Losing One Generation After Another: When Will We Stop the Carnage?

Losing One Generation After Another: When Will We Stop the Carnage?

Peter Edelman: Youth Poverty

The overincarceration of African American and Latino young men is a national scandal. Low-income young men of color—especially those growing up in high-poverty neighborhoods—are fated under current circumstances to end up in prison in percentages that far exceed their share of the population. We are losing generation after generation.

Check the boxes: father in and out of prison or whereabouts unknown or never known. Mother struggling to find steady work and often not succeeding. Drugs or alcohol in the parental picture somewhere. Violence in the home. Early childhood inattention or worse. Terrible schools. No caring adult other than the mother or grandmother in the boy’s life. Street culture that valorizes defiance and denigrates educational achievement. Police all too willing to arrest.

Result: time in prison, likely fathering children and not marrying the mother, and difficulty in finding work for the rest of his life. Poverty in childhood makes these young men strong candidates for getting into trouble with the law in the first place, and time in prison makes them even stronger candidates for lives of poverty and disenfranchisement from the democratic process, pushing the arithmetic of politics to the right and shrinking the constituency for support of low-income communities.

Not all boxes apply to each young man, of course, but enough do. Whether the underlying facts are George W. Bush’s “soft bigotry of low expectations” or Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, which brilliantly describes the targeting of young black men in the criminal justice system—and both ideas are operative—the situation is truly dire. Comprehensive reform of the juvenile and criminal justice systems, including our misbegotten “war on drugs,” is a must.

Dire as it is, though, the cradle-to-prison pipeline is comparatively narrow. There is a wider pipeline yet. I call it the cradle-to-nowhere pipeline, and it is full of girls as well as boys. There are 804,100 youth and young adults (ages eighteen to twenty-nine) in prison or jail, and about 92.4 percent of them are men. But there are three million or more youth and young adults who are not in school and are out of work for a long time, most of whom will not spend time in jail or prison. (Andrew Sum of Northeastern University puts the number as high as 5.2 million.)

These young people have come to be called “disconnected.” Depending on the estimate involved, they constitute from one in twelve up to as many as one in six of the sixteen- to twenty-four-year-old age group. About one-third are parents, approximately fifty thousand are homeless, and many have lived for long periods of time in foster care. If nothing changes, at least half of these three million young people will spend much of their lives unemployed or sporadically and marginally employed at best. Not surprisingly, African American, Latino, and Native American young people are disproportionately represented among the disconnected.

Three million disconnected youth is a number that was in wide currency before the Great Recession. It includes some high school graduates, because young people who do not pursue postsecondary education or training face increasingly impassable pathways into the legal labor market. The pathway is even less reliable for disconnected youth who do not graduate from high school. Only about two-thirds of all students—and only half of all African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans—who enter ninth grade graduate with regular diplomas four years later. For minority males, the figures are even lower. And dropping out is disastrous. In 2000, when unemployment was comparatively low, 50 percent of high school dropouts were employed, compared to 93 percent of adults holding an associate’s degree or better. It’s a lot worse than that now.

What should we be doing about all of this? Early childhood development, competent teaching from kindergarten on, and so on, but what about high school? Is the answer college for all?

Here we wade into a debate that has been going on at least since the days of Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois. Basically, every high-performing academic high school articulates its main goal as going to college. There have been some spectacular successes, and I have no interest in arguing with the approach they use. It works for them.

But it is not a shoe that fits everyone, even at those schools. If you look a little closer at many of the graduates of good high schools that serve low-income students, you will see that a number of students go on to community colleges and may or may not obtain a bachelor’s degree. You will see that some who don’t get a BA do get a diploma or certification to pursue a productive career that doesn’t require a four-year degree. College for all may be the flag they fly, but the outcomes—and I mean the good outcomes—are more varied.

The stakes are highest at large public inner-city high schools—the dropout factories that are scarring so many lives. The first task is to get students’ attention, to convince them to stick around. Inner-city high schools should offer motivated students a full opportunity to go to as good a college as they can get in to, but students also need options that are more tangible, more hands-on, and more immediately rewarding than the promise of an education that leads one to a rich life of the mind. Of course, some young people will thrive on a liberal education regardless of their background, and some young people resonate with a more hands-on option wherever they grow up. Young people of all economic strata flock to good career- and technical-education programs in suburban schools. But it is especially important that there be strong career pathways in inner-city high schools. We don’t want to reinvent the dysfunctional vocational education of the twentieth century, and we don’t have to. Vocational High School in Minneapolis, where I grew up, was a dumping ground. We don’t want to go back there.

What we want in the twenty-first century is a system that gives young people a sense that effort results in reward—that if they do try, they can get a job and lead a life they desire. They need to see an achievable road map toward a successful adult life.

