Clark at the Statehouse: Experts brief legislators on ‘Youth at Risk’

Is the recession helping to create a population of young people so disillusioned by their bleak job prospects that they’ve abandoned the notion of finding meaningful work?

Has the media devoted so much attention to lurid accounts of child abuse that they are missing the real story — that child abuse has declined dramatically in the last 15 years?

How vulnerable is your child to an online predator?

These and other provocative questions were addressed by scholars at “Youth at Risk: Part 1,” the third Family Impact Seminar organized and presented by the Mosakowski Institute for Public Enterprise, on April 4 at the Massachusetts Statehouse. The seminars provide up-to-date, solution-oriented research on current issues for state legislators, their aides, and legislative support personnel, but do not lobby for any particular policies. Past seminars have dealt with the issues surrounding the recession’s effects on families, and men’s physical and mental health.

“When someone learns something from their research about how to better nurture, protect, educate and ultimately empower our young people it does little good if that knowledge only appears in journals that are only read by specialists. And that’s why we at the Mosakowski Institute are so delighted to have the opportunity to come to the Statehouse and make these presentations to you,” said Institute Director Jim Gomes in his introductory remarks.

“It may not be the magic bullet, but we have to make a big push to significantly spend on education.”

~ Prof. Ramon Borges-Mendez

The day’s speakers were introduced by Denise Hines, Ph.D., research assistant professor of psychology at Clark and director of the Family Impact Seminars.

  Ramon Borges-Mendez, Ph.D., associate professor of community development and planning at Clark, said the recession will affect people for decades — in their ability to own a home, raise children, and transfer generational wealth. But a specific crisis looms for the younger generation, who will not be getting into the labor market “on good footing” for at least a decade because of the recession’s severity. Youth unemployment rates are at their highest since 1948, he said.

What this means is that people are “circulating” in the lower echelons of the labor market.

“If you’re first a worker at McDonald’s, and then you work as a security guard, and then you work as a bartender, by the age of 29 that’s all you know,” Borges-Mendez said. Such low-level employment makes it more difficult for workers to learn skills that will improve their standing in the labor market — they, in effect, are bumped off the pathway toward long-term wealth creation and “tracked” into low-paying jobs. Borges-Mendez noted that over time discouraged workers often drop out of the work force, and are often subject to “long-term psychological vulnerabilities.”

“Being connected to a life of low-wage work is very difficult to break away from,” he said. “You not only need to think about getting people work, you need to think about how to get them out of the low-wage work they’re in. It’s a one-two punch.”

While the unemployment outlook is poor for all groups, it is worse for African Americans and Latinos, according to Borges-Mendez. He cited a national study of Latinos in which 65 percent of the sample reported having zero assets. “Remember,” he said, “you cannot just only be poor, you also will get into debt.”

Borges-Mendez noted that the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, and the highest rates are for young men of color, half of whom have not finished high school. “Education is the key,” he said.

The consequences for unemployment and underemployment among the young are substantial, he said. Depression, damage to self-esteem, and long-term health issues like obesity and hypertension previously seen mostly in adults are becoming more prevalent at an earlier age. “We’re seeing these things not just at age 45, but at 25,” he said. “Not only are we going to have a problem with unemployment and labor market detachment, we’re going to have a very expensive cohort of people who the health system is going to have to deal with in a couple of decades.”

Borges-Mendez compared the social costs of not meeting the challenge of youth unemployment to trying to restore a polluted area. “It might take five months to pollute a region, but it takes twenty-five years to clean it. If you lose three years of activation in the labor market, it takes seven years to bring it back. It’s not a single-sum game — it always takes longer to recover what you lost.”

The U.S. has a poor infrastructure to train workers, and needs to make the investments that will help workers move from short-term low-paying jobs to better paying mid-level employment, Borges-Mendez said. Industries such as health care will face critical shortages of workers because of a long-term inability to absorb young workers. Other countries, such as Australia, France and Switzerland, reward companies that hire apprentices, thereby setting them up with skills for meaningful lifelong work, he said.

In her presentation on youth victimization and well-being, Lisa M. Jones, Ph.D., research associate professor of psychology at the Crimes Against Children Research Center, University of New Hampshire, came to the seminar bearing some positive news.

Jones reported that child maltreatment and victimizations of various types, include sexual and physical abuse, juvenile homicides, drug use, and domestic violence witness by children, have been dramatically declining since 1990. Sexual abuse is down 62 percent in that time period, and physical abuse shows a 56 percent decline.

“We believe this is a real trend,” Jones said. “We’re seeing indicators of improved conditions for kids.”

One exception is child neglect, which has declined only slightly — about 10 percent — during the same time span.

By better understanding the reasons behind the declines, she said, policies can be developed to further improve youth safety and well-being.

In her report, Jones cited studies from a variety of sources, including the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System, the U.S. Department of Justice and the Centers for Disease Control.

Jones noted that media reports of horrific instances of child abuse can give the impression that things are getting worse, when in fact they aren’t. News stories, however, “grab more attention than social science statistics,” she acknowledged, and present an unbalanced view of child victimization.

She reported that according to the Youth Internet Safety Study, conducted three times from 2000 to 2010, online sexual solicitations decreased 50 percent over the decade, while unwanted exposure to pornography, following an increase from 2000 to 2005, declined from 34 percent to 23 percent. However, incidence of online harassment rose throughout the decade, with girls making up a disproportionate number of victims (69 percent, to 31 percent for boys in 2010). She speculated that the increase in harassment may be attributed to the rise in social media use among youth. Jones noted that during the same time period overall bullying declined.

Jones cited increased involvement of police and other child-advocacy groups in child protection, advances in mental health treatment, and changing norms, practices and laws that have enhanced awareness of child abuse as some reasons for the positive trend. She suggested folding the studies’ findings into existing sex education, bullying, health and computer curricula would enhance children’s base of knowledge and give the public a clearer picture of these issues.

Janis Wolak, J.D., senior researcher at the Crimes Against Children Research Center, works to separate the myths from the realities of online predators. She told the audience that most parents fear the idea of a stranger stalking their children online, tricking them into revealing personal information, and then using it to abduct and assault them.

That stereotype is largely inaccurate, she said. The reality is that predators are typically not pedophiles lurking online to prey on prepubescent children, but rather they target adolescents from troubled backgrounds, build a relationship with them over time, and usually do not hide their sexual intentions. Most often, sex offenders will target youth they know in person, and use online access to reach them. Wolak cautioned, “There is no evidence these incidents are less harmful or disturbing” than assault by a stranger.

Wolak said such things as a history of physical or sexual abuse, delinquency, depression, poor relationship with parents and a high level of indiscriminate Internet and cell phone use are greater risk factors for children or young adolescents than being naïve and inexperienced about the Internet, talking to strangers online and posting personal information.

“It’s easy to think the Internet has created new dangers for kids, but we’re finding that’s not the case,” Wolak said.

She advised parents not to panic, noting that the incidence of sexual abuse is declining and that most youths are not vulnerable to online molesters. In fact, the Internet may be making sex offenders more visible to law enforcement than in the past, she added.

Wolak supports comprehensive, candid education for adolescents, not just about online safety, but about issues like sexual victimization, especially among girls, and identifying perpetrators, most of whom are family members or face-to-face acquaintances.

~ Jim Keogh, director of news and editorial services

 A report on the "Men at Risk" Family Impact Seminar is available online.