Journal Issue: Transition to Adulthood Volume 20 Number 1 Spring 2010
Inequalities before the Transition to Adulthood
The civic skills, habits, and motivations of young adults result, in part, from the accumulation of engagement opportunities in the child and adolescent years. Long-term studies have shown that, controlling for background factors, both students' engagement in extracurricular activities in high school and their feelings of social connectedness to community institutions predict voting and other forms of civic engagement in young adulthood.21 Social incorporation into the body politic begins in the formative years through the opportunities that children and teens have as members of local organizations, exercising the rights and assuming the responsibilities associated with membership. In short, becoming a stakeholder in one's society develops through the accumulated opportunities to be involved in groups that build civic identities and skills.
Social class disparities in civic participation that begin in the pre-adult years are exacerbated by unequal opportunities for gaining civic practice. Schools with more privileged student bodies, for example, provide more and better opportunities. Civic opportunity disparities also exist within schools; a student's race or family background makes it more or less likely that he will engage in civically relevant activities such as studying the Constitution and engaging in mock trials or in community voluntary service.22 Besides disparities in opportunities between and within schools, providing civic practice for children growing up in disadvantaged communities offers numerous challenges. For example, many volunteering and civic engagement opportunities take place in the context of community-based youth organizations. Those groups rely on adult volunteers to carry out programming, making it difficult for some low-income communities with very high ratios of children to adults to muster enough adult volunteers.23
Two specific events during a young person's life are associated with reduced rates of adult civic engagement: dropping out of high school and being arrested. Long-term studies following eighth graders into early adulthood show that, controlling for the effects of growing up in disadvantaged families and neighborhoods, dropping out of high school decreases voting turnout by 19 percent for whites, 11 percent for blacks, and 10 percent for Hispanics. Youths' reports of being arrested in the tenth or twelfth grade reduced voter turnout by 7 percent for whites and 21 percent for blacks.24
A felony conviction is a profound barrier to civic engagement. Current prisoners or former felons (or both) are forbidden to vote in forty-eight states, to hold public office in forty states, and to serve on juries in forty-seven states. Some five million citizens—mostly poor people and people of color—… are currently locked out of the democratic process. 25 Not all of the five million are young adults, but felons and former felons are predominantly young, male, poor, and unsuccessful in school. Although the argument for not allowing felons who are in prison to vote is clear, the rationale for continuing to disenfranchise former felons who have served their time and paid their debt to society and who are now attempting to reintegrate into community life raises more difficult questions for society. Christopher Uggen and Sara Wakefield found that former felons viewed disenfranchisement as a clear indicator that they were unwanted or unaccepted as full citizens in their communities—a message that may inhibit the assumption of other adult roles and undermine the reintegrative goal of encouraging offenders to empathize with or identify with other citizens. 26