To that end, high schools in general, but especially inner-city high schools, should offer educational options that are specifically career-oriented. The twenty-first-century version should open the door to entry-level jobs, but also to further education that could lead to the highest degree in a field. A person who enters a health-careers high school program should be able to graduate and get a job as a technician or an aide and then go back to school or go right on to college—maybe beginning with community college to become a licensed practical nurse or more specialized technician, and then going on later to pursue further degrees. The program in high school should involve hands-on experience in the workplace—preferably for pay—that is tangible and immediately rewarding. The more flexibility, the better.

This flexibility, by the way, has been hugely helpful to immigrants in particular. It is an advantage that the United States has over European systems like Germany that track heavily. More than other countries, we are the land of many second chances, and this
is a key for disadvantaged groups.

Career and Technical Education (CTE) is the twenty-first-century version of vocational education. It exists all over the country, although its quality in inner-city high schools is still too often the old vocational education of my youth in Minneapolis even if the terminology has changed. Coupled with and closely connected to community colleges, CTE, if done well, is a viable option for helping disconnected youth make a successful transition to adulthood. Quality career- and technical-education programs connect high school students to the world of work and put some on a path to earn an occupational certificate straight out of high school. But they also require students to complete coursework for admission to a four-year college. This kind of high school curriculum is based on a realistic assessment of the American economy, as jobs that require an associate’s degree or comparable certificate are the ones that are projected to grow the fastest in the coming years.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projected that total employment will increase by 15.3 million jobs over the decade ending in 2018, and the total number of new and replacement jobs over that period will be 47 million, according to the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce. Nearly two-thirds of those jobs will require at least some postsecondary education, while people with no more than a high school degree will fill just 37 percent of the job openings, just half the percentage of jobs they held in the early 1970s. About a third of the jobs will be “middle-skill jobs”—for example, construction managers, police officers, paralegals, and dental hygienists. These are good jobs. In fact, 27 percent of people with postsecondary licenses or certificates—credentials short of an associate’s degree—earn more than the average bachelor’s degree recipient.

President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan have tried to move in the right direction, at least in part. The president’s American Graduation Initiative for community colleges—which was only partially funded—was premised on hard thinking about the jobs coming down the road and the preparation that is needed for people to be able to take on those jobs. On the other hand, it did not focus enough attention on students who need remediation or other extra help in order to succeed and, even more important, career-oriented education at the high school level has received surprisingly little attention in an administration that has focused more attention on the education of low-income children than any in history.

Now, of course, neither the Obama administration nor states and localities are in a position to put new money into anything. Programs, including the Perkins Act, which funds vocational education, were pared down in the budget cutting of 2011, and more cuts are on the way both nationally and locally. We won’t see nearly enough change until we stop starving our schools.

Career and Technical Education

We are not starting from a clean slate here. We can learn from models that have been evaluated positively and others that have impressive track records.

Career Academies, which have been around for some four decades and are evaluated rigorously, are perhaps the leading example of what should be available to inner-city students and low-income students everywhere. They exist in about 2,500 high schools around the country. They combine academic college-oriented study with career and technical courses, organized around career themes. The model encompasses up to sixteen career clusters in such areas as health, business and finance, and computer technology. Students get hands-on experience by participating in volunteer projects at actual workplace locations. The work-based learning and one-on-one features of the academies are a key factor in their success. On the other hand, the quality of career academies, like CTE generally, varies from school to school, with much too high an incidence of poor quality in inner-city high schools, where the mere title of “career academy” is no guarantee of instructional quality.

The Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation’s evaluation of Career Academies yielded impressive results. The strongest and most pervasive differences were found among students at highest risk of school failure. Among this subgroup, the academy
students attended school more regularly, earned more course credits, were more likely to participate in extracurricular activities and volunteer projects, and were less likely to be arrested. As of spring of their senior year, the dropout rate for the high-risk group was reduced from 32 percent in the control group to 21 percent among the Career Academy students. Male participants earned an average of over $2,500 a year more than non-participants four years after graduating. Eight years after graduating, the academy graduates had earned a cumulative $30,000 more than non-participants.

Massachusetts has also been at the forefront of vocational-technical education (VTE). Every student in the state has access to a VTE program. VTE students have substantially better graduation rates than the regular high schools (90.5 percent vs. 80.9 percent) and higher state test scores, too. The Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education reports that VTE graduates are more job-ready than other high school graduates.

The sixty-three VTE schools are in essence large magnet schools. Half of a student’s instructional time is spent in shop or career education. Along with traditional trades such as carpentry, cosmetology, and plumbing, VTE schools offer telecommunications, computer repair, medical assistance, environmental technology, and pre-engineering. A standard part of the VTE school experience is the “co-op” for seniors, where they work for pay at a real job in their field of study.

