April 26, 2000
The Scapegoat Generation: America's War on Adolescents (by Mike Males, Common Courage Press, 1996, 319 pp, $17.95 retail):PUTTING GROWNUPS FIRSTIn 1936, President Franklin Roosevelt urged 5,000 teenagers crowding the Baltimore armory to marshal their idealism to rescue the nation from an economic crisis brought on by cynical adults -- a challenge backed by multi-billion-dollar youth education and jobs initiatives his New Deal wagered fully one-fourth of a strapped Depression-era budget to fund. In 1994, President Clinton, soon to commit himself to a "welfare reform' bill to add 1 million children to poverty as the nation's older adults basked in record affluence, told an MTV audience that youths must change their ways to quit causing trouble for grownups....It is a time of national detachment, in which Americans over age 40 or so are rich and becoming steadily more so, those younger are going in the opposite direction... As generational seams strain and split, a powerful, though unspoken, philosophy guides 1990s debates over welfare reform and social policies: The less money spent on children and teens, the more for adults who count. The foremost task our politicians and agencies have dedicated themselves to is demonstrating that today's kids, whose poor are mostly nonwhite, are so beyond hope, so unlike us, that they deserve punishment.The Clinton administration was inaugurated in January 1993 promising to "put children first." ...It took the new administration but a few months to decide there was no percentage in '90s America for "putting children first" -- except rhetorically... Increasingly, Clinton's health and welfare policy has consisted of blaming teenagers for nearly all major social ills: Poverty, welfare dependence, crime, gun violence, suicide, sexual promiscuity, unwed motherhood, AIDS, school failure, broken families, child abuse, drug abuse, drunken driving, smoking, and the breakdown of "family values," the latest count as of this writing.Republicans eagerly trumped Clinton's anti-youth measures. The 103rd and 104th Congresses became a veritable orgy of politicians representing adult generations lambasting the teenagers they raised. A ludicrous spectacle -- except that it is deadly serious... today's adult attack on adolescents is angry and punishing.In the past quarter century, American elders ("elders" signifying senior citizens and middle-agers generally over age 40) have made monumental progress in feathering our own aging nests. Note the present situation, even before the punishing attack on young family assistance promised by both parties as "welfare reform:"-- U.S. adults over age 40 are richer than adults in any nation on earth, other than enclaves such as Switzerland and Kuwait. We enjoy the highest real incomes and lowest poverty rates of any in U.S. history.-- U.S. adults enjoy the lightest tax burden of any developed nation, lower by far than any nation in the Organization for Economic Cooperation for Development. In 1990, U.S. tax revenue was 30% of our gross domestic product, compared to over 40% among similarly situated Western nations.-- The U.S. has the highest rate of children and adolescents living in families with incomes below poverty guidelines ($11,522 per year for a family of three in 1993) in the industrial world, the result of spending fewer public resources on children than any other industrial nation.-- In the last 20 years, U.S. child and youth poverty rose by 60%. In contrast, poverty among over-40 adults declined.-- Youths are by far our poorest age group; one in four is impoverished, twice the rate among grownups.A 1995 National Science Foundation-funded study by the Luxembourg Institute reported... America's child poverty rate is 50% higher than those of fellow frontier cultures, Australia and Canada, and two to eight times higher than those of Europe. We rank third from the bottom in percent of our wealth spent on education, topping only impoverished Ireland and non-secular Israel....In allocating the $1.5 trillion federal budget, the representatives of grownup America insist that the 40% spent on public assistance for non-poor Americans ($612 billion in 1994), 25% spent on public assistance for the elderly ($400 billion), 20% spent funding the military ($280 billion), and 5% (by estimate of the conservative Cato Institute and the liberal Progressive Policy Institute, or $50 billion to $80 billion) donated in direct corporate subsidies are about right -- but 7% spent for children and young families (about $100 billion) is bankrupting profligacy.THE AGE-RACE CONNECTIONWhere race, ethnicity, and gender were central to past social conflicts, today young age has become the mediating factor... President Clinton, California Governor Pete Wilson, House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and the media berate teenage mothers as welfare chiselers and cite "15 year-olds with guns" as the major threat to the