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America's Lost Boys and Me

I suspect I’m the only student at Cambridge University who lived out of garbage bags as a child. Here’s why I didn’t live the life I was meant to…

One of the most brilliant concepts I’ve come across in the past few years is the notion of “luxury beliefs.” Like a Birkin bag, luxury beliefs are expensive, fashionable and confer immediate status on those espousing them. But they can only be afforded by people whose status shields them from the harm those views can cause.

Once you know the term you start to see it everywhere. Perhaps most obvious is the notion of defunding the police, in which overwhelmingly wealthy, educated people who live in safe neighborhoods call for a policy that would leave lower-class people living in high-crime neighborhoods vulnerable. But also, say, the idea that monogamy is an outdated, oppressive institution. Most of the people espousing this view raise children with the economic and social benefits of intact, stable families. And so on.

The person who coined this idea is Rob Henderson. Rob is a PhD student at Cambridge University, but, as he writes below: “I suspect I’m the only person here who was living out of garbage bags at age seven and smoking weed at age nine.” In other words: he is an outsider now on the inside, a poor foster-care kid now living inside the Ivory Tower, which grants him a powerful critical distance.

I think you’ll see that below, in Rob’s essay about why so many young American men are adrift, and on today’s episode of Honestly, which you can listen to here. — BW

My earliest memory is of me gripping my mother, in the dark, burying my face so deeply into her stomach I can’t breathe. It’s dark. I come up for air and see two police officers looming over us. They want to take her away. I’m scared. I don’t want to let her go. I fasten myself to her as hard as I can. Suddenly, I’m in a long white hallway. I’m sitting on a bench next to my mother drinking chocolate milk. My three-year-old legs dangle above the floor. I sneeze and spill my milk. I look to my mom for help, but she can’t move her arms. She’s wearing handcuffs. I start to cry.

That year, I entered the Los Angeles County foster care system. I never saw my mother again.

From the time I was born until I was 17 years old, nearly everything in my life was propelling me to a life as one of America’s lost boysthe young men who fail to mature, do poorly in school, live on the economic margins, and become absentee fathers or fail to form stable families of their own.

Today, one in six American men between the ages of 25 and 54 are unemployed or out of the workforce altogether: about 10 million men. This number has more than doubled since the 1970s. Meantime, over the past half-century, the number of men behind bars has more than quadrupled.

One obvious metric for success is college graduationand America’s young men are not standing up. The Wall Street Journal recently published a viral story about how male students are vanishing from campus. Men now make up only 40 percent of college students, a gender gap that has been growing for decades. In the next few years, two women will earn a college degree for every man. 

It’s no wonder fewer men are making it to college: boys begin falling behind girls as soon as they start attending school. A 2013 study published in the Journal of Human Resources found that, as early as kindergarten, girls begin earning better grades than boys.

But I’d fallen behind even earlier. Indeed, all of the ingredients for a lost life were there for me from birth.

I never met my birth father; my birth mother never knew who he was. My mom was a drug addict who was forced to give me up at age three. By seven years old, I’d lived in seven different homes and been enrolled in five different schools. I got used to packing my belongings in a shoebox or a garbage bag and moving to a new foster home every few months.

At nine, I was finally adopted. My adoptive family, the Hendersons, lived in Red Bluff, California, a dusty town in Northern California with a median household income of $27,029. My new dad was a truck driver; my new mom was an assistant social worker. For the first few months, I’d have nightmares that I would have to move again, and would suddenly wake up in the middle of the night. I couldn’t believe I finally had a family.

But a year later, my adoptive parents got divorced. My adoptive father, angry at my mother for leaving him, decided to stop talking to me as a way to get back at her. 

For a year after the divorce, my friends and I would get into constant trouble. We vandalized buildings, smoked weed, got into fights. Some of these habits I’d picked up in foster homes. 

I experienced a brief reprieve from age nine to age fourteen, when my mother and her new partner created a stable home for me. But then came more family tragedies, separations, relocations, and uncertainty caused by the housing crash, which, in California, had begun in 2006. At age 16, right before my final year of high school, I moved in with my best friend and his dad.

My grades plummeted. I started experimenting with drugs, driving blackout drunk on the freeway, and forging my mom’s signature to get out of going to school. While my childhood was at the extreme end of instability, my high school friends had chaotic family lives, too. They had grown up in garden-variety broken homesraised by single parents or grandparents, with multiple stepfamilies. Some had even less supervision at home than I did.

 But during my senior year, a male history teacher, an Air Force veteran, encouraged me to enlist. He knew my grades were awfulI graduated in the bottom third of my high school class, with a 2.2 GPAbut saw something in me, potential that I hadn’t yet discovered or maybe didn’t even want to. I enlisted out of desperation at 17.

After graduation, four of my closest friends enrolled in community college. They all failed out. One moved to another city and wound up in prison. Another got a job working at Walmart. Recently, he told me he’d been fired.

