Stefanie DeLuca, an associate professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University, and Susan Clampet-Lundquist, an associate professor of sociology at Saint Joseph’s University, are co-authors of “Coming of Age in the Other America” with Kathryn Edin.
Like many across the country, we watched the media coverage of Baltimore this time a year ago, eight days after the death of Freddie Gray, when reports surfaced of a midafternoon “riot” at Mondawmin Mall. Accounts differ as to who was responsible, but after police shut down city buses that high school youths relied on to get home, images of protesters went viral over the next several hours. Amid widespread condemnation, Baltimore’s mayor and President Obama called the Baltimore protesters “thugs.”
This label distorts what youths in Baltimore are like. Their potential is significant and real.
We spent more than a decade in Baltimore’s poorest communities, researching and talking extensively with millennial youths and their families. Far from the televised portrayals of inner-city youths as drug dealers and delinquents, 70 percent of the young people we met finished high school and about as many went on to college or trade school. Eighty percent held jobs in the years after high school.
These levels of attainment are even more striking in contrast with those of their parents: Only 32 percent of their parents earned a high school diploma or GED, and only 13 percent enrolled in college. Almost two-thirds grew up with a parent who was suffering from addiction or involved in the criminal-justice system.
While some neighborhoods had drug dealers and hustlers on the corner, most of the youths we met scorned them in favor of careers as nursing assistants, police officers, bus drivers, cosmetologists and business owners. As Larry, 21, explained, “You see other people that was on the corners, and I’m tryin’ to make myself better.” Of the 150 youths we studied, only 27 got caught up in the street, and only eight did so past age 18. Most young people are hungry for education, work and meaning. They want to be somebody.
How can we help them stay on track?
When they were kids, these youths lived in communities where more than half of their neighbors were poor, representing levels of poverty that few Americans ever experience. Intergenerational disadvantage may seem inevitable; it doesn’t have to be.
Most of the youths in our book experienced significant drops in neighborhood poverty when they left public housing after housing policy shifts in the 1990s. In their new neighborhoods, twice as many of their neighbors were college-educated, and 30 percent fewer were single mothers or unemployed. Living in these communities helped youths envision brighter futures. These neighborhood improvements greatly contributed to the intergenerational gains we observed in education, crime and safety.
Erica, a 22-year-old junior at Morgan State University studying health science, saw her new neighborhood as a place with “more people with stuff to live for.” Christopher, 21, a culinary school student, said of his former public housing high-rise development, “I think if I wouldn’t’ve left Murphy Homes, I probably woulda been a disruptive kid . . . out running with people who had a record or maybe selling drugs because that’s the lifestyle I was around . . . . So I believe that my move or my schools actually helped my life.”
Research by Stanford University economist Raj Chetty and his colleagues amplified three decades of evidence showing geography matters:. They found that neighborhoods profoundly affect life expectancy, earnings, college enrollment and marriage, and they actively contribute to social inequality in the United States.
Our research also indicates that we can disrupt the process of neighborhood isolation and neglect by helping poor families move to opportunity-rich neighborhoods.
Targeted housing mobility programs have a proven track record. The Baltimore Housing Mobility Program has helped more than 3,000 low-income families move to low-poverty neighborhoods, where their children attend higher-performing schools.
Another strategy is to increase the supply of affordable housing in affluent neighborhoods. The low-income housing tax credit provides incentives to developers to build affordable housing in affluent communities. Developers who receive federal resources and tax credits must make efforts to racially and economically integrate housing. The Ethel R. Lawrence Homes in Mount Laurel, N.J., used the tax credit in an affluent area to create housing for poor, working-class and lower-middle-class families. Property values continued to rise after the building of Ethel Lawrence, and the families who moved in saw gains in economic self-sufficiency and academic achievement.
Youths in poor neighborhoods in Baltimore and other cities are eager to contribute to society. The vast majority are trying hard to do so. Yet to succeed, they need access to the same schools and communities as middle-class children. Far from being rioters or criminals, they are the strivers our culture celebrates. To deny youths resources based on their geography and label them as “thugs” only hinders their enormous potential.