"Book Excerpt: Coming of Age in the Other America,"by Stefanie DeLuca, Susan Clampit-Lundquist & Kathryn Edin October-December 2016 issue of Poverty & Race
The events of April 2015 catapulted Baltimore onto the national (and international) stage. The story is now well known. On April 12, 2015, Freddie Gray, a young African American, was taken into police custody after making eye contact with officers patrolling near the Gilmor Homes. Gray died a week later from the injuries he sustained during his subsequent ride in a police transport van. In the days that followed, controversy over the cause of Gray’s death reached a boiling point. On the afternoon of April 27, police clashed with Black high school students at the Mondawmin Mall, setting off a chain reaction that spilled over into the surrounding neighborhood as some residents began looting, destroying property, and setting fire to cars. The media labeled these events a riot and blamed the youth at the mall for inciting the unrest. Yet the students had been doing what they do every day, trying to catch the bus after school—until they were greeted by a phalanx of police in riot gear and told to disperse. Then they learned that bus service had been suspended, leaving many with no way to get home.
There is no definitive account of how the confrontation at Mondawmin truly went down or who was to blame. What we do know is that the unrest prompted public officials to call in roughly 5,000 National Guard troops, plus law enforcement officials from the surrounding area, who would occupy Baltimore for days. Police helicopters swarmed overhead as protesters marched, often ending their rallies at the intersection of Pennsylvania and North Avenues (the heart of the unrest), the Western District Police Department, or City Hall. Each night as curfew approached area clergy held hands, creating a human wall between angry protesters and the police. With footage of these events in hand, reporters had no problem following a familiar script, painting Baltimore as burned out and hopeless. A pervasive narrative about Baltimore’s youth was also stoked as an African-American mayor, and even the nation’s first Black president, castigated at least a segment of them as “thugs.” News coverage of events following Freddie Gray’s death only amplified the view that Baltimore’s African-American youth should be feared and controlled.
At the time these events were unfolding, we had spent more than 10 years conducting fieldwork with 150 Black Baltimore youth who were born in the late 1980s and early 1990s to parents who lived in what had become the city’s poorest and most violent environs: Baltimore public housing. Most hailed from high-rise developments, like those featured on David Simon’s vivid HBO series The Wire. Yet the story that had unfolded over our decade of research was strikingly different from the “thug” narrative spun by politicians and news anchors alike… We followed these youth from childhood through adolescence and into young adulthood, talking to their parents, siblings, and teachers along the way. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, getting “caught up” in “the game” was far from the norm—by their own accounts, fewer than one in five had been “in the street” for even a brief time. Instead, the large majority were actively resisting the street, determined to be “about something else,” and hungry for postsecondary education and careers. Most scorned the drug dealers and other hustlers who dominated the public space of their neighborhood and instead strove to model themselves after the nurses, forensic scientists, lawyers, bus drivers, dentists, carpenters, cosmetologists, social workers, chefs, police officers, or small business owners they hoped to become. The large majority finished high school and went on to college or trade school. Few got addicted to alcohol or drugs.
Eighty percent found work in the formal sector after high school. And they did so while continuing to struggle against neighborhood risk and the trauma of coming of age in families often plagued by addiction, violence, and financial strife.
Such stories are rendered invisible in the glare of attention on the most sensational aspects of urban America. When covering an isolated incident of looting, it is easy for viewers to believe that the extreme is the norm. This is not to say that the city’s youth do not face challenges. Poor children growing up in Baltimore are less likely to escape poverty than those growing up in any other city in the nation. Paired with the strong mainstream aspirations of the large majority of the youth we studied, however, this finding suggests that the issue for youth in Baltimore is not a matter of “social psychology,” to use David Brooks’ words. Instead, it is further evidence of how much work there is to be done to keep structural barriers from neutralizing the ambitions of those raised in poverty.
Baltimore has changed in ways we never imagined since these young people were born. Baltimore’s high-rise public housing has been torn down, and some of it has been replaced by mixed-income developments in neighborhoods that bring residents of varied incomes into close proximity. In the Inner Harbor, empty lots and rotting warehouses have been replaced by farm-to-table restaurants, coffee shops, galleries, and the like. Industrial areas that had been dormant for decades are now bustling with millennials and empty-nesters residing in new upscale condos and apartments. Baltimore’s port, once on the edge of extinction, has seen a surge of containers moving into its channel. Baltimore is not Brooklyn, by any means, but new life is being breathed into some blocks once previously lined with only vacant homes.
