The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why becoming an adult means something very different when you’re poor

( <a href="">Paul Joseph</a> /Flickr)

Academics have a phrase for the wandering years between the teens and full-blown adulthood, that time when young adults try on pre-med majors and discard them, when they take false starts into the working world or intern ad nauseam. When they are still editing their identities. I'm into computers! No, anthropology! No — cooking!

Psychologist Jeffrey Arnett has called this period of exploration "emerging adulthood." But this crucial stage — which has stretched longer for Americans who now form their own households, marry and have children later — doesn't really apply to the poor. They cannot afford it.

This is the case for the poor black teens in Baltimore in "Coming of Age in the Other America," a new book by sociologists Stefanie DeLuca, Susan Clampet-Lundquist and Kathryn Edin. The researchers tracked the lives of 150 teens in Baltimore, who were born into derelict public housing projects and raised amid startling violence, as they were entering their 20s.

"All [society] see[s] is you're twenty-three and you should damn well have it together by now, you know what I'm sayin'?'" Terry, who does not yet have it together, tells the researchers (they've changed all of their subjects' names in the book).

But of course, society doesn't expect this of 23-year-old middle- and upper-class kids. They're often allowed time to figure out careers and bills, and they're cushioned when they don't. The young adults in the Baltimore study have no such breathing space: They have to support younger siblings when drug-addicted parents can't, or care for the babies they've already had, or earn their own way to escape violence. They aren't exploring their way into adulthood; they are lurching there, as fast as possible.

"Most youth in our study absorbed virtually all of the risk and responsibility for their own launch," the researchers write. Just a quarter had parents with a high-school education. The Baltimore schools they attended ranked in the 14th percentile of all Maryland schools in education quality. Not surprisingly, the researchers conclude, these teens launch into adulthood haphazardly.

And this transition turns all the troubles surrounding them as children into disadvantages that will dog them as adults.

Students eager for college wound up instead at for-profit trade schools. Kids who wanted to be doctors downgraded to careers as nursing assistants. Kids who dreamed of careers in hospitality had to settle for jobs at Chick-fil-A, with no clear path from one to the other.

Seen in more intimate settings, these struggling young adults look very different from the "thugs" commentators decried when Baltimore erupted last spring (DeLuca and her co-authors have timed the book's publication on Tuesday around the anniversary of Freddie Gray's death, in part as a corrective to that stereotype). They aspire to many of the same goals other teens do, even the kids who wind up for a time dealing drugs or stealing cars. They want good jobs that won't bore them. They want to raise their children on safe streets with yard space. But poverty, family troubles and the neighborhoods where they live claw at them — "like crabs in a bucket," as one young woman puts it.

Most heartbreaking, even the teens the researchers felt most certain could make it to college never quite get there (at least by the end of the 10-year study).

"We thought, gosh, they could go to Hopkins!" DeLuca says in an interview, referring to some of the students who excelled in high school. Of the 150 kids in the study, though, only one had finished a four-year degree by the end of the project, a discouraging rate that mirrors earlier longitudinal findings in Baltimore by sociologists Karl Alexander and Doris Entwisle.

"How do you explain what happened?" asks DeLuca, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins. "Is this about lack of commitment or lack of hard work? Is this just because there's not enough money? It’s a more complex process."

For many of the teens, a lack of money is certainly part of the problem. They don't have help paying for college, or they can't imagine training another four years before entering the labor market when they need income right now. "Why wait years to become something when you can become something in like the course of a year?" asks Crystal. Her dream job was to become a lawyer. She chooses a program to become a certified nurse's assistant instead.

Many of these young adults are also living in homes overcrowded with extended family members, some of whom struggle with their own addictions and unemployment. So there's added urgency to get a job to earn the money to move out. But the same shortage of affordable housing that causes poor families to cram together also means that it's hard to earn enough money to leave. On a minimum-wage job (or two), you can't pay rent and attend school at the same time. One of the two has to give.

This is another choice — stay in a dire environment or work full-time to leave — that financially better-off teenagers don't have to make. Bob, one of the young men in the study who is desperate to find peace, frames his goal this way: "I would really like to go to a place," he says, "where I have my own lock and key."

DeLuca and her co-authors also argue that the constant violence surrounding these young adults contributes to their impression life is short. Nearly a quarter of them told the researchers they had a relative who died of overdose, drug addiction or homicide. More than a third said they'd witnessed a serious assault or violent death. Funerals tugged them away from school and dragged high achievers into depression. Teens who didn't take for granted that they'd reach age 20, the researcher suggest, don't assume they'll have time for a gradual transition into adulthood.

In the face of all these obstacles, becoming a nurse's assistant, or even a Chick-fil-A cashier, isn't a reckless choice. But it has long-term consequences that make it hard for these teens to eventually grow into the adult lives they want. Many of the poor kids in the book behave just like rich kids their age: They change their minds about what they want to do or be. But the consequences are much harsher.

When a pre-med student discovers that she doesn't like the sight of blood after all, she can change her major. When a phlebotomy student at a for-profit trade school discovers the same thing, she has gone into debt for a certification she won't use and has to start another from scratch. Poverty gives these young adults many disadvantages, and it robs them of the opportunity to rethink their choices.

Then, of course, the job market offers few options to 2o-year-olds with limited education and incomplete certifications.

"I know a million people who if I needed to sell drugs or rob houses or stuff like that, that I could have the job at any time and be making enough money to support myself," Kareem, 20, says. He wants a job in the legal economy. But employers say they'll call back and they never do. "It's as if," he says, "I was destined to be a criminal."

He embodies the opposing insights in the book: These young adults are not so different from their wealthier peers in the things they want, but they must pursue them with so many burdens, and without the luxury of time.