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182 Chapter 7 |  “If It Can Cause Some Kind of Change”: Policies to Support Identity Projects and Reduce Educational and Neighborhood Inequality The stories of these youth should 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. Far too many end up as pale reflections of what they could have achieved. Yet it would be unfair to claim that what the youth in our study had accomplished so far was not meaningful. The large majority were “on track”—they were “about something,” whether it was college, trade school, or employment. Perhaps more importantly, they were “not about that life”—they had beaten the streets, at least so far. But after reading the stories of Bob, Dana, and so many others who had clearly fallen short of their potential, readers might ask: On track for what? Scraping by?1 It is true that the triumphs of these youth were not what many Americans would consider success. Yet many seemed to be doing their part. Changes in federal housing policy during their lifetimes had arguably helped, but we can only guess what these youth could have achieved if they had spent their childhoods in the resource-­ rich neighborhoods and stellar schools of many of their suburban peers. These stories also indict both the postsec- “If It Can Cause Some Kind of Change”       183 ondary educational market—which seemed confusing at best and exploitative at worst—and labor market policy, as the jobs they found almost never paid a living wage, let alone moved them into the middle class. In this chapter, 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.2 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.3 The April 2015 Baltimore unrest drew attention to the rising number of young people ages sixteen to twenty-­ four who are disconnected—neither working nor in school.4 More than one-fifth of America’s black youth (and one in seven young people overall) now qualify as disconnected.5 In July 2015, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz announced that his company, together with seventeen other major firms, had pledged to provide 100,000 jobs to disconnected youth. “While some have lost hope in this population , blaming them and their families for creating their own problems, we believe these young people represent a significant untapped resource of productivity and talent,” Schultz and his wife Sheri wrote in a New York Times op-­ ed article on July 13, 2015.6 A Social Science Research Council (SSRC) study estimates that the cost to society of disconnected youth reached $27 billion in 2013.7 While it requires money to support disadvantaged young people’s efforts to launch, it is perhaps more expensive to ignore them.8 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...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9781610448581
Related ISBN
9780871544650
MARC Record
OCLC
936257020
Pages
296
Launched on MUSE
2016-03-15
Language
English
Open Access
No
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