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Intellect Spring 2017 | Sociology


"They’re our kids, too"

Finding resilience and creating empathy for youth in poverty

Kathryn Smith ’15

"I am not like other guys in Baltimore,” declares Bob, a teenager enthralled with Japanese anime and Goth culture. “I don’t think I belong here.”

Bob is one of the 150 youths interviewed during a 10- year study conducted by Associate Professor of Sociology Susan Clampet-Lundquist, Ph.D., and her partners Stefanie DeLuca, Ph.D., and Kathryn Edin, Ph.D., both sociologists from Johns Hopkins University. Their award-winning book about the study, Coming of Age in the Other America (Choice Award, Outstanding Academic Title), was released last April to critical acclaim.

Beginning their work in 2003, Clampet-Lundquist and her partners have sought to better understand the experience of growing up in some of the country’s poorest neighborhoods. Their book focuses on kids in Baltimore’s public housing whose families signed up for a federal demonstration called Moving to Opportunity that provided housing vouchers for families to move to neighborhoods with less than 10 percent poverty.

In poring over their interview data, the research team noticed that just under half of participants invested in activities that gave their life meaning. “Adolescence is a stage in which young people work out their identities,” explains Clampet-Lundquist, “but for these young people, it wasn’t just about what they were ‘about’ — their identity also led them to engage in concrete activities, so we labeled this an ‘identity project.’”

Youth who pursued an identity project were more likely to avoid illegal activities, graduate from high school, and go on to some college, trade school or a job. They were more likely to be on track as they entered into early adulthood, now anchored in resiliency.

For Bob, this meant trading the average teenage boy’s baggy pants for dark make-up, chains and skull t-shirts to immerse himself in Japanese anime and Insane Clown Posse. Though these cultural affects might not seem like the hallmarks of a pursuit leading to a well-established adulthood, Bob’s sense of belonging in a particular community, along with mentorship from the adults in his life, gave him a path. Since his first interview in 2004, Bob graduated from high school, and now at 25, he is the assistant manager of a coffee shop in the Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

Though Coming of Age in the Other America focuses on youth in Baltimore, it could be written about any city in the United States — like Philadelphia, which has a higher poverty rate and similarly neglected housing projects.

“In the U.S.,” says Clampet-Lundquist, “we tolerate very high levels of poverty — much higher than in any developed nation.” Take public schools as an example, she says, where the wealth of a community influences the quality of schooling.

“Affluent youth are more likely to attend high-quality schools and benefit from the experience of family and friend networks that facilitate the next steps to college,” says Clampet-Lundquist. “Having an identity project may not be as necessary, then, to get to the ‘starting gate’ of adulthood, as it is for low-income youth.”

While most of the youth in the study fell into their identity projects by chance, “We can do better than luck to support them on their way to young adulthood, by providing them with better public schools and with funding for arts, career and college programming,” she adds.

Clampet-Lundquist and her partners argue that the institutional landscape needs to change on a policy level to allow low income children to succeed — with or without an identity project. They say the system needs “feasible tweaks” that would make it possible for low income families to live in neighborhoods with the same kinds of amenities as middle-class families.

Since publishing the book, Clampet-Lundquist and her co-authors have tried to connect their research to real-life policies and programs. They feel “ethically bound to get the word out.” Her team has presented their findings to staff at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and had articles and op-eds published in the Washington Post and The Atlantic.

”In the U.S., we tolerate very high levels of poverty — much higher than in any developed nation.”
Susan Clampet-Lundquist, Ph.D.

Yet, her work at SJU has been equally impactful. Last spring, Clampet-Lundquist introduced her identity project research to a class, where, she says, “one shy student — whose voice I hadn’t heard once all year — finally raised her hand. She said, ‘That’s me. That’s how I got to St. Joe’s.’”

In publishing this research, Clampet-Lundquist hopes to help develop empathy among its readers for youth living in poverty.

“The geographic separation of residential segregation means that middle-class households are separate from the neighborhoods where the kids featured in our book grew up,” she says. “The negative media images portraying African American youth who live in high poverty don’t fit the majority of our sample, but that's the information affluent households have in their heads, making it easier to ignore policies that would support the youth in our book.

“This is not a book about ‘those kids,’" she adds. "They’re our kids, too.”