomerase activity is lower—demonstrating the link between mind and body.

The research, led by Elissa Epel at the University of California, San Francisco, was financed in part by the MacArthur-funded Research Network on Socioeconomic Status and Health. The network is exploring the growing body of evidence that a person’s station in life—his or her socioeconomic status—is a strong predictor of health. In other words, the greater your income, the better your education, the better your job and neighborhood, the better your health. The network is exploring the pathways by which these connections occur, including exposure to stress and its impact on health.

As with all of the Foundation-funded research networks, the network’s membership is interdisciplinary, coming from fields that include psychology, sociology, medicine, epidemiology, neuroscience, and economics. What binds them together is a research agenda organized around the ways in which a person’s socioeconomic status (SES) can alter biological systems. The research is based on seven facts about the relationship between SES and health.

  1. There is a strong, two-way association in which SES affects health and health affects SES. The network focuses on the many ways SES is linked to health and the biological mechanisms causing such connections. It is interesting to note that the health effects of a person’s SES can be shaped by what a person thinks his status is in addition to what it really is. This is something the network is able to measure.
  2. With a few exceptions, the lower a person’s SES, the shorter his or her life expectancy and the more prone he or she is to a wide range of diseases.
  3. SES is linked to early indicators of disease such as high blood pressure and buildup of plaque in the carotid artery of the neck, which may reflect the wear-and-tear on the body of repeated exposure to stress. An index of these indicators could be a powerful predictor of a number of diseases, of mental and physical decline, and of life expectancy.
  4. The link between SES and health begins at birth and continues through life, but the strength of the relationship varies at different stages of life. The network is exploring the idea that the health effects of SES through a person’s life are cumulative.
  5. There is much more to the link between SES and health than the effects of poverty and adversity. In fact, health improves with each step up the SES ladder. The greatest individual burdens are found among the poor and disadvantaged, but the largest population-wide effects are found in the middle SES groups.
  6. Race, ethnicity, and SES interact, and this interaction is an important element of the network’s research.
  7. Factors that can lead to SES effects on health include: access and quality of health care; health behaviors such as smoking and exercise; stress and depression; environmental factors such as pollution and crowding; and social environments such as neighborhood, work, interpersonal support or conflict, and discrimination.


The members of the network are engaged in a number of studies exploring the social, psychological, and biological processes involved in the SES aspects of health and disease.

The network has added new measures to data collection in the Whitehall Study of British Civil Servants (related: Whitehall II Study), a long-term study that was one of the first to show a persistent influence of SES on health well into old age. In the U.S., the network has enriched data collection of CARDIA, a longitudinal study of the development of cardiovascular risk factors in African-American and caucasian men and women. These additions are allowing the network to explore the psychosocial and biological pathways linking education, income, and ethnicity to cardiovascular risk.

Another project is a large study of work environment and health being conducted in 15 plants of a large industrial company that will yield information about psychosocial and environmental factors and health. Data from the study will help the network members refine ways of measuring the pathways that link such factors to SES and health.

The interdisciplinary nature of the networks has a magnifying effect on the nature and volume of publications about the research. A look at the list of work associated with the Research Network on Socioeconomic Status and Health is an excellent case in point. The number of published papers totals almost 400. And because the members of the network come from many different fields, the audience for the results extends well beyond the basic research community.

The network maintains a Web site with information about its members, research initiatives, publications, and links. A useful approach used by the network to present its research is to divide it into four working groups, each presented separately on the site, with the context necessary to understand the purpose for the work and the way it relates to the larger network effort. Research “notebooks” for the main areas of research (biological/allostatic load, psychosocial and social environment) contain chapters on a range of topics that have proven popular among those visiting the site. The Web site is used by researchers, policy makers, governmental organizations, and community groups.

In partnership with another MacArthur-funded organization, the Center for the Advancement of Health, the Research Network on Socioeconomic Status and Health held a conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. to increase understanding of the intersection of SES, race/ethnicity, and health. It is an area of work the network members consider of particular importance, yet it is little understood. The conference brought together policy makers, policy researchers, and others from community organizations, government funding agencies, and the media to discuss what is known about the topic and its potential for impact on policy in areas such as community development, public health, education, and nutrition.