The unrest of April 2015 revealed in appalling clarity, however, that the benefits of this painstaking progress have not been equally shared. African- American communities in particular have not reaped the dividends of the city’s revitalization. Worse, in the wake of the April 2015 unrest, Black neighborhoods saw a dramatic spike in homicide and violent crime, exacerbating residents’ feelings of fragility and uncertainty about how to move forward and repair the damage and mistrust that had been building for generations. There is much work to be done in Baltimore, a city whose problems are a microcosm for much of what plagues cities across America.
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Family background and a history of racially discriminatory housing policies have continued to yield a strong influence on where children end up in life, and being born poor and black suppresses life chances to a frightening degree. Despite these sobering findings, we argue that social reproduction—children ending up “stuck” in the same place as their parents—is far from inevitable. We show that social policy has the power to interrupt the intergenerational transmission of disadvantage, and that when it does, children’s trajectories can change dramatically. Young people’s agency matters too. Even those coming from some of the most challenging situations can reach toward a brighter future if they manage to take hold of key resources that confer meaning and identity—a strong sense of what they are “about” and not about. Yet “Coming of Age in the Other America” also shows that, despite their resilience and hard work, the strong undertow of the social origins of disadvantaged youth—the long shadow, as Karl Alexander and colleagues refer to it—can claw at their ambitions “like crabs in a bucket,” as one youth said. When combined with the institutional traps that youth encounter in the pursuit of postsecondary education, these forces can shortchange the dreams of even the grittiest and most determined.
At the heart of this book is a complex reality: Our story is one of a glass half full and a glass half empty. These youth achieved far more than their parents. Most showed remarkable perseverance and optimism in reaching for mainstream goals while resisting the street as they moved through adolescence and into young adulthood. Many aspired to be nurses, electricians, police officers, social workers, restaurateurs, military officers, or teachers. Yet when we left them in 2012, too few had become all that they hoped to be—and were probably capable of becoming. This book considers what inspired those intergenerational gains before going on to describe what made the gains possible—the rich and vital inner lives that sustained these young people as they fought against the riptide of family background and ongoing neighborhood risk while reaching for a better future. Finally, these youths’ unfolding lives cast a bright light on the exploitative traps in the labor and postsecondary educational markets, often explicitly aimed at young people pushed by tough economic circumstances to take an expedited path to adulthood. We find that these traps cut dreams short and kept even some of the hardest-working, most ambitious youth from achieving their potential, relegating them instead to low-wage, unstable jobs at or near the bottom of the economy.
Over time, among the families we were lucky enough to follow, we began to see a wearing down of sorts during adolescence. Despite the decrease in neighborhood poverty and the increase in exposure to neighbors with characteristics that reflected mainstream norms, many of the youth still had to deal with more than their share of crime, low-performing schools, and family trauma. A pall often set in. Some youth were becoming listless, sleeping long hours, failing to turn in homework assignments, procrastinating about college or trade school applications. It seemed as if some were beginning to lose hope. In the face of these challenges, youth needed not only aspiration but inspiration—something to keep them motivated enough to do the gritty things it took to achieve dreams. And during this time about half of our youth did in fact discover a “life raft,” an “outlet,” a “passion in life” that seemed to spark renewed effort. Adolescents who found a consuming, defining passion—what we call an “identity project”—were much more likely to remain on track than those who did not. In telling their stories, young people often explicitly credited their passion as the source of the fortitude they needed to beat the streets and work toward a brighter future.
Therefore, one question our book addresses is whether these narratives do indeed provide evidence that grit, which is thought to be a skill carefully cultivated through years of socialization and possibly a feature of inborn temperament, can also be inspired by acquiring a passion during adolescence. In keeping with this notion, we show that the youth who best managed to persevere found a passion through an identity project, which can serve as a virtual bridge between challenging present circumstances and an uncertain, but hoped-for, future. Through identity projects, youth often distanced themselves from family and neighborhood influences that threatened to bring them down, while connecting with others, like teachers, programs, clergy, and coaches, who helped them thrive. Identity projects could spring from activities at places like school, work, or other institutional sites, or interests picked up from friends or family. Some youth were set apart from the pack by a unique interest—such as writing poetry, listening to punk rock or country music (these interests traditionally seen as the choice of white youth are seen as unique when chosen by a black youth), customizing cars, building pigeon coops, attending anime festivals, pursuing modern dance, or writing “beats” and selling them online. These activities protected and distinguished these youth, providing them with a sense of pride and accomplishment instead of the “drama” they saw around them. Others adopted identity projects that were more directly tied to school and a career. These aspirations transformed everyday activities into kindling for careers and sparked the grit that helped them beat the streets and persevere in school.