My life turned out differently. After being discharged, I attended Yale on the G.I. Bill. I graduated and then landed at Cambridge, where I’m getting my Ph.D. in Social Psychology. I suspect I’m the only person here who was living out of garbage bags at age seven and smoking weed at nine. 

The author (center) in second grade, just before being adopted.

There’s one story that’s neat and clean and politically convenient to tell about my life. It goes like this: Poverty is the root cause of my problems (and those of my friends). With enough financial aid, and a good test score, anything is possible. Including Yale. Or Cambridge.

But the data tells quite a different story. Poverty, even extreme poverty, is surmountable. What is nearly impossible to overcome is the instabilitythe psychological havoccreated by broken homes. Especially for boys.

Research in psychology and economics shows that childhood instability has much a stronger effect than parental socioeconomic status for a variety of important outcomes, including education. This is clear when we compare children living in poverty with children living in foster care. In the Los Angeles County foster care system (where I grew up), for example, only 64.5% of foster kids graduate from high school. But the graduation rate for students categorized as “socioeconomically disadvantaged” is 86.6%, the same as the overall average in L.A.

What about college? In the U.S.,11% of kids from families in the bottom income quintile obtain bachelor’s degrees, compared with only 3% of children who have been in foster care. In other words, a poor kid in the U.S. is nearly four times more likely to graduate from college than a foster kid.  

Relatedly, while childhood instability is associated with riskier and more harmful behaviors in adulthood, childhood poverty is not. A 2016 study led by psychologist Jenalee Doom at the University of Minnesota Institute of Child Development found that rich kids in unstable homes are far likelier to abuse drugs than poor kids in stable homes. And instability appears to have a stronger effect on the personalities of boys than girls. The psychologist Peter K. Jonason and his colleagues found that, among men but not women, childhood instability was associated with higher scores on the Dark Triad—a constellation of personality traits associated with aggression, short-term thinking, and disregard for others. By contrast, childhood socioeconomic status had no effect on these traits.

The effects of instability are especially striking when it comes to gender. Harvard economist Raj Chetty—in a 2016 paper that focused on boys and girls born between 1980 and 1982 in the same, disadvantaged neighborhoods—discovered that, by the time they turned 30, the women had better economic and educational outcomes than the men.  Moreover, while the gender gap in college attendance exists across the socioeconomic ladder, it is widest among the poor. In other words, among kids raised in rich families, girls are slightly more likely to attend college. But among children raised in poor families, girls are much more likely to attend college.

The employment pattern is reversed for children raised in intact families. Among children raised by poor, married parents, boys are slightly less likely than girls to grow up to be unemployed. In other words: Single parenthood appears to be especially detrimental for boys, while having married parents is particularly advantageous. 

These findings are consistent with research led by University of Chicago economist Marianne Bertrand, who also found that, while all children suffer in broken families, boys really suffer. Bertrand’s study observed that boys raised by single parents are twice as likely to be suspended from school as a result of disruptive behavior than girls in the same circumstances—and that the gender gap narrowed considerably when kids grow up in intact families. “All other family structures appear detrimental to boys,” the study notes.

Why does all of this research matter? Because the conversation about why boys and men are falling behind is full of inaccuracies, comforting lies and convenient myths that paper over differences between boys and girls and avoid the inescapable reality that a solid, two-parent home is critical for a child’s future. There is simply no shortcut.

The Wall Street Journal article suggests that the reason young men aren’t attending college is they are disenchanted, aimless, adrift. But there is a key sentence that suggests something else is going on: “Many young men are hobbled by a lack of guidance.”

If a young man wants to succeed but is unable to impose the required discipline on himself, then it must be imposed from elsewhere. A 2015 study led by psychologist Angela Duckworth at the University of Pennsylvania found that boys and girls do not differ in their level of motivation to do well in school. It’s just that  girls are more likely to have the discipline to get it done.

Three years ago, as I was preparing to depart for England to start graduate school, my adoptive mother gave me a file containing reports from judges, social workers, doctors, teachers, and psychologists from when I was a foster kid. This thick manila envelope was a memento of all the sterile interactions I’d had with the endless stream of adults in the system. 

The adults that stepped into the breach, including my adoptive mother and her partner, saved me more than any scholarship. And if I am honest, the teachers who had the most positive effect on me were usually men. Perhaps, after being shunned by both my biological father and my adoptive father, some part of me was seeking a male role model—though, at the time, I never would have understood or admitted this.

The ongoing discussion about the gender gap in education is misguided. The effects of childhood instability suggest that, if we focus on promoting stable and secure homes for children, then more children, including boys, will flourish. Still, the fixation on college is a distraction from what really matters.

As I reflect on my education, I understand that I am an anomaly. I had a turbulent childhood, but then, by virtue of my good luck and whatever grit I was able to muster, I left that behind. I grew up. I found my place in the world. But I would trade every accomplishment I’ve ever enjoyed to have never have had to witness so much grief and disrepair as a child. And if fewer kids had such experiences, more would end up going to college anyway.

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