social fabric. In practical '90s-speak, this means the behavior of nonwhites causes poverty, violence, and social costs... Whether one blames poverty on government or business or social or personal irresponsibility, no one (yet, anyway) blames 13 year-olds for their own impoverished conditions. Yet these conditions are crucial. A recent two-year Alan Guttmacher Institute study found six out of seven teenage mothers of all races were poor before they became pregnant. The correlation between childhood poverty and later teenage childbearing is so strong that during the 1960-1993 period, the teen birth rate could be calculated with 90% accuracy from the previous decade's child poverty rate.Poverty also predicts the teen homicide and violent crime levels denounced in outraged bafflement by politicians before cameras and press. In an atmosphere of declining social support, youth raised in poverty -- 47% of black, 40% of Hispanic, and 17% of white youth in 1992 -- without access to inherited wealth will be consigned to lifelong poverty. To a staggering extent, young age is like nonwhite race.Regardless of race, grownups are only half as likely to be poor as their respective young. The rising poverty of the young is a doubly dangerous development because today, it is not always shared with adults. Thus modern adults find it ever-easier to blame adolescents for the consequences of the poverty adults profit from by imposing on them.GETTING AN EDUCATIONA bitter historical irony, not taught in schools, is that much of the wealth and middle- class stability among today's don't-tax-me homeowners is due to generous tax-funded welfare subsidies and government-enforced minimum wage boosts of the past... The GI Bill, the War on Poverty, and subsidized education, business loans, home mortgages, expanded Social Security and Medicare, and other social investments paid for by past American elders were crucial to boosting 10 million young families and 4 million aged out of poverty in the 1950s and '60s....Robert McNamara's memoir In Retrospect recalls $52 in annual tuition at the University of California in 1937. In 1965, a year of university education cost California Baby Boomers $219, one-twentieth of that era's per-capita income...No more. In 1995, tuition for a year at the University of California reached $5,100, one- fourth of today's per-capita income, amid $342 million in budget cuts and the loss of 2,000 professors and 200,000 students from the system from 1991 to 1994. A gloomy analysis of California higher education concluded: "As bad as things are now... the already fierce battle over who will attend the state's best schools can only get worse. And the battle increasingly will be fought along racial and ethnic lines."YOUTH AS COMMODITYIn the United States in the 1990s, the attrition is hidden behind ringing bipartisan odes to "personal responsibility," "tough love," "fiscal conservatism," and "caring for children." Its practical policy consists of systematically eviscerating every social system, from aid to impoverished children to public schools and universities to employment opportunity to the most basic of constitutional rights on which the future of the young depends... The anti-youth bias of the Reagan and Bush years has now, in the Clinton presidency, erupted into an ephebiphobia that indulges distortions with regularity.DISTORTING "TEENAGE PREGNANCY"In his 1994 State of the Union address, Clinton incredulously ("Can you believe...?") painted the unwed teenage mother as a conniving welfare leech and demanded that her errant ways be punished by welfare cutoff and forced return to loving mom and dad... Clinton and his Children's Defense Fund aides are well aware of the research showing large majorities of teen mothers suffered violent sexual and physical abuses at home, that fewer than 5% of under-18 mothers live in homes where no adults are present, that most "sexually active" girls under age 15 were initiated into sex by rape by older males (often of the adult ages with whom Clinton joked about his own premarital El Camino truck-beddings), and that higher welfare payments are correlated with lower, not higher, rates of teen births...Not even the AIDS menace has spurred honest discussion among officials... While officials blame the spread of AIDS on young peoples' risky behaviors, their agencies' harsh statistics show it is overwhelmingly rooted in conditions of poverty, disadvantage, and social victimization. A black woman is 17 times more likely to contract AIDS than a white woman; Latino 50 year-olds are more likely to be infected that white teenagers.DISTORTING "YOUTH VIOLENCE...The orgy of adult outrage, shock, and self-righteous bafflement at juvenile violence is industrial phony. Youth violence is a straight-line result of the high and rising rates of poverty imposed on the young, a disastrous trend national and state poverty policies have caused and exacerbated.The poverty-violence