But even youth with strong identity projects struggled to launch. Persistent poverty, the ongoing undertow of their neighborhoods (which did not improve nearly as much as they might have), and their families (through the intergenerational transmission of trauma) still exacted a price from our young people (the glass half empty part of the story). We argue that these factors steered them away from the leisurely emergent path of their middle-class peers and put them on an expedited path to adulthood. This led many youth to downshift their dreams—to aim, for example, for a trade that was more tractable and, importantly, attainable sooner instead of a four-year degree and a professional career. Thus, the majority ended up trading college dreams for the shorter programs at trade schools, a corner of the educational marketplace rife with exploitation.
When expedited adulthood meets institutional traps such as these, potential is stunted via the very pathway that is supposed to build the vital human capital that is needed for youth to achieve their full potential.
The stories of these youth make two things clear: First, many young adults born into extremely disadvantaged circumstance have tremendous potential and can flourish when their social contexts change. Second, their optimism and determination may be enough to get them to the starting gate, but are often not enough to win the race. The mechanisms of social reproduction—family disadvantage, ongoing risk in their neighborhoods, and underperforming schools—are strong. Even if youth navigate these land mines, they often encounter a stunted labor market and a postsecondary landscape full of snares.
In our book, we propose a policy agenda to amplify the potential of such youth and leverage the inner resources they already possess. The conventional wisdom holds that our nation should focus its investments on the very young—infants, toddlers, and preschool children—as interventions during these years seem to yield impressive returns. But our nation cannot stop investing at age five. Simulations by Isabell Sawhill and Quentin Karpilow of the Brookings Institution remind us that what America’s young people really need are consistent investments throughout childhood and adolescence. A Social Science Research Council (SSRC) study estimates that the cost to society of disconnected youth reached $27 billion in 2013. While it requires money to support disadvantaged young people’s efforts to launch, it is perhaps more expensive to ignore them.
Most youth in our study were at risk of becoming disconnected, often for multiple reasons. Each spent his or her earliest years in some of the most distressed public housing in the nation; these developments were not only physically degraded but had become breeding grounds for addiction and crime. Many youth were raised in troubled families who introduced trauma into their lives. Yet when we followed these youth for more than a decade, we found that they held many of the same aspirations as more privileged young people across our nation. Where one might have expected defeatism or a dismissal of society’s rules, we often found optimism and a firm determination to “be about something positive.” Yet, despite their dedication and perseverance, these young people continued to live in neighborhoods with few resources and too many risks. By 2010 the majority remained in families living below the poverty line, as do just over one in five American young people between the ages of 16 and 24—and fully one-third of African Americans in that age range.
Part of our book therefore asks: What next? Specifically, how do we keep young people out of harm’s way and help them grow up in safe, opportunity-rich neighborhoods? How do we support adolescents’ quest for meaning and identity by helping more of them grab on to an identity project, ideally one rooted in a web of peer and institutional supports? How can we better scaffold these youth through the postsecondary education landscape, particularly those who feel a keen sense of urgency to take an expedited path to adulthood? Examining evidence-based practices in each area, we advocate for policies that recognize and promote the inner strength of youth from disadvantaged origins.
Improving Access to High-Opportunity NeighborhoodsThrough HOPE VI and other programs, Baltimore demolished all of its high-rise public housing as well as many low-rise units. In Baltimore, some of the dislocated were merely moved to another housing project, while others were given vouchers but little relocation assistance. By definition, the high-rises themselves were contexts of highly concentrated poverty, so when families left through the HOPE VI program, they experienced, on average, a dramatic drop in neighborhood poverty. However, the program was also met with bitter opposition from some community members because of the loss of hard-unit public housing (most lost units have not been replaced), the severing of local social networks, and the involuntary relocation of many families. Although there was a silver lining for those youth in our study who left the projects during their childhoods because of HOPE VI, many families who left ended up in racially segregated neighborhoods that became poorer over time. Few would argue that it was not a good idea to get families out of the distressed high-rises, but entirely different policies are required to help them reach higher-opportunity neighborhoods.
Such integration can be achieved by a variety of means: Mobility programs, affordable housing development in opportunity-rich neighborhoods, inclusionary zoning, or other “in place” strategies that restore the economic vitality of our communities.
