Which Youth?

Andrew J. Seligsohn

I start with a question, try to answer it, and then consider the implications of that answer. The question I address is, on its face, quite simple: Should we focus on improving the situation of young people who currently live in Trenton or hope that some other young people will move to Trenton?

People disagree strenuously about the answer to that question. Some believe that we need to get started right away on improving the educational attainment and life prospects of the young people who live in the city. If we fail to do so, they argue, another generation will grow into adulthood without the capacity for self-sufficiency and will, at best, fail to contribute to the betterment of the city and, at worst, threaten and harm other residents.

Others see things differently. They argue that Trenton simply does not have the resources to address the social, economic, and educational conditions that lead about half the city’s young people to fail to graduate high school and countless numbers to turn to self-destructive behaviors. Rather than trying to address these problems directly, they argue, the city should focus on attracting more middle class people to Trenton. These people will provide the tax base the city needs to begin to address the deep educational and social problems that threaten to engulf the current generation of young people in Trenton. Those who hold this view do not think that the way to attract middle class families to Trenton is by creating strong pre-kindergarten programs and improving the schools; they believe the answer is to give families better options for educating their children outside of the Trenton public schools—through school choice policies and vouchers. In short, they believe that by ignoring Trenton’s present young people in the short run, we can create the conditions that will help Trenton’s present young people in the long run.

This second idea—that we should focus on bringing different children into the city rather than addressing the needs of those who are here—is associated with a movement in urban planning called smart growth. One key tenet of smart growth is that concentrated poverty is disastrous because it produces entrenched social problems and destroys the resource base for addressing them.

On this point, the smart growth planners are undoubtedly correct. Concentrated poverty is one of Trenton’s greatest problems. In many neighborhoods, more than two thirds of schoolchildren qualify for free or reduced lunch. In most cases, the parents of these children have very low levels of educational attainment themselves: Fully one-third of Trenton adults over 25 did not graduate from high school, and less than 10% hold a bachelor’s degree. We all know the result: Thousands of Trenton children spend their early years in households unable to meet their basic needs and unprepared to give them the foundation for learning when they arrive at school. When so many of these children arrive together at school, teachers are overwhelmed, and the system breaks down. Successfully addressing these problems requires a huge investment of resources—essentially providing from the outside what families are unable to provide internally. And Trenton just does not have those resources.

So the smart growth planners have the right diagnosis. But do they have the right prescription? I think the answer is no. Instead of attracting new middle class residents in order to solve our current problems, we should view an influx of middle class residents as a likely outcome of solving them. We should decide that we must—and can—meet the needs of the young people who live in this city.

There are several reasons why. First, there is a simple question of justice: Children born in Trenton today should not have to wait around for a long-term strategy to pay off before they receive what every child in America deserves: A high-quality education that takes them from where they are to where they need to be.

The second reason is more pragmatic: Middle class people will not move to Trenton in large numbers until they see the schools getting better, the streets getting safer, and the city getting cleaner. That is true even if people have the option to send their children somewhere else to school. Most people do not want to send their kids far away for school, and they do not want to raise kids in unsafe neighborhoods. If the young people in Trenton continue to be neglected, new young people will not arrive.

So we cannot wait around for other people’s children to arrive. We need to improve life for the young people who are here. If we take that idea seriously, what will we do? Here are a few simple answers:

  1. We will establish political accountability for our school leadership. Right now, an appointed school board provides political cover for the mayor who appoints them. But the board is not accountable to voters. We need either to elect our school board or to institute direct mayoral control of schools. That way, we can hold those responsible for our schools accountable at the ballot box.
  2. Every responsible adult in Trenton will start to take regular action on behalf of young people. To take one example, there are 5000 adults in Trenton who hold college degrees. There are 11,000 kids in Trenton public schools. That means that for every two kids, there exists a potential college-educated tutor. Add to that all of the people who can coach or mentor kids, and we can begin to picture repairing the web of care and support that concentrated poverty undermines.
  3. We will create neighborhood based programs for tracking every child and ensuring that every child’s nutritional, health, and educational needs are met. We have strong non-profit organizations—Mercer Street Friends is one example—that are already getting to work on this effort based on successful models, such as the one devised by the Harlem Children’s Zone. These neighborhood based programs will rely on the support of the responsible adults who have mobilized themselves to meet the needs of our young people.

I will stop there. If we do those three things—and nothing is stopping us from doing them—we will see change in the achievement and life prospects of our young people. We will no longer hope for other young people to arrive. We will instead be proud of the young people who are here. They deserve that.

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