Stop squandering our most valuable resource – America’s talented youth

[America’s poor] exist within the most powerful and rich society the world has ever known. Their misery has continued while the majority of the nation talked of itself as being “affluent” and worried about neuroses in the suburbs. In this way, tens of millions of human beings became invisible. They dropped out of sight and out of mind; they were without their own political voice. – Michael Harrington, The Other America (1962)

 

Racial and economic segregation does more than just prevent families from access to the geography of opportunity. It also breeds an even more insidious psychology than “out of sight, out of mind” – it leaves people of all incomes vulnerable to poor sources of information about those who are at a different place on the income spectrum or racial group than they are. – Stephanie DeLuca, Susan Clampet-Lundquist, and Kathryn Edin, Coming of Age in The Other America (2016)

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When the late Michael Harrington published his first book 56 years ago, he told others that “he would be happy if it sold 2,500 copies.” However, in spite of those modest expectations, The Other America proved to be a clarion call to those concerned about the pernicious issue of poverty, ultimately selling more than a million copies.

One copy soon fell into the hands of then-president John F. Kennedy. Many believe that Harrington’s landmark text was the impetus for the Johnson administration’s “War on Poverty,” which was declared two years later.

A number of books in the years that followed built on Harrington’s effort, including notable works by Andrew Hacker, Alphonso Pinkney, Jonathan Kozol, and several others. And today, books on the persistence of poverty and inequality are essentially a cottage industry.

Yet there are two relatively recent books – one a memoir and the other the result of a longitudinal study – that parallel each other and refer back to The Other America in a number of ways.

One of them, The Other Wes Moore, I have referenced in this column before. Published in 2011, it is the story of two men who, in addition to sharing the same name, were born under remarkably similar conditions in Baltimore.

The “other” Wes Moore is serving a life-sentence in a Maryland state prison, while the author of the book is, among other things, a Rhodes Scholar, a decorated officer and veteran with the 82nd Airborne Division, a former White House Fellow, and currently CEO of a venture philanthropy organization. The author Wes Moore famously writes, “The chilling truth is that his story could have been mine. The tragedy is that my story could have been his.”

The other book, released in 2016 and playing on the title of Harrington’s classic, is Coming of Age in The Other America, by sociologists Stephanie DeLuca, Susan Clampet-Lundquist and Kathryn Edin. These authors also focus on Baltimore, chronicling the lives of 150 African American youth living in the city’s public housing developments “from childhood, through adolescence, and into young adulthood.”

Analogous to The Other Wes Moore, this book reveals examples of resilient young people who, in the face of tremendous odds, were able to overcome the cycle and chains of generational poverty. Nonetheless, it is important to point out, as the authors do, that poor youth from the city of Baltimore are statistically more likely to remain in poverty than are kids in other cities in America.

What it ultimately comes down to, they note after following the lives of so many talented youth – some of whom made it out of poverty, most of whom have not – is that we must fight to “keep structural barriers from neutralizing the ambitions of those raised in poverty.”

That is all any of us could ask for. There is a tremendous reservoir of talent here in Minnesota and across the nation in urban, suburban and rural communities. There is so much potential that goes untapped for no other reason than a lack of opportunity and resources.

There might be a little girl sitting in a St. Paul classroom at this very moment who, if given the chance, could contribute to the cure for cancer. Or perhaps there is a boy in East Bloomington who might help to reduce poverty and inequality in his own community. The possibilities are limitless.

Make America great again? Sure. Perhaps we should start by not squandering the intellect, aspirations and vision of America’s youngest citizens, 40 percent of whom live in low-income households.

If, as Dr. King so eloquently put it, “America is to live out the true meaning of its creed,” then what could be more American than providing all of our children access to the tools for success?

Clarence Hightower is the executive director of Community Action Partnership of Ramsey & Washington Counties. Dr. Hightower holds a Ph.D. in urban higher education from Jackson State University. He welcomes reader responses to 450 Syndicate Street North, St. Paul, MN 55104