Supporting the Creation of Identity ProjectsAs the stories in our book show, having developed an identity project was one of the most important factors distinguishing those youth who were on track by our study’s end from those who were not. Identity projects serve a powerful purpose—they keep youth off the streets, help them weather tough circumstances, and inspire the grit necessary to accomplish their goals. We also find that youth are resourceful and construct their identity projects in innovative ways. No single program would support every type of identity project we observed. We have argued that those that link young people up with like-minded peers and—better yet—with institutions (with their ready-made activities, resources, and networks) work best. Those institutions most easily within the reach are our public schools, plus youth activities sponsored by local government, such as summer jobs programs. The nonprofit sector can also play a vital role too, through programs like the boys and girls’ clubs, the Police Athletic League, and job sponsorship programs.
Unfortunately, over the last decade, trends in the financing of public education have reduced funds for the very activities that might encourage identity development. As schools have focused on boosting students’ scores in math and reading, arts education and extracurricular activities have been left to languish. State finances felt the impact of the Great Recession in trimmed budgets for public schools. Schools in struggling districts were sometimes left without sufficient funds to cover much more than faculty and staff salaries and basic supplies, much less art faculty, speech and debate teams, musicals and plays, and athletic programs. This has particularly been the case in schools and school districts with the highest proportions of low-income students.
We call for a sharp reversal of the tide away from funding for the arts and other activities, both in school and out, and an increase in high-quality, career-focused learning communities such as career academies. Our contention is that it is precisely these kinds of activities that have the greatest chance of turning lives around, since much of the allure of the street lies in its role as a second-class substitute for the passions that those with an identity project are pursuing.
Changing the Postsecondary LandscapeWe argue that the youth described in this book are often on an expedited path to adulthood. The “triple threat” from neighborhood, family, and school can traumatize youth in ways that shorten their time horizons. They feel pressure to take on adult roles, and they want to get on with the business of establishing an independent household and embarking on a career sooner rather than later. This pressure, in turn, makes the idea of pursuing a four-year college degree seem like a risky gamble to take with their precious time. Information is also a problem. Only about one-quarter of these youths’ parents had finished high school, and hardly any parents had an associate’s or a bachelor’s degree; thus, parents had a difficult time advising their children on how to proceed if they wanted to attend a four-year school. Underlying all of these dynamics was the financial squeeze: Few of these parents had the resources to support their children beyond age 18. Indeed, many of these youth had begun to support themselves and their families in high school through part-time jobs or participation in the informal or underground economy. Though many had aspired to four-year or graduate degrees in professions like medicine or law, these pursuits ended up looking like a luxury they could not afford. Even the strong academic contenders with top grades downshifted; what we see in our data, repeatedly, is that the aspiring nurse, for example, ends up spurning college for a program that promises to earn her a certification instead and get her out working in the “health care profession” in just a few months’ time.
How might policy slow the transition to adulthood so that youth can make better decisions? How do we prevent downshifting among the college-ready? Upstream approaches that address disadvantage at the family, school, and neighborhood levels present one way forward. Yet focusing only on the upstream leaves the current generation of youth behind. In the meantime, we need to find ways to support a better-informed transition so that young adults can make decisions about their postsecondary education that will result in living-wage employment without incurring unmanageable student debt. And for those who want to go directly into the workforce—as many of the young men in our study do—there need to be better avenues for building valuable skills and experience on the job, as well as connections to viable occupations.
First, we must improve college and career counseling in high school so that youth can make informed choices. High schools must deliver information about how various postsecondary options stack up against one another—including average time to completion, costs (including the real cost to the student after financial aid), job placement rates, and average wages in the occupation. The youth in our study were almost never given this kind of information. Some who were clearly college-ready, at least in our assessment, never even considered four-year schools, while others were left vulnerable to the flashy commercials and aggressive recruitment tactics of for-profit trade schools. Those who did enroll in four-year schools often considered only a narrow range of local universities and colleges, usually ones with high loan default rates and low degree completion rates, even though there were higher-performing colleges and universities nearby, several with lower net prices.
Community colleges are responsible for much of the progress our nation has seen in college enrollment, especially among low-income and minority youth. These institutions now enroll about four in ten (42%) new college students in the United States. These schools provide college access for students who would probably not have enrolled at all if they had only a four-year college option. However, as we showed in chapter 6, community colleges have distressingly low degree completion rates. To expand opportunity, it is paramount that community colleges become gateways to four-year degrees.
WorkFor those who cannot earn a bachelor’s degree, we must shore up the labor market. The weakening of unions, offshoring, and technological changes in skills that reward those with a college degree have dampened the prospects of unskilled and semiskilled workers. Expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) (a tax credit toward the incomes of low-wage workers, especially those with dependent children) by including non-custodial parents and those who are not yet parents is one way to make work pay, as is increasing the minimum wage. But a focus on work conditions—especially involuntary part-time employment and unpredictable hours—is an even more fundamental need. Apprenticeship programs provide another approach. More innovation, along with rigorous evaluation, should be focused in this area.
