U.S. Young People Share ‘American Dream.’ Mistakenly?

Posted July 1, 2005 at 4:08pm

The American Dream is alive and well among U.S. young people, a new survey indicates, but it won’t come true unless better policy decisions are made by current grownups. [IMGCAP(1)]

The survey, conducted for America’s Promise, the national youth alliance formed by former Secretary of State Colin Powell in 1997, shows that U.S. kids overwhelmingly accept the classic premises of upward mobility.

More than 90 percent of nearly 1,200 respondents aged 10-17 agreed with the statement, “My success depends on how hard I work.”

Close to 90 percent said, “I’m confident that I’ll be able to find a good-paying job when I grow up” and “I am learning the skills that will help me be successful in life.” Eighty percent agreed that, “In America, kids can grow up to become anything they want.”

Other studies indicate that there is good reason for optimism about American youth. Teenage pregnancy is down. Early sexual activity, youth homicide and suicide and substance abuse are too. Three-fourths of young people say they engage in some sort of volunteer activity.

But there are two primary causes for worry, and adults have to start doing something about them. Right now, the United States is not responding to the high-tech educational challenge of the global economy. And the current generation is piling a debt burden on its children that could render them unable to invest in their future.

Not only does the U.S. rank 19th in math and 18th in science on international tests and badly trail Asian countries in the production of young scientists and engineers, but within the United States, educational opportunity is increasingly class-driven.

Well-off, educated parents tend to make sure their kids acquire the preparation they need to get into good schools. But lower-income youngsters get trapped in poor-performing schools that hinder their life chances.

The Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind law is designed to force bad schools to improve, but a new Educational Testing Service study shows that fully one-third of teenagers drop out of high school without graduating.

In an economy that increasingly requires high skills, a failure to finish high school is an almost automatic sentence to a life around the poverty line. Around 17 percent of U.S. children are currently below that line.

As reported in a Wall Street Journal series on social mobility, about 17 percent of whites born into the lowest-income 10 percent of families remained there as adults, but 42 percent of blacks did.

Both The Journal and The New York Times have run extensive series documenting that the income gap between rich and poor in the United States has widened since 1970 and the ability of Americans to move out of their childhood economic circumstances has diminished.

Not only do well-off Americans give their children better educations than the poor can, but those without health insurance get sicker because they lack access to primary and preventive care. That includes 11 percent of children.

Booming health care costs and our aging society combine to create a mounting fiscal burden that young people will have to bear.

At current rates — which all experts agree are unsustainable — Medicare and Medicaid by themselves will consume 20 percent of GDP by the middle of the century, crowding out the nation’s ability to invest in education, infrastructure and other priorities.

America’s Promise exists to ensure that all U.S. children — but especially the 15 percent deemed “at risk” — get five “promises” which research shows will significantly improve their life chances for success.

Its survey, conducted by the research firm Just Kid Inc. and Harris Interactive, was largely designed to find out whether youngsters are receiving these “promises”: the attention of a caring adult, a safe place to go outside of school and home, a healthy start in life, a good education and an opportunity for community service.

Thirteen percent — close to the number of “at risk” and poor youth — said they had no caring adult to turn to. Among high school students, that number rose to 40 percent.

Asked who they most relied on for help or advice, 69 percent identified their mothers, 46 percent named their fathers, 67 percent a friend of their own age and only 30 percent a teacher and 13 percent a religious leader.

Eighty percent of high school students said that they got most of their advice from peers. Only 13 percent said they went to school guidance counselors, 21 percent to family friends and 9 percent to coaches.

Fully 36 percent of high school students responded that “too many teens in my community have guns or other weapons,” and 44 percent said that there is “too much fighting.”

Only 10 percent of the respondents said that a safe place was the most important thing missing in their lives — 18 percent identified job skills and 21 percent cited opportunities to volunteer — but when asked what they do after school, 87 percent of high schoolers said they just “hang out” and 79 percent, “look for something exciting on the Internet.”

On the health front, the most arresting finding was that 80 percent of high school students and 60 percent of junior high respondents reported having “a lot of stress in my life.”

Health experts and other adults are legitimately worried about the tripling of obesity among young people, but one study showed that nearly 30 percent of high school students reported feeling sad or hopeless almost every day.

In terms of education and job skills, only 37 percent said they most needed “technology skills” in order to succeed, as compared to 64 percent who rated “financial skills.”

Survey evaluators interpreted this result as indicating that American youngsters feel technologically proficient. A more likely interpretation is that they don’t know how poorly their technology skills lag behind children in other countries.

The survey revealed a huge desire among young people to participate in altruistic service — 86 percent agreed that “I can make a difference in the world” — but 46 percent reported that the volunteer opportunities available to them are “really boring.”

A bottom-line finding which America’s Promise labeled a “dream gap” showed that while 95 percent of children had goals they want to achieve in life, 42 percent doubt that they’ll be able to achieve the goals. Unless American kids get help from adults, this pessimism may be all too realistic.