By the time his senior year of high school came around, any semblance of a normal life had all but collapsed around Terry.
Years earlier, he had been committed to a state home, separated from his family. But even after the family was reunited, things didn't work out. Unable to get along with his mother and pushed out of an older brother’s home after he married, Terry found himself homeless, and at a crossroads.
“[So] I threw my bags in the woods, and I registered myself [for school] to finish my senior year,” he later recalled of that period.
For most of his senior year, Terry slept in Leakin Park—a Baltimore park notorious for the dead bodies that would turn up there. It was during his time living there when he began reading poetry and writing songs, and when he found the only bit of structure and purpose that he could find in life: going to school every day.
Through becoming a self-described “perfect attendance kid” over the course of that year, Terry was soon offered a chance to work with some fellow students with disabilities. Sitting with those students changed him forever, he would later tell researchers:
“I [had] felt like I had the right to be angry at life and this and that… But these kids, man… some of them couldn’t change their own clothes, you know… and they were happy… so I stayed around them. And after high school I knew—that’s what I want to do. I wanted to help people.”
It was the crucial moment that Terry found his “identity project,” suggests the study Coming of Age In The Other America, published this week.
For over a decade, three sociologists followed over 150 youths from the worst and most violent housing projects in the city, as they transitioned from adolescence to adulthood. They did so working with the Russell Sage Foundation, which exclusively focuses on social science.
The central question the researchers wanted to tackle: What factors can help these poor millennials escape the cyclical poverty and disenfranchisement that is so pronounced in Baltimore?
Among other factors, they found, the presence of an identity project is a strong marker for where these at-risk youth will end up—either sucked into a street life of crime, violence and drugs, or doing something productive.
Defined by researchers, Identity Projects are “concrete activities to which youth committed themselves” as middle schoolers or high schoolers, which brought “a source of meaning that provided a strong sense of self.”
The data gleaned from the project is stunning. A full 94% of those who were identified as having an identity project in middle school or high school were either working or going to school by the time the research was completed, compared to 65% of those who didn’t have one.
In other terms, only 6% of those who had an identity project were neither in school or working, compared to 35% of those who didn’t have one.
About that same number (one-third) of America’s black 16 to 24 year-olds are neither going to school, nor working, the researchers point out. Out of that same age range, about one-in-seven American youths overall are similarly idle.
“It is not clear from our data why some youth develop identity projects while others do not,” write the researchers. Often, it almost seems like “luck,” they suggest: happening to be in a school that offers a JROTC program; a summer job that turns into a lifelong passion; bumping into someone at the mall that dresses in a way that inspires you.
But this apparently all-important factor can’t just be a matter of “luck,” they argue. There’s a lot of things that the government can do to nudge even the most disaffected youth in the right direction.
More funding should go to programs that facilitate these identity projects, suggest the researchers. This includes not only school programs for the arts, sports leagues and the like, but especially career-focused academic programs in the inner city.
In the long run, it costs society more to invest in these kids’ passions than to ignore them, they argue.
Another major sticking point to the authors is that funding the right kind of public housing is of utmost importance. Early public housing in the U.S. was built vertically—maximizing population density on the smallest amount of ground space. This defined most public housing in the country from the creation of the U.S. Housing Act of 1937 though about the mid 1990s, when many of the kids in the study were in their early adolescence.
That was when the Department of Housing and Urban Development started coming up with a few pilot programs in an attempt to fix the crisis that impoverished-by-design neighborhoods found themselves in. (In 1981, an amendment to the 1937 law kept slightly higher-income families from accessing public housing, effectively ultra-segregating the extremely impoverished in specific neighborhoods. The inherent issues of racial segregation should go without saying.)
One of the policies that did work was bulldozing the old housing project towers. In Baltimore, this meant the destruction of most of the towers that were featured in the HBO show “The Wire,” where many of the kids in the study were from. Even though this meant to an overall reduction of public housing units available, over time it has dramatically decreased the concentrated poverty in the city. The majority of those affected moved into the private market housing thanks to Section 8 vouchers, mostly in more mixed-income neighborhoods. as the culture of the projects was left in the past.
But not all of the kids who participated in the Russell Sage Foundation study made it out. Hence the control group for the study.
The results: the longer a youth lived in a neighborhood where at least 30% of the residents were poor, the more likely they were to have spent some amount of time “in the streets” – regularly committing crimes to get by.
“Holding gender and age constant, youth with less exposure to high poverty contexts (those that had spent less than six years in a neighborhood that was at least 30% poor) were only 45% as likely to engage in illegal behavior as youth who had been exposed for a longer period of time,” the study reads.
The finding suggests that by osmosis, a change from occupying by a severely impoverished neighborhood to a less-poor neighborhood can produce a radically different outcome. Some of the comments from the subjects of the study—both youth and parents— highlight this.
One affected kid who moved out of the projects to a slightly better to-do part of town, remarked that her new neighborhood had “more people that had stuff to live for,” and “aspirations to do something with themselves” than what she knew in her early childhood.
A parent called her years in the projects as “pure unadulterated hell,” where it was near impossible to rein her kids in.
Though not mentioned in the study, it also suggests that more attention should be paid to the profound effect that school transport programs can have on children. When you send very poor children to mixed-income schools, they simply do better. Take away the transportation, they do bad. Very bad.
A year ago, Baltimore was burning.
Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black resident, had died a week before, after sustaining serious injuries in police custody. Police cars were set ablaze in response to his death. Stores looted, destroyed. Regular city life came to a tense standstill, and as the National Guard made its way in, television screens across the world were tuned into non-stop coverage from the troubled American city. A New York Times columnist asked shortly after: “Do you have the freedom of self-control or are you in bondange to your desires?”
It was in this context that the Coming of Age in the Other America research was wrapping up.
“The story that unfolded over our decade of research was strikingly different from the ‘thug,’ narrative spun by politicians and news anchors alike,” wrote the researchers, referring to how the Freddie Gray riots were covered. “Despite childhoods of extreme disadvantage, our study of the unfolding lives of these youths offered a strong corrective to the popular perception of this group as being swept up in crime and delinquency.”
“The study was an attempt to understand the transition to adulthood for poor minority people, a group who had largely been left out of the literature on that topic,” researchers said of their intentions.
The current jobs of some of the characters painted in the study are not remarkable. Some work in fast food, some in charity. Some went to college. Many didn’t.
But that’s part of what’s important about the stories behind the statistics presented above and in the study. The majority are not doing illegal activity. The majority are not engaged in a life of crime, even though they might have been surrounded by it, and in many cases still have to fight it off on a daily basis.
"I just be tryin’ to ride this thing out the best way I could since I’ve been born, and I think I’m doin’ a pretty damn good job,” said Terry, the youth who once slept in the woods during his senior year of high school. Since then, he spent many years homeless and working odd jobs, but when researchers last spoke to him, he seemed on the verge of landing a job at a local non-profit that fit within his parameters of his identity project.
“When covering an isolated incident of looting, it is easy for viewers to believe that the extreme is the norm,” note the researchers. The reality that was uncovered through the research is much the opposite. Most were “actively resisting the street” and looking “for something else” for the duration of the study, researchers found.
A full 80% of the youth found work in the private sector after high school, they note. “Only 14% of the youth we spoke with reported struggling with alcohol or drug abuse, only 29% had ever been arrested, and even fewer—18%— said that they had ever been ‘in the street.’”
The problem was not with the individual, they conclude. The problem was that of an interaction between personal grit, desperation, and environment which can go bad.
Luckily for the government, there is one vital part of that puzzle that is firmly in its control.
Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.