The research record is clear: Giving poor families of color the opportunity to live in lower-poverty neighborhoods through the demolition of distressed public housing, the use of mobility programs, or the expansion of the supply of affordable units in middle-income suburbs can make a world of difference. Since the Brown v. Board of Education decision, rendered in 1954, our nation has avowed that separate is not equal. But racial and economic segregation does more than just prevent families from access to the geography of opportunity. It also breeds an even more insidious psychology than “out of sight, out of mind”—it leaves people of all incomes vulnerable to poor sources of information about those who are at a different place on the income spectrum or a different racial group than they are. Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize–winning psychologist and author of Thinking Fast and Slow, has identified different thinking. The brain’s default is to think fast—what Kahneman calls “System I” thinking. System I is “hopelessly bad at the kind of statistical thinking often required for good decisions, it jumps wildly to conclusions and it’s subject to a fantastic suite of irrational biases and interference effects,” writes Galen Strawman, who reviewed the book for The Guardian.
System I thinking suffers from what Kahneman calls “denominator neglect.” In Kahneman’s words: “If your attention is drawn to the winning marbles, you do not assess the number of non-winning marbles with the same care.” System I also falls prey to what Kahneman and his longtime collaborator Amos Tversky call the “availability heuristic,” a mental shortcut people take when judging the probability of events, drawing on what examples most easily come to mind. “Availability” can be influenced by the emotional power of examples—ones that are especially lurid or inspiring. Taken together, denominator neglect and the availability heuristic can lead to “gross exaggeration of minor threats, sometimes with important consequences,” writes Kahneman.
So what does this have to do with segregation? Building on Kahneman, it is reasonable to expect that affluent folk who lack meaningful personal contact with low-income minority youth may be more likely to render judgments based on poor sources of information. The shocking story on TV or in print has more play if we cannot easily draw on counterexamples from our experience. Meanwhile, what is “available” to middle-class Americans is fed by what has become a veritable industry seemingly devoted to presenting low-income Black children in the city as alien. Most of the time, when poor African-American youth are portrayed on TV, in movies, in news stories, and even in some ethnographic accounts, they are not portrayed as “our kids,” to draw again on Robert Putnam’s terminology. Instead, they are depicted as “risky” kids whose lives and perspectives are so different from our own that we cannot imagine sending our children to the same school with them, much less choosing to live on the same block. These outliers command our attention, and we fail to attend to all of the other cases that do not fit the pattern.
We drew a sample of youth from the poorest neighborhoods of Baltimore and followed them over time. Most of the communities they had resided in were geographically isolated from the eyes of those in the middle and upper classes, for whom it is easy to forget about those who struggle in poverty or overgeneralize about how different “they” are from “us.” Yet our study revealed not how aberrant but, poignantly, how ordinary most of these young people were, even down to Ron and Whitney, two teens who sold drugs.
Ultimately, however, we believe that what research can accomplish is only a start. Americans have to see disadvantage for themselves, in their own backyard. Unfortunately, as income inequality has grown, so too has our propensity to live, work, worship, and socialize separately. In 2009 one-third of American families lived in either the poorest neighborhoods or the most affluent neighborhoods—those on opposite extremes of the continuum. This was twice the proportion of families who lived on the extreme ends of the distribution in 1970, and the trend indicates that we are witnessing a growth in geographic segregation by income that mirrors the growth in income inequality. In fact, the income inequality of a given metropolitan area is highly correlated with how separated the rich and the poor are in that area. This seemingly inexorable trend makes it even more imperative that we prioritize policy tools to push back. We feel there is real power in this idea that, as Kahneman argues, firsthand experiences are more “available” for making decisions than things we think only happen to others.
We hope that our book makes the clear case that we cannot afford to squander the potential of the young people who hail from America’s most-disadvantaged communities. Unfortunately, many Americans see policy as a zero-sum game. They think that if someone else’s kids are getting SNAP, a housing subsidy, or a subsidized summer job, their kids are losing. But here we have argued that if “those kids” do not become “our kids,” everybody loses.
Stefanie DeLuca , a PRRAC Social Science Advisory Board member, is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Johns Hopkins University. firstname.lastname@example.org
Susan Clampit-Lundquist is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Saint Joseph’s University.
Kathryn Edin is Bloomberg Distinguished Professor of Sociology and Public Health at John Hopkins University.
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