link is not a new one. Dear-Abby myths of 1930s pastoral Americana aside, the same rising mayhem took place among our grandparents in the Great Depression. The U.S. murder eruption of 1930-34 was not eclipsed until the 1990s....While Clinton officials and Congress have repeatedly declaimed on "teenage violence," not one "urgent" press conference has been called to deplore the 2,000 fatalities and 330,000 substantiated sexual abuses and serious physical injuries inflicted on children and youths by parents and other caretakers averaging 31 years of age. No official "wake-up calls" greeted a 1994 Bureau of Justice report showing youths are six times more likely to be murdered by parents than the other way around.DISTORTING TEENAGE DRUG USEThe administration's increasing prevarication about teenagers escalated in late 1994 with a renewed "just say no" assault on an imaginary "epidemic" of teen drug abuse. "Urgent" press conferences in December 1994 and June 1995 featured [U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Donna] Shalala, Education Secretary Richard Riley, and a host of Ph.D. consultants parading druggie t-shirts and reciting rock and rap lyrics to bewail what turned out to be a 3-percentage-point increase in occasional teenage patronage of mild hallucinogens.... The image of cannabiphobic officials who owe their jobs to admitted former marijuana non-inhaler Clinton and former inhaler Vice President Gore would have been comic were it not for a tragic backdrop. Unmentioned federal health reports showed skyrocketing rates of cocaine, heroin, and pharmaceutical deaths among adults, reaching a record 13,000 fatalities in 1994.Coroners' reports from 140 urban areas for 20,000 drugs cited in 8,500 drug overdoses, suicides, and drug-related accidents (i.e., traffic crashes) in 1993 showed only 1.1%, involved children and teens... The adult drug death rate is nearly ten times higher than that of adolescents... Out of 215,448 emergency treatments for abuse of heroin, cocaine, and marijuana in 1993, 6,158 (2.9%) involved children and adolescents.Not that youths were immune to narcotic mishap. The drug found in the most teenage emergency room victims -- four times more than the total involving cocaine, heroin, or marijuana -- was aspirin and aspirin substitutes....The official and press imbalance contributes to that of the criminal justice system, further highlighting the drug war's race-age biases. A black teenager is only one-fifth as likely to die from drugs, but is 10 times more likely to be arrested for drugs, than a white adult....Though constant whipping decoys for officials and the media, the evidence points to a startling conclusion: Teenagers have not been a significant part of the nation's drug death or injury problem in nearly 20 years. Yet the mid-1980s War on Drugs and "just say no" campaigns can't claim credit for the remarkable 80% teenage drug death decline since 1970, since all of it occurred prior to 1983. Hysterical press splashes regarding the minuscule problems caused by adolescents with marijuana betray an administration more interested in manipulating a compliant press over an emotional non-issue than in facing the implications of fifteen years of failed policy.FABRICATING THE "YOUTH CRISIS"Anti-youth hysteria was becoming profitable. In 1985 testimony to Congress, the National Association of Private Psychiatric Hospitals exaggerated the number of teenage suicides by 300% and portrayed self-destruction as a typical event among youth. Hospital ads included scenes of teenagers putting guns to their heads and parents visiting graveyards.In fact, diagnoses of serious mental illnesses among adolescents showed no increase. Fewer than one in 10,000 teens commits suicide in any given year, the lowest rate of any age group except children. "There is no great reason to believe that adolescents have more serious problems today than they once did," Brian Wilcox, who headed a 1987 American Psychological Association task force, concluded. But, the Task Force report noted, the medical industry was converting vastly overbuilt, economically disastrous private hospitals into profitable adolescent psychiatric units. "There were an awful lot of empty beds out there before they started pushing for teenagers," Wilcox said....The unwillingness of American institutions to face the serious impacts of poverty, abuse, and adult behaviors on teenagers has crippled realistic policies... Defense of traditional programmatic interests, ones which (in a misplaced medical model) strive to "treat" problems rather than prevent them, remains a major barrier to developing realistic measures... The "youth crisis," a fabricated cliche of self-interested groups in 1983, has become the genuine article under professional management in the 1990s.THE ADOLESCENT SCAPEGOATThe lazy, profligate, hypersexed "teenage mother" is a direct descendent of the black "welfare queen." "Youth violence" has