As long ago as 1776, the economist Adam Smith made an observation that explains the rise of youth gangs. He noted that in addition to the direct cost of educating young people by supplying teachers, books, schoolhouses and so on, there is a large indirect cost also: Children must be fed, clothed and housed while they are in school and not earning a wage. For adolescents, this cost is quite large; teenagers eat a lot and take up a lot of space, and they forgo significant income by enrolling in school rather than working.
Because many poor families could not afford these expenses, Smith believed government should subsidize young people while they are in public schools. He viewed such support explicitly as a capital investment: the allocation of funds to generate future productive capacity. Today, we see the result of the lack of such subsidies in the prevalence of gangs and gang culture among low-income teens.
Most of us overlook the indirect cost of students' forgone wages, which used to be a pressing issue. When jobs could be had despite an incomplete education, school was a luxury, not a necessity.
Rising standards of living have allowed most American families to cope with basic expenses such as food, clothing and shelter, but middle-class and wealthy families, even if they use public schools, also subsidize their children's education with thousands of dollars a year worth of long-term investments that make success in school and college possible.
Middle-class parents offer allowances so their kids can go to the movies or get pizza with friends and so stay out of trouble. They pay medical and dental costs, directly or through their workplace. They arrange jobs for their children through social or business networks. They pay for summer camps, sports and music lessons. They provide all kinds of subsidies for transportation, including helping young adults afford cars of their own, driving lessons, insurance, gas and repairs. And families subsidize cell phones to keep their children safe and in touch.
Such subsidies qualify children for college and help them be successful when they get there. But they are largely unavailable to poor families. Their absence explains the growth of gangs.
Poor children and teens are often hungry and crowded in inadequate housing. They have few opportunities for art, music and organized sports. Jobs are scarce. Even when opportunities exist, public transportation to reach them is expensive, time-consuming and unreliable. Poor teens typically can't afford driving lessons, car insurance or gas. Allowances don't exist for most inner-city young people, which makes activities such as going to the movies or dating problematic. And all kinds of troubles develop from inadequate health and dental care.
That's where gangs step in. They supply a little bit of cash, a social network, some physical safety in getting from place to place, a degree of glamour and respect, and something to do. When we fail to acknowledge the lack of subsidies for their basic needs and extracurricular lives, we effectively invite young people to consider gangs as an option.
The easiest solution to this problem is to subsidize employment for adolescents. Guarantee every young person a meaningful job for some part of each week and in summers, netting roughly $3,000 a year. As numerous studies and our work with the Algebra Project in Baltimore have shown, school performance and graduation rates will improve, gang violence will decline and young people will act more positively.
Imagine, in addition, that many of these jobs involved older youths sharing their skills - in music, dance, athletics, math, writing, Web design and so on - with their younger peers. Think of these as positive gangs, fueled by talent and a little liquidity. We would quickly see a stream of younger children trying to emulate their older peers for the cash wage, if for nothing else.
Subsidizing young people's lives costs money. But if the investment makes sense for a rich family, it makes sense for poor families, too. More than 200 years after Adam Smith analyzed the economics of growing up poor in an economy dependent on education, why do we tolerate inadequate investment in the human capital of poor children?
Jay Gillen is a Baltimore public school teacher with the Algebra Project, which employs 150 city students after school teaching mathematics. His e-mail is email@example.com.