Research Network on Transitions to Adulthood

Established: 2000
Director: Frank F. Furstenberg, Zellerbach Family Professor of Sociology and Research Associate in the Population Studies Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
Mission: To examine the changing nature of early adulthood.
Web site:

A recent cover story of Time magazine focused on a group dubbed “Twixters” by the magazine—those in the early years of adulthood, many still living at home and not yet firmly on life’s path. Some time ago, when Newsweek did a report on the same topic, the term was “adultolescents.” Much of the reporting on this group tends to be tongue-in-cheek, perhaps even slightly critical of the young people for living in their parents’ home when tradition says they should be starting families and developing careers.

The MacArthur-funded Research Network on Transitions to Adulthood takes young people seriously, viewing the early years of adulthood, roughly age 18 to 34, as a neglected part of the life span that deserves close study, particularly at a time when a young person cannot leave high school knowing that a well-paying job is easily available in the U.S. economy.

The network explores, from a developmental perspective, the many paths a young person follows when entering adulthood—leaving home, entering or leaving school, finding a job, finding a spouse—and the many different combinations and sequences in which they occur. It examines how development in one area relates to the others and how society is organized to help—or hinder—the transition.

Members of this interdisciplinary network include experts in sociology, criminology, development psychology, and economics, with others added as needed based on the research agenda of the network. It is a body of work shaped by the following:

  • The time period between age 18 and 34 has changed dramatically in the past several decades. Where once young adults moved in lockstep progression through the stages of adulthood—graduating from high school, leaving home, going to college or getting a job, marrying, and starting a family—today this path is no longer ordered and sequential. The result is a greater array of choices, greater demands on parents to support young adults for longer periods of time, and greater demands on young adults to balance the flux and uncertainty, as well as the rising demands of the job market and changing economy.
  • Public awareness and social policies have not yet caught up to the changes. Many features of U.S. society operate on the assumption that reaching adulthood occurs much earlier than it ordinarily does today.
  • Vulnerable youth—those leaving special education, foster care, juvenile justice, or adult corrections, as well as those with mental or physical health problems—often need additional assistance as they navigate the transition to adulthood. Yet when these youth reach age 18 or 21, most of the supports they relied on as children, such as Medicaid, special education, etc., end or dramatically change. Compounding their struggles, these youth often have more tenuous relations with family and other support networks.
  • The changing nature of young adulthood is creating a new perspective on the developmental aspects of that stage of life. Identity formation, what it means to be an adult, how young adults balance interdependence and independence, and the effect of life in flux on psychological well-being are all questions the network is examining.


The research agenda of the network reflects the breadth of the members’ interests. Examples include the following.

On the Frontier of Adulthood
A volume that explores:

  • The growing complexity of the transition to adulthood
  • Information available to policy makers and practitioners emerging from analysis of the most current data on young adults in the U.S. and Western Europe.

Opening Doors to Earning Credentials
A project funded by the network and others that works with community colleges in several states to design and implement new types of financial aid, enhanced student services, and curricular and instructional innovations, with the goal of helping nontraditional students earn college credentials as the pathway to better jobs and further education.

Civic Engagement in Early Adulthood
A book that will focus on civic engagement during early adulthood and emphasize the contributions, often untapped, that young adults make to their communities, cities, and society.

On Your Own Without a Net: The Transition to Adulthood for Vulnerable Populations
A book that will identify for policy makers and practitioners the challenges facing those adolescents and young adults for whom the lengthening process of becoming an adult is likely most difficult, such as youth in the mental health, foster care, juvenile justice or criminal justice systems; and youth in special education, with disabilities or living in homeless shelters.

The network is also engaged in a series of qualitative studies, including the Youth Development Study and The Michigan Study of Life Transitions.

Intriguing information found in the network’s publications points to the reasons the network members believe that the transition to adulthood years should be considered a separate stage of life worthy of close examination.

One indication of the interest in the topic lies in visits to the network’s web site, which have grown from 200 per week in 2000 to more than 3,000 per week now.

