Locked Out and Locked Up: Youth Missing in Action From Obama's Stimulus Plan
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Already imperiled before the recent economic meltdown, the quality of life for many young people appears even more fragile in the United States in this time of political, economic and social crisis. A great deal has been written critically about both the conditions that enabled the free market to operate without accountability in the interests of the rich and how it has produced a theater of cruelty that has created enormous suffering for millions of hard-working, decent human beings. Yet, at the same time, there is a thunderous silence on the part of many critics and academics regarding the ongoing insecurity and injustice experienced by young people in this country, which is now being intensified as a result of the state's increasing resort to repression and punitive social policies. The current concerns about the effects of poverty, homelessness, economic injustice and galloping unemployment rates and Obama's plans to rectify them almost completely ignore the effects of these problems on young people in the United States, especially poor whites and youth of color.
Increasingly, children seem to have no standing in the public sphere as citizens and as such are denied any sense of entitlement and agency. Children have fewer rights than almost any other group, and fewer institutions protecting these rights. Consequently, their voices and needs are almost completely absent from the debates, policies and legislative practices that are constructed in terms of their needs. This is not to suggest that adults do not care about youth, but most of those concerns are framed within the realm of the private sphere of the family and can be seen most clearly in the moral panics mobilized around drugs, truancy and kids killing each other. The response to such events, tellingly, is more "get tough on crime policy," never an analysis of the systemic failure to provide safety and security for children through improved social provisions. In public life, however, children seem absent from any discourse about the future and the responsibilities this implies for adult society. Rather, children appear as objects, defined through the debasing language of advertising and consumerism. If not being represented as a symbol of fashion or hailed as a hot niche, youth are often portrayed as a problem, a danger to adult society or, even worse, irrelevant to the future.
This merging of the neoliberal state in which kids appear as commodities or a source of profits and the punishing state, which harkens back to the old days of racial apartheid in its ongoing race to incarcerate, was made quite visible in a recent shocking account of two judges in Pennsylvania who took bribes as part of a scheme to fill up privately run juvenile detention centers with as many youths as possible, regardless of how minor the infraction they committed. One victim, Hillary Transue, appeared before one of the "kickback" judges for "building a spoof MySpace page mocking the assistant principal at her high school."A top student who had never been in trouble, she anticipated a stern lecture from the judge for her impropriety. Instead, he sentenced her "to three months at a juvenile detention center on a charge of harassment." It has been estimated that the two judges, Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. and Michael T. Conahan, "made more than $2.6 million in kickbacks to send teenagers to two privately run youth detention centers" and that over 5,000 juveniles have gone to jail since the "scheme started in 2003. Many of them were first-time offenders and some remain in detention." While this incident received some mainstream news coverage, most of the response focused less on the suffering endured by the young victims than on the breach of professional ethics by the two judges. None of the coverage treated the incident as either symptomatic of the war being waged against youth marginalized by class and race or as an issue that the Obama administration should give priority to in reversing. In fact, just as there was almost no public outcry over a market-driven scheme to incarcerate youth to fill the pockets of corrupt judges, there was very little public anger over the millions slashed from the stimulus bill that would have directly benefited kids by investing in schools, Head Start and other youth-oriented programs. It seems that the real failure of post-partisan politics is its willingness to sacrifice young people in the interests of winning political votes.