Youth Today: Inequality Revisited

By Karen Pittman, November 1997

Concrete towers rising like ugly dominoes out of hard-packed dirt. Lots of kids, little else. On the edge of the row, a low-rise building with landscaping, playgrounds, basketball courts. Inside, fresh paint, plants, skylights — intact equipment, matching furniture, art on the walls. Further inside, 200-plus young people playing ping-pong, working out, doing projects, chatting — enjoying the security, space and support of the center.

Standing in this gleaming center in the inner city of Bratislava in Eastern Europe, I was optimistic. The Children of Slovakia Foundation and other NGOs (non-governmental organizations) are just beginning to build a formal system of youth and community services. But my spirits dropped when I transferred this scene to America. How can it be that there are still so many low-income communities still struggling to achieve — or maintain — the same modest goals?

Almost 10 years ago, Chapin Hall published a small but powerful study of the sizeable disparities in the availability, diversity, and sponsorship of community activities and facilities for youth in two Chicago neighborhoods — one affluent (“Greenwood”), one poor (“Innerville”). Their conclusions?

First, that even though the need is greater in Innerville, its organizations have less capacity — serving smaller numbers with a thinner array of activities. Second that in Greenwood, public organizations provide a greater portion of the activities and facilities for youth. The schools offer “almost seven times as many extracurricular activities.” The public park districts, eight. Third, that these findings are disturbing, “given the disparity in economic conditions … and the fact that wealthier families are also likely to provide their children with a wider variety of educational and recreational opportunities in their homes.” (This “high-yield leisure activities” factor was documented a decade ago by Reginald Clark as a powerful, overlooked, malleable factor in why low-income students succeed or fail).

Youth Services in poor neighborhoods were faring badly as we cane into this decade — with nonprofit organizations filling increasingly wide gaps left by the public sector, trying to serve youth and families with growing needs and shrinking funds. As we set out sights on 2000, I fear that the services gap between rich and poor neighborhoods has grown even more, thanks, to some extent, to well-meaning people like me. The research-based youth development mantras — primary preventions, healthy communities, primary supports, developmental assets — have been taken up by many especially at the local level, interested in promoting up-front, long-term, unqualified investments in community supports for youth. These arguments have given credence to the concerns about the Greenwood-Innerville type inequities that exist in every U.S. city and town. But they have done little, I fear, to change the landscape.

As with computers, educational summer camps and personal coaches, the uptake of these arguments may have been greatest in affluent communities. Prevention-minded parents, principles and police officers in communities like Coral Gables and Carmel (profiled in Youth Today, 11(6).) got new tools to push youth services funding up on the priority list of public officials and private investors debating how to spend money. But herein lies the dilemma — money. Admittedly, vision, collaboration, perseverance were key ingredients. But local dollars — public, private and parental — were the sine qua non of these efforts.

What does this mean for the neighboring communities that don’t have the credit rating, connections, or clout to get the job done? It means that they will limp along into increasingly difficult times, cobbling together short-term federal and state grants, juggling priorities that cause them to forego giving their young participants the sense of permanence and possibilities they so desperately need.

Something has to change. It may take a decade to see the results, but it is time to follow the lead of state education reformers who, opting against incremental change, used revisited inequity arguments to dismantle full systems. Since youth services are not a guaranteed right, the confrontations may have to take place in the media rather than the courts. But it is time to think about bolder, bigger strategies for rectifying a problem that is rapidly getting worse.

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Pittman, K. (1997, November). "Inequality Revisited" Washington, DC: The Forum for Youth Investment. A version of this article appears in Youth Today.

Karen Pittman is executive director of the Forum for Youth Investment.

Publishing Date: 
November 1, 1997
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