Bridging the Opportunity Divide

Teaching How to Push Past Economic Despair

June 12, 2014
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Teaching How to Push Past Economic Despair
An intervention program for at-risk youth at Harper High School in Chicago. Nearly half of students at this school on Chicago's rough south side drop out within five years, and counselors in the Becoming a Man program see one of their fundamental tasks is simply convincing teenagers that they will have an opportunity to move up the economic ladder someday. Alex Wroblewski/Redux
One Chicago man's quest to get young men to dream about the future.

Can you even imagine what it’s like to have a gun held to your head as a fourth grader?

That’s the scary reality that some of the teens at Chicago’s South’s Side Harper High School (which boasts a strikingly high drop-out rate) have faced. Being a student there tests the wills of young men, so Tim Jackson, a counselor for the Becoming a Man program, is trying to get these boys to break out of the cycle that is so ingrained in them and to help them succeed in life.

According to the New York Times, the program “requires providing these teenagers with an objective in life — a visionary goal — worth saving themselves for.” Providing the boys with goals gives them a chance to move up the ladder of opportunity, which otherwise, thanks to the income gap, may seem entirely impossible to achieve.

The bigger the income gap of a state, the harder economic mobility is for future generations, according to the phenomenon “The Great Gatsby Curve,” dubbed so by economist Alan B. Krueger. More research by economics professors Melissa S. Kearny and Phillip B. Levine has shown that inequality continues generation to generation, and the bigger the income gap, the more likely young men are to drop out of high school.

There are many other possible reasons for these results, but all are challenged in their report and none can explain away the effect of inequality. Their discoveries are similar to an earlier study of the likelihood of teenage girls becoming single mothers where the income gap is large.

“Economic despair” is the term given when children believe the middle class is unattainable — and thus, have no desire to invest in their own future to get there. This falls in line with research, like a study of juvenile offenders from Philadelphia and Arizona that found those who didn’t think they had a long future ahead committed more crime than people expecting to live long lives.

The model of economic despair helps researchers to realize just how tough it is for young people to feel they can succeed. On top of that, Laurence Stainberg, a professor of psychology at Temple University in Philadelphia explains, “the decisions you make in your teens are going to determine in some sense how the rest of your life is going to be.”

With new programs like the one Mr. Jackson is running, there is a hope that perceptions can be altered.

Ms. Kearney explained, “the kinds of interventions we need are those that shape the opportunity sets and the perception of opportunity of these kids.”  Becoming a Man aims to do just that by helping young boys develop dreams for the future — thus, planting the seeds of success.

 

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