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90 Chapter 4 |  “You Never Know What’s Happening—This Is Baltimore”: The Vulnerability of Youth Without an Identity Project Despite the gains that young people like Vicky, Bob, and Cody have made—achieving far more than their parents ever did—there is no denying that the disadvantages they continued to face were often enormous, for three primary reasons. First, leaving the projects did not always erase the trauma stemming from their earlier childhood experiences. Second, even given the large decreases in neighborhood poverty they experienced, about half of these young people had still lived in neighborhoods where the poverty rate was “moderately high”—over 30 percent—for at least six years. Third, many received most or all of their education in the Baltimore City Schools.1 Early trauma and ongoing risk are precisely why identity projects were so critical for many of the youth in this study: identity projects provided the emotional sustenance that helped them survive. To review, there is at least prima facie evidence for the protective role of identity projects in our data. Nearly all—94 percent—of those with an identity project were “on track” (working or in school) at the last interview, versus 65 percent of those without one. Equally importantly, those who had an identity project were significantly less likely to get involved in illegal activities (see table A4.1).2 Furthermore, those over age nineteen who had formed an identity project in adolescence were more likely to have earned a high school credential than those without one (89 versus 59 percent), more likely to have enrolled in postsecondary education of some kind (71 versus 37 percent), and more likely to have pursued a four-­ year college degree (25 versus 3 percent). “You Never Know What’s Happening—This is Baltimore”       91 Those who had not managed to find their passion through an identity project in adolescence were far more likely to end up disconnected—neither working nor in school—at the time of our last interaction than those who did. Some were also struggling with mental health and substance abuse problems. These youth were more vulnerable to the forces that acted as an undertow on their trajectories, like ongoing neighborhood risk, inadequate schooling, and family trauma (forces we discuss in more detail in chapter 5). Here we offer brief vignettes of two of these youth, Emily and Joseph, who fit this description at present. Their stories demonstrate that while most youth without an identity project manage to avoid getting caught up in the street, they are still often adrift and at risk. Others try on a street identity but only for a brief period of time, as Ella’s story shows. A few, like Whitney and Ron (profiled later in this chapter), drew a strong sense of identity from the street.3 Yet their narratives illustrate why street identities are so fundamentally different from identity projects : while the street can provide an alternative sense of identity, rather than being protective, it literally invites risk, and rather than forging a bridge between the present and one’s future goals, street identities seem to lead almost exclusively to dead ends or to a significant delay in achieving young adult milestones.Although youth who were ever in the street were the exception—even among those without an identity project—they are a significant focus in this chapter. We show that street activities seriously compromised their transition to adulthood.4 For these youth—who also referred to themselves as being “caught up” or “in the game”— we found strong associations between family trauma and significant exposure to neighborhoods with concentrated poverty. Just under half of those who were ever involved in the street ended up “disconnected,” neither working nor in school, by the end of the study, a stark contrast to the figure for those who lacked an identity project but continued to resist the street—only 16 percent of this group was disconnected by the study’s end. DISCONNECTED AND ADRIFT Emily ticked off the long list of difficult things she had been through in life, her chin-­ length bob swinging back and forth as she talked. She was still living in the same house in suburban Columbia that she moved to when she was five. Her younger sister Michelle lived there too, along with her two children. But the clean and orderly home we had observed back in 2003, when we talked with Emily’s mother, Mariah, for the first time, had been overtaken...


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