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Locked Out and Locked Up: Youth Missing in Action From Obama’s Stimulus Plan

Young people in the US face a fragile quality of life.

Part of the Series

Already imperiled before the recent economic meltdown, the quality of life for many young people appears even more fragile in the United States in this time of political, economic and social crisis. A great deal has been written critically about both the conditions that enabled the free market to operate without accountability in the interests of the rich and how it has produced a theater of cruelty that has created enormous suffering for millions of hard-working, decent human beings. Yet, at the same time, there is a thunderous silence on the part of many critics and academics regarding the ongoing insecurity and injustice experienced by young people in this country, which is now being intensified as a result of the state’s increasing resort to repression and punitive social policies. The current concerns about the effects of poverty, homelessness, economic injustice and galloping unemployment rates and Obama’s plans to rectify them almost completely ignore the effects of these problems on young people in the United States, especially poor whites and youth of color.

Increasingly, children seem to have no standing in the public sphere as citizens and as such are denied any sense of entitlement and agency. Children have fewer rights than almost any other group, and fewer institutions protecting these rights. Consequently, their voices and needs are almost completely absent from the debates, policies and legislative practices that are constructed in terms of their needs. This is not to suggest that adults do not care about youth, but most of those concerns are framed within the realm of the private sphere of the family and can be seen most clearly in the moral panics mobilized around drugs, truancy and kids killing each other. The response to such events, tellingly, is more “get tough on crime policy,” never an analysis of the systemic failure to provide safety and security for children through improved social provisions. In public life, however, children seem absent from any discourse about the future and the responsibilities this implies for adult society. Rather, children appear as objects, defined through the debasing language of advertising and consumerism. If not being represented as a symbol of fashion or hailed as a hot niche, youth are often portrayed as a problem, a danger to adult society or, even worse, irrelevant to the future.

This merging of the neoliberal state in which kids appear as commodities or a source of profits and the punishing state, which harkens back to the old days of racial apartheid in its ongoing race to incarcerate, was made quite visible in a recent shocking account of two judges in Pennsylvania who took bribes as part of a scheme to fill up privately run juvenile detention centers with as many youths as possible, regardless of how minor the infraction they committed. One victim, Hillary Transue, appeared before one of the “kickback” judges for “building a spoof MySpace page mocking the assistant principal at her high school.”[1] A top student who had never been in trouble, she anticipated a stern lecture from the judge for her impropriety. Instead, he sentenced her “to three months at a juvenile detention center on a charge of harassment.” It has been estimated that the two judges, Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. and Michael T. Conahan, “made more than $2.6 million in kickbacks to send teenagers to two privately run youth detention centers” and that over 5,000 juveniles have gone to jail since the “scheme started in 2003. Many of them were first-time offenders and some remain in detention.” While this incident received some mainstream news coverage, most of the response focused less on the suffering endured by the young victims than on the breach of professional ethics by the two judges. None of the coverage treated the incident as either symptomatic of the war being waged against youth marginalized by class and race or as an issue that the Obama administration should give priority to in reversing. In fact, just as there was almost no public outcry over a market-driven scheme to incarcerate youth to fill the pockets of corrupt judges, there was very little public anger over the millions slashed from the stimulus bill that would have directly benefited kids by investing in schools, Head Start and other youth-oriented programs. It seems that the real failure of post-partisan politics is its willingness to sacrifice young people in the interests of winning political votes.

Rendering poor minority youth as dangerous and a threat to society no longer requires allusions to biological inferiority; the invocation of cultural difference is enough to both racialize and demonize “difference without explicitly marking it,”[2] in the post-racial Obama era. This disparaging view of young people has promulgated the rise of a punishing and (in)security industry whose discourses, technologies and practices have become visible across a wide range of spaces and institutions, extending from schools to shopping malls to the juvenile criminal justice system.[3] As the protocols of governance become indistinguishable from military operations and crime-control missions, youth are more and more losing the protections, rights, security or compassion they deserve in a viable democracy. The model of policing that now governs all kinds of social behaviors constructs a narrow range of meaning through which young people define themselves. Moreover, the rhetoric and practice of policing, surveillance and punishment have little to do with the project of social investment and a great deal to do with increasing powerful modes of regulation, pacification and control – together comprising a “youth control complex” whose prominence in American society points to a state of affairs in which democracy has lost its claim and the claiming of democracy goes unheard. Rather than dreaming of a future bright with visions of possibility, young people, especially youth marginalized by race and color, face a coming-of-age crisis marked by mass incarceration and criminalization, one that is likely to be intensified in the midst of the global financial, housing and credit crisis spawned by neoliberal capitalism.