Parents spending more time and money

  • Parents provide, on average, $38,000 in material assistance for their child, or about $2,200 for every year between ages 18 and 34—considerably more than in the past. 
  • Since the 1970s, there has been a 50 percent increase in the number of youth living at home, which alone has led to a 19 percent increase in parental time and money contributions. 
  • Children in the top one-fourth of income categories receive at least 70 percent more in material assistance than do children in the bottom one-fourth. This occurs even though higher-income youth are only 10-15 percent more likely to attend college than low-income youth. 
  • Although slightly more than half of men and nearly two-thirds of women had left their childhood home by age 22, 16 percent of both returned home at some point before age 35. 

Youth today doing more with less

  • Young adults are sacrificing leisure time for more paid work and child care. In large part, traditional gender roles prevail in the split between housework, child care, and paid employment, although the gap has narrowed somewhat.
  • Among youth aged 18-24 in 1973, 1985, and 1997, earnings in 1997 were the lowest of all three time periods.

Youth happiness and well-being

  • Women who had no children by age 28 and were married by age 32 had the lowest poverty rate and the highest family income. Women who had a child during the years between ages 24 and 28 and who were married by age 29 were the happiest and the least likely to be depressed. Men who married but had no children had higher levels of education at age 35, lower poverty rates, and higher family incomes. 
  • Youth today are less likely to read a newspaper, attend church, belong to a religion or a union, vote for President, or identify with a political party than previously. However, they are more likely to have done community service, to use the Internet for communication and political information, and to get political information from unconventional sources, like “mock” news. They are more pessimistic about society in general and of people in particular, and they are more liberal on a wide range of measures, especially on civil liberties, modern gender roles, racial equality, and secularism.

As with all the research networks funded by the MacArthur Foundation, attention is paid to making a direct connection to policy and practice. In November 2004, the Network on Transitions hosted the first national conference on the topic, opening it to representatives of the many audiences with an interest in the development of young adults. Held at the University of Chicago’s Gleacher Center and co-sponsored by the university’s Chapin Hall Center for Families and Children, the conference was filled to capacity. Over the course of three days, participants—including researchers, policy makers, practitioners, and funders—examined new research results and discussed how well major social institutions have adapted to the needs of young adults.


Foundation Announcements: Dr. Gary S. Samore Named Vice President of MacArthur Program on Global Security and Sustainability

Dr. Gary S. Samore will join the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation as Vice President of the Program on Global Security and Sustainability. As Vice President, Samore will be responsible for the Foundation’s international grantmaking, currently totaling approximately $75 million annually. The Program on Global Security and Sustainability provides grants in the fields of international peace and security, human rights, international justice, the environment, and population. With headquarters in Chicago, the Foundation has offices in Mexico, India, Nigeria, and Russia and supports work in 85 countries. Dr. Samore will start at the Foundation in July.

At the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), Dr. Samore was responsible for the management and direction of research and for supervision of the institute’s team of Senior Fellows, Research Fellows, and Research Associates. As Senior Fellow for Non-Proliferation, he directed research, conferences, and publications related to the issue of weapons proliferation. At IISS, Samore organized a series of conferences of U.S. and European officials and experts to develop stronger transatlantic cooperation to respond to international proliferation challenges following the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States. He also organized a number of “Track-II” meetings to support diplomatic efforts to resolve key regional proliferation issues in South Asia, the Korean peninsula, and the Persian Gulf.

From 1996 to 2001, as a member of the National Security Council, Dr. Samore was Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director of Nonproliferation and Export Controls. He was the senior White House official responsible for formulation and coordination of U.S. policy designed to prevent the proliferation of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons and missile delivery systems. He was also responsible for U.S. export control policy of strategic goods. He represented the National Security Council in discussions with China, Russia, North Korea, India, Pakistan, and other countries. He was a key member of the U.S. team that negotiated nuclear and missile export control agreements with China.

Dr. Samore is the author of several articles on non-proliferation issues and editor of two books, North Korea’s Weapons Programmes: A Net Assessment (2004) and Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction: A Net Assessment (2002), both published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies. A graduate of the State University of New York at Stony Brook, Dr. Samore earned his M.A. and Ph.D., both in Government, at Harvard University.

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