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'To Salvage the American Dream'

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To deepen his own understanding of the underlying causes of rising high-school dropout rates and falling minority enrollments in college, Arthur Levine, president of Bradford College, recently spent time in neighborhoods of the South Bronx and Lawrence, Mass.

In schools and public-housing projects, he talked at length with young people.

In the following essay, Mr. Levine reflects on the implications of his experiences.

I just spent a term searching for the American dream.

What I found was that belief in opportunity and hope for a better future are dying for many of our children.

I first looked for the dream in the neighborhood where I grew up--in the Bronx.

My old neighborhood was a place of large, grand dreams. And for the most part, those dreams were fulfilled.

My friends and I went to college, even though in many cases our parents had not finished high school. Today, Barry and Jimmy are teachers; Debby is a nurse; Elliot staffs a federal program; Marvin and Eddie are doctors; and Steven is a Wall Street investor.

On my block, the American dream thrived. In fact, the consummation of its promise was virtually guaranteed.

The apartment building I grew up in still stands today, a little over two decades since I left to go to college. But the people who live there are different.

They are poor, no longer working-class. They are Hispanic and black, no longer white. My block is now part of the poorest Congressional district in the United States.

When I lived there in 1960, the average family income was $5,600. In 1980, the most recent year for census data, it was $4,900.

In 1960, the unemployment rate was 6 percent. In 1980, it was 38 percent: Nearly three out of five men did not work. In 1960, 85 percent of all youngsters under 18 lived with both parents. In 1980, 71 percent lived with a female head of household.

Today, only a third of the adults are high-school graduates. The dominant source of income is public assistance. A majority of those who come here to live move out of the neighborhood within five years. The rates for drug problems, teen-age pregnancy, and school dropouts are soaring.

Mounds of rubble and garbage now rise where buildings once stood. In apartment houses, basements are piled thigh-high with rubbish.

The mailboxes in my old building are pried open. As I pass through, I see a man who is passed out on the stairs between the third and fourth floors.

The residents of the neighborhood, I am told, include a 13-year-old mother of two, a 26-year-old grandmother, and a 12-year-old junkie.

But the saddest reality of my old neighborhood is the loss of the dreams. It's the same piece of real estate--the same buildings. But the hope, the promise, and the opportunity have disappeared.

Just talk to the kids. They will tell you: For them, the American dream is dead.

I also looked for the dream in the community where I live now--the Merrimack Valley in northeastern Massachusetts, an area experiencing an economic resurgence. For a week, I lived in a low-income housing project in Lawrence.

There I talked with scores of children of elementary- and junior-high-school age.

I asked them what they wanted to be when they grew up. The answers were what you would expect: teacher, secretary, policeman, fireman, carpenter. But when I asked whether they would have a chance to do these things, most either said "no'' or shrugged.

We talked about education: How far, I asked, can you imagine going in school? 10th grade was the most common answer, 12th the next. The highest aspiration for most of these children, then, was to be ahigh-school dropout.

They didn't know anyone who had been to college. In fact, the only people the children knew who had finished high school were distant relatives or acquaintances--a mother's cousin, a sibling's date.

The subject of drugs came up in most conversations; abuse is a taken-for-granted reality in the lives of these children. A 9-year-old casually revealed, "My mother's friend took too many drugs. She and her baby died.''

Only one of the kids I talked with told me he did not know where to buy drugs. And I didn't believe him.

The children of the project see a seamy side of life early. In a two-hour stroll around the neighborhood one day, I witnessed a drug bust, the rousting of a group of prostitutes, the frisking of a suspect by police. The naÃivetÀe and fancies of childhood are not part of life in this world.

Many of the children I met had been premature births; many had poor diets. A number had serious language deficiencies, and many had fallen behind grade level in school. Almost all lived in female-headed households. Some began having children while they were still children themselves. For these young people, achieving the American dream is not only unlikely; it is incomprehensible.

James Agee once wrote, "In every child who is born, no matter what the circumstances and no matter what the parents, the potentiality of the human race is born again.'' But this promise does not hold true today in the Bronx, in Lawrence, or in many neighborhoods across the nation.

I am convinced, however, that it can. To realize Agee's ideal, we must invest in our children through an early-childhood intervention program.

Such a plan would include the prenatal and postnatal care critical for children who are so frequently born prematurely, with major--but often avoidable--medical problems.

And for parents who are young and often ignorant about child care, parenting education--with an emphasis on nutrition and health--is essential.

High-quality, local day care would allow parents to work and provide support for their families.

The program would also include preschool education for 3- and 4-year-olds--a necessity for children born into families with little schooling and low proficiency in English. Without early education, these young people enter school far behind their peers and never catch up.

To break the cycle of deprivation in which each birth to young parents assures two generations of poverty, strategies for the prevention of teen-age pregnancy are required.

And drug enforcement is key. If every child in the projects knows where to buy drugs, surely police must be able to locate them as well.

This program does not now exist. But the funds for it are available: They are currently invested in welfare, rehabilitation, and prisons. As a society, we invest in broken people late in life, rather than healthy people at the beginning of life.

If we commit ourselves as a nation to a program of early intervention, we just might be able to save some of our children--and maybe even salvage the American dream. What better legacy could our generation leave?

Vol. 7, Issue 39 Extra Edition, Page 45

Published in Print: August 3, 1988, as 'To Salvage the American Dream'
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