The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Young Soma-Users in the Welfare State

Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King

Though they are sometimes slow to acknowledge it, progressives typically pursue their agenda by relying on the state as a substitute for the family. But in settings where the state has taken over for the family, people often suffer from moral confusion. No wonder that in his famous dystopian novel Brave New World, Aldous Huxley depicts a government-managed population dependent on the fictive drug soma to lend stimulus to their pointless lives.  Now researchers at University of California, San Diego, and Rady Children’s Hospital have discerned evidence of something like a soma culture emerging among young people under the care of state child-welfare officials.

Concerned about adolescent substance use as “a critical public health concern,” the San Diego-based scholars set about their investigation of the issue keenly aware that “the consequences of youth substance use are staggering in both financial and human terms.” They note that the costs incident to adolescent substance use approach $70 billion a year, citing studies linking such use to low academic performance, delinquency,  injuries, sexual risk-taking, unintended pregnancies, asthma, depression, anxiety, and impaired brain function. Worst of all, “substance use also is a major contributor to three leading causes of death among adolescents—accidents, homicides, and suicides.”  

To gauge the size of the problem and to identify the circumstances most likely to incubate it, the researchers parse general community data collected in 1994-1995 from a nationally representative sample of 4,445 seventh- through twelfth-graders. But because of their perception that the problem is particularly acute among adolescents receiving attention from government child-welfare officials, the researchers comparatively scrutinize a second set of data collected in 2000-2001 from 730 adolescents involved with child-welfare systems in 96 counties in 36 states. 

The data for both lifetime and current alcohol use indicate that underage drinking is more common among adolescents under child-welfare supervision, but only slightly—not significantly. In part, the researchers acknowledge, this near parity in underage drinking may reflect no more than the fact that different surveys were used for the two adolescent populations, with “community youths responding to a more liberal measure of current use” than was used among their child-welfare peers.

In any case, a more dramatic differential in substance use appears when the researchers shift their attention to illicit substances other than alcohol. Indeed, the researchers conclude that “substance use prevalence was [significantly] higher among child welfare–involved youths than community youths for lifetime marijuana use, lifetime and current inhalant use, and lifetime and current other illicit drug use.” The researchers particularly underscore the finding that “child welfare-involved youths reported a significantly higher rate of hard drug use [involving substances such as cocaine and heroin] than did their community counterparts, although using a more conservative category of hard drugs.”

The overall pattern is clear: “child welfare-involved youths are a high-risk population for substance involvement.” “Given the strong influence that youth substance use has on both adolescent and adult physical and emotional health,” the researchers remark, “the increased rates of [substance] use among child welfare-involved youths appear particularly distressing.”

But not all adolescents are equally likely to fall into the child-welfare sphere, with its markedly higher vulnerability to substance abuse: the researchers report that “only 32% of child welfare-involved youths resided in two-parent households compared with 73% in the community” at large. What is more, among those adolescents who were involved with child-welfare officials, “two-parent families . . . were strongly, negatively related to current substance use for child welfare-involved youths,” apparently “indicating a protective effect” of living in an intact family.  

Before he died, Aldous Huxley marveled at how fully the real world had transformed itself into something like the fictive soma-addicted, government-dominated world he had depicted in Brave New World.  That transformation now appears especially complete within the child-welfare system. Just how many young Americans end up in that drug-prone world in the decades ahead will depend heavily on how many enjoy the protective effect of living with both parents.

(Danielle L Fettes, Gregory A. Aarons, and Amy E. Green, “Higher Rates of Adolescent Substance Use in Child Welfare Versus Community Populations in the United States,” Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs 74.6 [2013]: 825-34.)