its ancestry in the savagery of "Negro violence." "Teen suicide" and reckless teenage driving derives from the same impulsiveness once attributed to the hot-blooded minority. Etc.The popular social-science and media explanation, undressed of its academic nomenclature, for why teenagers act as they do is simple: Because they're stupid. They kill because Metallica puts the word on an album cover. They have sex because Madonna flaunts it. They smoke because a cartoon camel tells them to. The slash their wrists because a band calls itself "Suicidal Tendencies." They take drugs because of caps and t-shirts sporting marijuana leaves....Psychologist Daniel Offer and colleagues studied 30,000 teenagers and adults over 30 years, reaching conclusions that do not win talk-circuit billing or provide sensational media copy. They found 85% to 90% of teens held the same attitudes and risk perceptions as their parents, were not alienated, think about the future and work, were coping well with their lives, and did not display psychological disturbances... Whether compared by state, era, or race, or combinations of the three, the mathematical correlations between rates of (and trends in) teenage and adult sexual, death, crime, and other behaviors typically display near one-to-one correspondence. In plain English, they act just like us.DETACHED SENIORS AND GRABBY BOOMERSSince 1990, the average beneficiary of Social Security, age 70, has enjoyed a healthy monthly payment increase (from $603 in 1990 to $674 in 1994). But the average AFDC recipient, age nine, has suffered a loss in their already minuscule monthly benefit ($135 in 1990, $133 in 1994). It is time for liberal senior welfare-advocates to pay attention. This imbalance is extreme....The problem is not caused by senior welfare per se, which (if made progressive) would be a model for family assistance programs. The problem is that today's seniors are not responding to the unprecedented security they are provided at public expense with a like attitude of beneficence toward the young and poor, but with hostility and contempt....About one-third of California's seniors (demographic patterns ironically indicate that it is the poorer one-third) continue to vote to expand education and support assistance for young families... Their age peers need to be forcefully reminded that their welfare depends in a direct sense not on how stridently they can pressure politicians with their voting strength, but how well the younger generation which funds their retirements is doing in school and the job market.Baby Boomers, my generation, the most massively subsidized age group in American history, is shaping up to be even worse... Unlike the anachronism of elder views, today's Baby Boom self-fixation represents state-of-the-art hypocrisy... The upwardly mobile adults able, for the first time, to shuck individual responsibilities to family and offspring also comprise an adult public willing to use government to horde our own generational interests against those of the young... In ugly truth, Baby Boomers will be the first generation heavily subsidized by both its parents and its children... many over-40 Americans expect today's already impoverished, de-funded, and forcibly-indebted young to bankroll the huge Social Security and other elder maintenance payments demanded by our retiring 60 millions early in the next century.GENERATION YToday's elders, looking down from the hilltops and suburbs at the dark faces in city schoolyards, do not see ourselves reflected in today's young... What is transpiring today is new and ominous. A particular danger attends older generations indulging "they-deserve-it" myths to justify enriching ourselves at the expense of younger ones...Adolescents and young adults do not organize constituencies effective in adult political arenas (the failures of Clean Gene anti-war brigades in 1968 are fresh; the suppression of 1936's radical youth lingers). If not provided for, they detach from adults as they perceive their elders have dissociated from them. The growth of gangs, runaway cultures, and shadow urban enterprises among the rising numbers of marginal youth... testifies to detachment. Its manifestation fuels the Golden State's biggest growth industry... a new prison every eight months, full upon opening.After 20 years of official declarations, professional pronouncements, psychological speculations, and media hyperbole regarding "teenage violence wild in the streets," California's sophisticated statistical harbingers boil down to a primitive and unoriginal point: Deny lots of kids a fair share of society's resources, expect lots of violence. Save money on schools, spend more on prisons. Erase the future of the young, they will return the favor by erasing our legacy. "The old get old, the young get stronger," Jim Morrison foretold in 1968. A "generation war," pathetically easy for the old to declare, is impossible for the old to win.