New York Times
By: Eduardo Porter
June 10, 2014
Tim Jackson's job is to convince young people that they have a stake in the future.
The boys in his care at Harper High School, in one of the meanest neighborhoods on Chicago's South Side, all have harsh stories. One bouncy 15-year-old freshman tells me about his older brother, a high school dropout who smokes weed and does little else. Another teenager, still a sophomore at 17, knows what it's like to have had a gun pointed at his head in fourth grade.
Almost half the students who enroll at Harper drop out within five years, one of the highest rates in the city. The school is in a part of town where a dispute over a stolen bicycle or a Facebook fight between two girls over a boy might end up with a dead teenager.
Mr. Jackson's task, as a counselor for the Becoming a Man program at Harper, is to help prevent such tragedies. To do that, he trains the boys to avoid the ingrained, automatic responses: throwing a punch to avoid appearing like a punk or pulling a gun in a fistfight, which might land them in a bad place.
And that requires providing these teenagers with an objective in life -- a "visionary goal" -- worth saving themselves for.
"It's hard to think how a teenager could imagine a life different from the one they're currently living if they've never seen anything else," said Jens Ludwig, a professor at the University of Chicago who directs the university's Crime Lab, which is evaluating the Becoming a Man program run by the nonprofit group Youth Guidance in some of the city's schools.
By stimulating the imaginations of the boys under his wing, Mr. Jackson may do more than keep them out of trouble. Sowing the aspirations of children in Chicago's most distressed neighborhoods could provide their best shot at moving up the ladder of opportunity.
The income gap has surged past the peak reached in the Roaring Twenties, raising doubts over whether the engine of economic opportunity has been choked off for all except the most fortunate or talented, perpetuating vast inequalities.
We have only a vague idea, however, of how the process may work. Economists identified what Alan B. Krueger, President Obama's former chief economic adviser, called "The Great Gatsby Curve." Economic mobility is weaker in countries (and states) with bigger income gaps. But nobody has explained convincingly how inequality today might gum up the cogs of opportunity for the next generation.
Recent research by Melissa S. Kearney of the University of Maryland and Phillip B. Levine of Wellesley College provide what might be the missing link: Inequality may perpetuate itself down the generations by messing up the decisions of underprivileged youth.
In a research paper to be published next week by the National Bureau of Economic Research, Ms. Kearney and Mr. Levine detail robust evidence that young men of low socioeconomic status are more likely to drop out of high school, where the gap between families at the bottom tenth of the income distribution and families in the middle is wider.
They challenge their results in many ways, but find nothing that could explain away inequality's effect. The dropout gap is not because of differences in school spending or differences in incarceration rates. Measures of segregation by income or race don't account for the difference. Nor, interestingly, does the spectacular acceleration of inequality between the richest and the rest.
Their finding echoes an earlier study, in which they found that teenage girls of low socioeconomic status are more likely to become single mothers when they live in places where the income gap between the bottom and the middle is bigger.
They suggest a similar explanation for both results: If a poor child perceives the middle class as out of reach, prohibitively far from his or her own station, the child will have little incentive to make the investments needed to get there, like finishing high school or avoiding becoming pregnant. This they call "economic despair."
"There are different ways to think about perceptions," Professor Kearney says. "Maybe they are discouraged. Maybe it's an identity story: 'I'm not one of these people.' Their peer group norms are different."
In any case, simply explaining that high school graduates earn 38 percent more than dropouts and college graduates earn 19 percent on top of that is unlikely to persuade them to go the extra mile.
Their narrative meshes well with other research. Teenagers who expect to have a professional or managerial job by age 30 have been found to reach higher levels of academic achievement.
By contrast, young people who see no future tune out. One report, based on data from a seven-year study of thousands of juvenile offenders in Philadelphia and Maricopa County, Ariz., found that those who expected to die young committed more crimes, and more serious ones, than those who hoped to make it to a ripe old age.
A model developed by Garance Genicot of Georgetown University and Debraj Ray of New York University suggests that while aspirations that are a little above an individual's standard of living encourage investment in education, they can lead to frustration and lower investment if they become too far from an individual's current station.
The work of Professors Levine and Kearney provides valuable new insight into inequality's impact on American society. It helps reconcile the fact that high school graduation rates among the poor have been stuck for decades even as the wage gap between graduates and dropouts has steadily widened, which should have provided an extra incentive to complete school.
The conclusion that graduation rates are affected by inequality at the bottom, which has remained roughly constant over the last few decades, is consistent with the research by Raj Chetty of Harvard and colleagues, who found that rates of income mobility across generations have remained extremely stable even as inequality at the top has soared.
Importantly, their model of "economic despair" provides a decisive blow to the nation's mythical identity as the land of opportunity: for many children at the bottom, it suggests, opportunity is not just out of reach. It is inconceivable.
The research by Professors Kearney and Levine could portend a bleak future in which the diminished expectations of young Americans in disadvantaged families lead to poor choices that deepen their disadvantage as adults, and lead them to produce children with even lower expectations than their own.
As Laurence Steinberg, a professor of psychology at Temple University, told me: "The decisions that you make in your teens are going to determine in some sense how the rest of your life is going to be."
But it is not hopeless. "The kinds of interventions we need are those that shape the opportunity sets and the perception of opportunity of these kids," Ms. Kearney said.
Among the boys in the Becoming a Man program at Harper High, that does not seem to be an insurmountable task. Mr. Jackson started a recent session with a little tale:
He recounted how he was rear-ended by three drunken, angry men while sitting in his car at a stoplight just a few nights before. Should he confront them? Argue? He crossed the street and called the cops. He offered the students in the circle the method with which he figured out the answer: He should remember his stake in the future.
Among the boys I talked to, one hopes to be a commercial artist, another music producer, another a police officer, another a game designer. They might not all succeed. But with Mr. Jackson's help, they all seemed to have developed a sense about how they might get there. Following that path increases the odds that they will avoid the really bad stuff.