As Alex Koroknay-Palicz argues, “Powerful national forces such as the media, politicians and the medical community perpetuate the idea of youth as an inferior class of people responsible for society’s ills and deserving of harsh penalties.”[4] While such negative and demeaning views have had disastrous consequences for young people, under the reign of a punishing society and the deep structural racism of the criminal justice system, the situation for a growing number of young people and youth of color is getting much worse. The suffering and deprivation experienced by millions of children in the United States in 2008 – and bound to become worse in the midst of the current economic meltdown – not only testifies to a state of emergency and a burgeoning crisis regarding the health and welfare of many children, but also bears witness to – and indeed indicts – a model of market sovereignty and a mode of punitive governance that have failed both children and the promise of a substantive democracy. The Children’s Defense Fund in its 2007 annual report offers a range of statistics that provide a despairing glimpse of the current crisis facing too many children in America. What is one to make of a society marked by the following conditions:

  • Almost 13 million children in America live in poverty – 5.5 million in extreme poverty.
  • 4.2 million children under the age of five live in poverty.
  • 35.3 percent of black children, 28.0 percent of Latino children and 10.8 percent of white, non-Latino children live in poverty.
  • There are 9.4 million uninsured children in America.
  • Latino children are three times as likely, and black children are 70 percent more likely, to be uninsured than white children.
  • Only 11 percent of black, 15 percent of Latino and 41 percent of white eighth graders perform at grade level in math.
  • Each year 800,000 children spend time in foster care.
  • On any given night, 200,000 children are homeless – one out every four of the homeless population.
  • Every 36 seconds a child is abused or neglected – almost 900,000 children each year.
  • Black males ages 15-19 are about eight times as likely as white males to be gun homicide victims.
  • Although they represent 39 percent of the US juvenile population, minority youth represent 60 percent of committed juveniles.
  • A black boy born in 2001 has a 1 in 3 chance of going to prison in his lifetime; a Latino boy has a 1 in 6 chance.
  • Black juveniles are about four times as likely as their white peers to be incarcerated. Black youths are almost five times as likely and Latino youths about twice as likely to be incarcerated as white youths of drug offenses.[5]

As these figures suggest, the notion that children should be treated as a crucial social resource and represent for any healthy society important ethical and political considerations about the quality of public life, the allocation of social provisions and the role of the state as a guardian of public interests appears to be lost. Under the reign of the market-driven punishing state, a racialized criminal justice system, and a “financial Katrina” that is crippling the nation, the economic, political and educational situation for a growing number of poor young people and youth of color has gone from bad to worse. As families are being forced out of their homes because of record-high mortgage foreclosures and many businesses declare bankruptcy, tax revenues are declining and effecting cutbacks in state budgets, further weakening public schools and social services. The results in human suffering are tragic and can be measured in the growing ranks of poor and homeless students, the gutting of state social services, and the sharp drop in employment opportunities for teens and young people in their twenties.[6] Within these grave economic conditions, children disappear, often into bad schools, prisons, foster care and even into their graves. Under the rule of an unchecked market-driven society, the punishing state has no vocabulary or stake in the future of poor minority youth, and increasingly in youth in general. Instead of being viewed as impoverished, minority youth are seen as lazy and shiftless; instead of recognizing that many poor minority youth are badly served by failing schools, they are labeled as uneducable and pushed out of schools; instead of providing minority youth with decent work skills and jobs, they are either sent to prison or conscripted to fight in wars abroad; instead of being given decent health care and a place to live, they are placed in foster care or pushed into the swelling ranks of the homeless. Instead of addressing the very real dangers that young people face, the punishing society treats them as suspects and disposable populations, subjecting them to disciplinary practices that close down any hope they might have for a decent future.

All of the talk about a post-racial society in light of Obama’s election is meaningless as long as young people of color are disproportionally criminalized at younger and younger ages, allowed to disappear into the growing ranks of the criminal justice system and increasingly viewed as a racial threat to society rather than as a crucial social, political and economic investment. Obama’s message of hope and responsibility seems empty unless he addresses the plight of poor white youth and youth of color and the growing youth-control complex. The race to incarcerate – especially youth of color – is a holdover and reminder that the legacy of apartheid is still with us and can be found in a society that now puts almost as many police in its schools as it does teachers, views the juvenile justice system as a crucial element in shaping the future of young people, and supports a crime complex that models schools for poor kids after prisons.


[1] Ian Urbina and Sean D. Hamill, “Judges Plead Guilty in Scheme to Jail Youths for Profit,” New York Times (February 13, 2009), p. A1, A20.

[2] Jean Comaroff and John Comaroff, “Reflections of Youth, From the Past to the Postcolony,” Frontiers of Capital: Ethnographic Reflections on The New Economy,” ed. Melissa S. Fisher and Greg Downey (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006), p. 267.

[3] Garland, “The Culture of Control;” and Jonathan Simon, “Governing Through Crime: How the War on Crime Transformed American Democracy and Created a Culture of Fear” (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007). See also Phil Scranton, “Power, Conflict and Criminalisation” (New York: Routledge, 2007).

[4] Alex Koroknay-Palicz, “Scapegoating of Youth,” National Youth Rights Association (December 2001). Online:

[5] Children’s Defense Fund, 2007 Annual Report (Washington, DC: Children’s Defense Fund, 2008). Online:

[6] See Bob Herbert, “Head for the High Road,” New York Times, (September 2, 2008), p. A25; Sam Dillon, “Hard Times Hitting Students and Schools,” New York Times (September 1, 2008), p. A1, A9; and Erik Eckholm, “Working Poor and Young Hit Hard in Downturn,” New York Times (November 9, 2008), p. A23.

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