In The Road to Whatever: Middle-Class Culture and the Crisis of Adolescence, Elliot Currie diagnoses a growing crisis of youth in the American mainstream. Statistically and anecdotally, it seems that alienation, desperation, and violence have slowly crept into the one demographic that has always appeared safe. Currie argues that zero-tolerance policies, pressure to succeed, and lack of social services has exacerbated this crisis. In the decade since publication, however, the U.S. has seen a marked decrease in teen pregnancy, drug use (including alcohol and tobacco), and violence.
Anecdotal evidence is not enough to indicate a trend, let alone a crisis, but according to Currie, white youth are at measurably high levels of risk for suicide, traffic accidents, drug abuse, and binge drinking compared to youth in other racial and ethnic categories. “It is increasingly clear that being middle class and white does not provide reliable protection against even the worst perils of adolescence,” he argues. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), however, homicide rates among African-American males 10-24 years of age far exceed those of white males in the same age group (51.5 vs 2.9 per 100,000 in 2010).
Currie argues that denial, incomprehension, or demonization has characterized our response to this crisis. As evidenced by the media’s handling of the Columbine shootings, at-risk suburban youth are portrayed as “other-than”—somehow fundamentally different and separate from their peers. Parents, politicians, and pundits often blame factors like the erosion of discipline, growing leniency and indulgence, and weakened authority of parents and schools for this violence.
That blame is misplaced, according to Currie, because rather than being more lenient, schools and courts have become much harsher and less forgiving of youthful indiscretions. Zero-tolerance policies have criminalized even acts as simple as carrying Advil in school. Instead, he argues that a “sink or swim” attitude toward youth, and a lack of “reliable social supports” such as family allowances, universal healthcare, and paid parental leaves from work, are to blame.
Currie’s conclusion fails to hold up under scrutiny. If lack of a government support system is to blame, for instance, why would these problems be more prevalent today than in the past, when there were fewer social services? Furthermore, why is this crisis afflicting white middle class youth, who have typically been in less need of those services than other demographics? Also, The Road to Whatever lacks an explanation for high profile acts of school violence in other industrialized nations, such as Germany and Finland, that possess such public support services.
Sociologists like Elliot Currie tend to exaggerate social problems in order to influence the public to adopt their reforms. As mentioned earlier, teen pregnancy rates and drug use among all demographics are on the decline (teen pregnancy in the U.S. is at historic lows). Dewey Cornell, a clinical psychologist and education professor at the University of Virginia, told NPR that despite high profile acts of school violence, school is actually the safest place for students to be. “I know on the heels of any school shooting, there’s the perception that violence is on the rise. It’s not. In fact, there’s been a very steady downward trend for the past 15 years,” he said.
It comes as no surprise that Francis Fox Piven, coauthor of the Cloward-Piven strategy, would give this book a ringing endorsement on the back cover. Piven, a socialist and New Left activist of the 1960s, advocated overloading the U.S. welfare system in order to precipitate a crises leading to a guaranteed annual income. It’s clear that politics, rather than hard data, influenced Elliot Currie’s conclusions. This is unfortunate, because his ideological blinders weaken what could have otherwise been an interesting look at white, middle class youth in crisis.