Teens and Avoiding Poverty: Three Simple Yet Challenging Rules

I have a confession to make #2…in a series. From time to time, while writing The Leech and researching speech topics on various contemporary issues, I am presented the opportunity to challenge my presumptions and replace them with a more rigorous understanding. Although these essays may not be life altering or change the world, I share them for two possible benefits. First, to convey what I learned on a topic, how it deflated my original hypothesis, and replaced it with a better one. Second, to illustrate a hidden benefit and reality of the painful writing process: you often land in a very different place than where you targeted. That’s growth.

For the past ten years or so, I subscribed to an oft-quoted rule of thumb for how teens can almost guarantee themselves living a life outside of poverty: graduate high school, get a job (any job), and avoid getting married and having children until you are at least 21. Extensive research supports the sensible trio. Data show 98% of Americans who followed these three things did not end up in poverty and 55% who followed these landed in the middle class. Since western Pennsylvania has its share of economically disadvantaged communities, from urban Pittsburgh to rural Greene and Fayette Counties, emphasizing and encouraging these three rules of thumb offers an impactful payoff for the young adult and the region.

Simple, right? Diving deeper, I was reminded of the differences between ‘simple,’ ‘effective,’ and ‘challenging.’ These three ‘simple’ rules of thumb are ‘effective’ for the young to escape the grip of poverty. But meeting all three can be an incredibly ‘challenging’ task.
Let’s start with perhaps the easiest of the three: getting a job.

Those of us old enough to remember can recall that for a long time getting a job, especially a stable job, was nearly impossible in western Pennsylvania, northern West Virginia, and eastern Ohio. The region’s population drastically declined during the economic exodus of the late 1970s and 1980s; economic reality drove many of us out and sent us to regions where there were jobs.

In those days you didn’t have to worry about becoming a teen parent or not graduating high school, because mom and dad might have to pack up your belongings and drive off to Texas or Arizona to start the family anew.

About 15 years ago, the regional job market changed for the better. The natural gas industry bloomed, revived manufacturing, and drove demand up for services. Trump administration policy took the onerous federal regulatory handcuffs off free enterprise and business. All of it fueled job growth, to the point where most teenagers and young adults looking for work could find it at the start of 2020. The proof is in the labor data: prior to the pandemic, labor participation skyrocketed while overall unemployment and minority unemployment were at, or close to, historic lows.

Yes, things changed for the worse when the pandemic hit, and no one knows for certain when the economy and labor demand will fully recover. But let’s assume we know that under the right conditions and policies, this region can create an environment where most kids who want a job can find one.

That leaves two of the three ‘simple’ rules.

Waiting until you are 21 to marry and have children is always carefully worded yet often sparks controversy. Even normally aligned entities and individuals can face off on this topic; then-Mayor Bloomberg and Planned Parenthood fought epic battles over teen pregnancy communication efforts in New York City. Certainly, becoming a teenage mother or father often presents serious social and economic challenges for both child and parent. Same with divorce for young married couples. Everyone agrees these are serious issues, but no one seems to know how to effectively address them, particularly in our poorer communities. Society needs to keep trying, but success won’t be easy or quick. Call it a work in progress, but victory on this front does not appear to be imminent.

What about the last of the three, graduating high school?

This one looks on its face to be the most achievable. We pour massive amounts of money into our schools, technology has grown leaps and bounds in its educational efficacy, and high school graduation rates are at historic highs across much of the country.

So why don’t I feel good about this one? Because this piece of the three-part advice is not specific enough. Graduating high school is not enough.

Instead, one must graduate high school armed with competency in reading, math, and science. I assumed for too long that graduating necessarily comes with sound proficiency. In many school districts, particularly ones in economically disadvantaged areas, that is a flawed assumption.

The evidence is everywhere.

  • New York City public schools have barely over a third of students in grades 3-8 who passed proficiency tests in math and English.
  • The Detroit school system in 2016 had only 5% and 7% of fourth graders being proficient in math and reading, respectively.
  • The Milwaukee public school system has math and reading proficiency levels hovering around 20%.
  • The Pittsburgh public school system in my hometown posts eighth grade math proficiency at 20%.
  • Los Angeles is not much better, showing 22% of fourth graders math proficient.

These kids may be eventually graduating, but are they prepared for life?

Yes, the three rules of thumb are enticingly simple. And, no doubt, teens who follow them have the odds heavily in their favor to avoid poverty. But achieving all three looks to be extremely challenging for kids in economically stressed communities. The most challenging is graduating high school, assuming it must result in math, reading, and science proficiency. If that is the standard, we are failing millions of young adults, regardless if they receive a piece of paper to hang on the wall.

Maybe while we have been busy lecturing the kids on what to do, we forgot about our responsibility in this. Holding politicians, bureaucrats, and public teachers’ unions accountable for student proficiency levels would be a good rule of thumb for parents and taxpayers to follow.

Teens and Avoiding Poverty: Three Simple Yet Challenging Rules