But we face an important challenge in this area. High-quality CTE is a key building block in a strategy to tackle the horrible graduation rates of inner-city high schools. Of course, a traditional, huge, impersonal inner-city high school faces multiple challenges that go far beyond CTE. But my sense is that too few cities think of quality CTE as an important tool in efforts to prevent dropping out of school and to start young people on a path to a good job in the twenty-first-century economy.

Community Colleges

The next piece of the pathway is postsecondary education, especially community college. The community college is the key institution to prepare people of all ages for the jobs of the future. The good jobs that will be available (and I’m still worried that there won’t be enough of them) require postsecondary education, sometimes a two-year degree and in other cases a certificate of some sort.

The community college is America’s second-chance institution. With all of the concerns about what we don’t do well enough, one thing we do well in contrast to almost every other country with an advanced economy is to offer a second chance. Typically, other nations test early and track young people almost irrevocably at a young age, often even before they are in their teens. In the United States, the community college is a place—the primary place—where people can make up for poor past performance, pick up where they left off, or change course from their previous career.

So the community college is America’s melting pot—not only in its immense student diversity, but especially in the age range of its students. It is a place to start a postsecondary education immediately after high school and a place to come back to for more education at any age. In constructing a framework of off-ramps and
on-ramps going back and forth from school to work and work to school, the community college is the linchpin. It is the flexible institution where people can start and stop and start again, go at their own pace, attend full time or part time, and time their continuing education or training so they can move to the next rung on a career ladder.

One unfortunate fact, more evident now than ever, is that we don’t have enough seats at community colleges to meet the demand. Unemployed people and others seeking to upgrade their skills are spiking the demand, and fierce budget cuts in many states are limiting the supply of seats. Proprietary colleges have stepped into the breach. Some are effective (although expensive), but far too many range from less than good to altogether fraudulent. One simple challenge as we emerge from the recession is to increase our commitment to community colleges.

Beyond that, we need a particular intensification of our efforts to reach young people coming out of high-poverty-level high schools, including those who have not graduated.

A favorite model of mine, which began at Portland Community College in Portland, Oregon, is Gateway to College. Gateway to College, now in thirty colleges in sixteen states, is a second-chance model for high school dropouts. The community college establishes a high school on its campus. Through dual credit, the students in the program earn a high school diploma and an average of thirty-five college credits, and then move seamlessly into the college itself.

Fifty-two percent of all Gateway students who complete one term earn a high school diploma. The success of the program is remarkable because the average previous high school grade point average of the students is 1.6. Having struggled with poor attendance in high school, Gateway students have an average attendance of 81 percent. Most of the students are from low-income and minority homes and will be the first in their families to go to college.


We do not lack people who care, but we don’t have enough of them. Nor do we lack public funding, but we don’t have enough of that either. The federal investment in youth employment has actually declined over the past twenty-five years, from $1.5 billion in 1984 to $828 million in 2012, and that is without a correction for inflation. (The 1984 appropriation would be $3.27 billion in today’s dollars.) The Deficit Control Act of 2011 implies more cuts are on the way. So a fair question is to ask how the successful and promising models I have discussed can be brought to scale. One answer is that whatever scale we can achieve will appropriately come from a variety of sources: governments at all levels, businesses and foundations, individual giving, and the work of volunteers, depending on the particular program or initiative. Among other things, ending the expensive and unnecessary incarceration of young people would free up resources that could be used much more productively on behalf of young people at risk. The underlying challenge is to change public attitudes to place greater value on the lives of these young people.

The problem with our underinvestment in children who need extra attention begins when they are born and continues throughout, so it is not possible to say that one dereliction is worse than another. And it is of course true that a more effective investment in the early years, if kept up, would prevent many of the negative outcomes that come to pass later on. But when we see the problems that our earlier inattention has brought, we tend to say, “Oh, sorry, too late, too bad, it’s over, there’s nothing we can do now.” It is unacceptable that we would shut our eyes to the young people, now almost grown up, we can still reach.

Education and child development—investing in our future—are a major piece of an antipoverty strategy. The totality of what we need to do for children would fill a shelf of books. My special passion for forty years—from Robert Kennedy through my work at the University of Massachusetts and particularly my time as the director of the New York State Division for Youth—has been the perilous voyage from adolescence to adulthood for those young people who face an especially rough passage. Ending poverty in America requires action on many fronts, but providing every young person the opportunity to be a full participant in our society could not be more important.

Copyright © 2012 by Peter Edelman. This excerpt originally appeared in So Rich, So Poor: Why It’s So Hard to End Poverty in America, published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.

Peter Edelman is a professor at Georgetown University Law Center.