Make Sure You’re Connected: The Certain Disappointments of Arne Duncan’s New Project

“But for too many inner city kids, the path is marred by poverty, violence, broken social networks and schools that can’t keep up with the challenges in tough neighborhoods.”

This all sounds familiar: children identified by where they are from, not specifically, but generically and suggestively; a litany of obstacles presented by forces well beyond these children and not attributable to any one source; and schools unable to play the vitally redemptive role they are supposed to for such children.

And of course, it’s from a familiar figure, former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. This diagnosis of the problems facing “inner city youth” comes from his March 17th announcement that Duncan is commencing a new project with the Emerson Collective. Duncan referred to it as a kind of “new deal” for “disconnected youth,” providing better public education and more job opportunities. Initially focused in Chicago, the project will:

“tap into an inventive set of resources to address systemic barriers to opportunity, including dynamic partnerships with community-based organizations, investing in entrepreneurs who can bring a new era of innovation and job growth to neglected neighborhoods, and collaborating with local leadership to scale the best solutions…”

Of course, it’s not clear what these projects are. Duncan and the Emerson Collective are providing themselves a wide berth to discover what they mean and how to go about doing it, a kind of luxury that comes with wealth and influence. But Duncan dropped clues about his thinking through his various media appearances.

“If we can provide the opportunity for young men and women to get paid, to get that training they need, for me that’s been the missing link here.”

Here he is isolating the issue of getting paid for job training, which is a key problem. It takes time and resources to learn new skills. If people in need can earn a salary to do this, then it’s much more likely that they will develop marketable skills. It is notable, though, that Duncan refers to “training” and not “education” or any kind of degree-attainment.

“This has to be private sector stepping up. Government can play a role, philanthropy can play a role…”

Now, if philanthropy’s role is to support people through job training, how exactly is the private sector stepping up? By hiring workers whose training has been paid for by a charitable foundation? And what role is government playing? What Duncan seems to be sketching is a philanthropy at the service of private business as much, if not more so, than youths living in poverty. The connection being offered is not just to those seeking a job to subsidized training, but to corporations seeking expanded labor markets and lower training costs. The problem is that Duncan is presenting an under-develop fraction of an idea, touting the principles he hopes to pursue through the work, not facets of an established project.

“Kids who have hope don’t pick up guns.”

This gets to Duncan’s underlying concept, the imagination that animates his entire endeavor. He believes that there are youths growing up in “inner cities” that, lacking any optimism about their future, turn to violence. But note who is the only person in this formulation — inner city kids. There are no adults of any kind, no gun manufacturers, no bankers working in the legacy of redlining, no employers screening resumes by name and address. As the ever insightful Ray Salazar articulated, Duncan ignores the complexity of the the situation, which makes Duncan sound “like a traveling salesman at their front door selling a new-found path to hope.”

Duncan is heading towards the front doors of inner city youth because it’s where his metaphor leads him. His target youth are “disconnected,” that is aged 16–24 and neither enrolled in school or employed. In this, Duncan is working from a Measure of America report that found 1 in 7 American youth to be disconnected. And similar to Duncan’s actor-less formulation of the problem, the Measure of America authors find that living in neighborhoods with high poverty, high adult unemployment, and low adult educational attainment are most closely associated with youth disconnection. As a work of academic research, this is all well done and useful as a way to characterize the social situation of many youth of color living in our major cities.

But “disconnected” is not a prescription for policy or programming. It is far too general, lacking any kind of analysis of how youth become “disconnected,” who does the “disconnecting,” and how they might be “reconnected.” Indeed, there’s nothing attributed to anyone here, expect to the youth who have ended up “disconnected” largely because of the neighborhood they live in. As such, it’s hard to parse “disconnected” from older, out-of-favor euphemisms like “at-risk,” “marginalized,” “disadvantaged,” “culturally deprived,” and others that have been inescapable tropes for social reformers over the past several decades. Each of these label performed the same conceptual operation — labeling and characterizing non-attributable difference, one without innate negative value that is nonetheless born out as negative experience by certain youth.

Duncan falls into this tradition, which is no surprise. He has always been a high functioning bureaucrat, not a visionary, perceptive policy maker, or social critic. He condemns and proposes to act against broad, impersonal social forces without any of the particular detail to plot a course of action to do much about it. So whole I hope many youths are helped by Duncan’s new project, I have deep doubts that they will be precisely because trying to “reconnect” youth does nothing to address the reasons they became “disconnected” in the first place.

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