The Making of a Teenage Service Class: Poverty and Mobility in an American City

The Making of a Teenage Service Class: Poverty and Mobility in an American City

by Ranita Ray

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In The Making of a Teenage Service Class, Ranita Ray uncovers the pernicious consequences of focusing on risk behaviors such as drug use, gangs, violence, and teen parenthood as the key to ameliorating poverty. Ray recounts the three years she spent with sixteen poor black and brown youth, documenting their struggles to balance school and work while keeping commitments to family, friends, and lovers. Hunger, homelessness, untreated illnesses, and long hours spent traveling between work, school, and home disrupted their dreams of upward mobility. While families, schools, nonprofit organizations, academics, and policy makers stress risk behaviors in their efforts to end the cycle of poverty, Ray argues that this strategy reinforces class and racial hierarchies and diverts resources that could better support marginalized youth’s efforts to reach their educational and occupational goals.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520292062
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 10/31/2017
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 300
Sales rank: 368,968
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.40(d)

About the Author

Ranita Ray is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

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The Mobility Puzzle and Irreconcilable Choices

I met Angie in the summer of 2010, when she was an eighteen-year-old high school student. A Latina, she lived in Port City Heights, a housing project located on the outskirts of Port City. Port City, a small northeastern town, has one of the highest poverty rates and lowest four-year high school graduation rates in the United States. Angie's paternal grandparents had brought her as a six-month-old from Puerto Rico to Port City. She said her grandparents took her because they thought they would be able to offer her a better life than her parents could. This happened after her parents split and her mother starting dating a man who was caught up in alcohol. Angie still lived with her grandparents when I met her. Her mother now lived in Philadelphia with Angie's five sisters. Angie's father moved in and out of her grandparents' home. Some nights he came home drunk. One night, as Angie and I sat on her old but comfortable loveseat, enjoying some chicken nuggets, her father banged on the door. Angie looked at me: "This fuckin' fat-ass nigga is scratching my door like he a fuckin' ghost! What alcohol does to people!" Sometimes when her father was drinking, he ate all the food she had made for herself and stole the money she had hidden at the bottom of one of her clothes drawers. Despite the conflicts within her family, it was a place of comfort and support for Angie.

Angie remained focused on her future. She had worked two jobs since she turned fourteen, and although she liked to spend some of her money on nail art, tattoos, and trips to Philadelphia, she saved for college, a car, and emergencies. She planned to get a college degree, find a good job, start a family, and live the middle-class American dream.

A self-described "short and thick" woman, Angie liked to dress well at all times, in colorful blouses and tights, though she did not own many clothes or accessories. Some blouses were torn hand-me-downs with missing buttons or small holes that she would keep closed with safety pins. She always ironed what she wore. Angie also styled her hair differently every day and made sure her nails always shone with artistic polish designs. Like many young people her age, Angie liked to go to parties and dress up, but claimed that it was not to attract boys.

Becoming pregnant was out of the question. Even having sex, especially with the "wrong" boys, Angie said, was dangerous. She had heard from her teachers and employers, her church, and the nonprofit organization that helped with college admission that becoming pregnant or a "gangbanger" was a sure ticket to poverty and that people "like her" were "at risk" of the same. Angie said: "Niggas in Port City only want to talk and think about their baby daddies. That's how they like it. I have my dream man, but he ain't gonna be from this ghetto-ass place." Angie felt that she was different from her peers and on her way to becoming upwardly mobile since she was not a parent or a gang member.

Angie earned average grades in high school and her plan always included higher education. She had heard over and over that she would need a college degree to move beyond the struggles her family faced. But her aspirations were irreconcilable with the reality of her unpreparedness. Still, she remained hopeful, stating, "I don't have the grades for UConn [University of Connecticut] for now, but I'm gonna start at the community college. ... I don't gotta take the SAT [Scholastic Aptitude Test], I can take the placement test and later transfer."

After she graduated from high school in 2011, Angie packed her bags and used her savings to move to Florida. Once there she was going to attend Miami Dade College and live with her aunt and two cousins. Her aunt offered her a job at the food truck she owned to help her niece pursue her dreams. Angie explained to me that the food truck was very popular in Florida because restaurants were crowded and expensive. During the cold, snowy northeastern winter, Angie would imagine a busy, warm day working on her aunt's food truck under the tropical sun. It made her giddy with anticipation.

She was unhappy about leaving her family and friends, but she wanted to be far away from her father's alcohol and drug binges and felt that her best chances for a better life lay outside of Port City. She reasoned: "You gotta work for success and it's hard, people don't wanna get outta here. Like, nigga get outta here."

I stayed over at Angie's house the night before she left for Florida. We awoke at the crack of dawn. I was sleepy after staying up until three a.m. and chatting. But Angie implored: "No, we gonna miss the flight! Get up! Get your ass ready!" We picked up coffee at McDonald's on our way to the airport, which is approximately an hour's drive from Angie's home. "I'm leaving for college!" Angie shouted to the server as he handed us our coffee through the window. So that warm summer morning I drove Angie to the airport and she was on her way to Florida.

Two weeks later, Angie called me from Florida the day she filled out her Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). She was ecstatic. However, only a few days later, Angie told me her aunt could not deliver on her promise to hire her. According to both her and her aunt, Angie then applied for over ten other jobs, but no one contacted her. A few weeks later, she called me and announced that she had reached the end of her patience and could not continue to listen to her aunt and cousins "talk about [Angie] being lazy." Not long after this phone call, Angie unhappily decided to return to Port City. The defeat and fatigue Angie felt for not making it in Florida did not last long. Soon after she returned home, Angie was surrounded with family, friends, barbeques, and the beauty of the northeastern fall. Life fell back into place. I also regularly visited Angie again, just like the old days-or, as she put it, "before the taste of Florida."

Soon after, Angie and I visited Port City Rivers Community College, and she enrolled in classes and continued to pursue her dream of a college degree. But she had already missed a few weeks of classes, and she often heard about job opportunities from friends who worked at the mall, local bakeries, and hair salons. The work hours in these prospective jobs conflicted with Angie's class times. Angie decided to withdraw for the semester and take on three jobs. She claimed it was an easy decision because she had already missed a few weeks of the semester, was recovering from moving back home, and, most importantly, needed to focus on work to make up for all the money she had spent trying to attend college in Florida. That semester flew by quickly for Angie between her three jobs, what she called "friendship dramas," and family gatherings.

The following semester, Angie seemed to be on top of her life. She reenrolled at the community college right on time, and was determined to acquire a driver's license so that she could get more easily to two jobs that she needed, if not three, while attending classes. But given her lack of funds, Angie found it difficult to gather the money necessary to complete the mandatory eight-hour driving course. In addition, both she and her friends and family who had offered to teach her to drive or let her use their car lacked time for driving practice.

Angie did have some success that semester: she passed her remedial college classes. Although drained by fatigue, she was euphoric: "Success makes you tired, but I'd rather be this kind of tired." Angie's third semester in college also looked promising. She enrolled in her first introductory college-level courses and went over the textbook for Introduction to Sociology during the summer (I had given her a copy) while working three jobs. She persuaded her uncle to teach her to drive that summer, completed the mandatory course, and bought a used car. However, halfway through the semester, Angie's car broke down.

While she tried to manage work and school by asking for rides or using public transportation, everyday exhaustion began to add up. Angie's routine consisted of standing on her feet at work, then attending classes that required substantial in-class assignments and homework. After class, she often tried to go back to work when her employer gave her hours, but bus rides to work were unreliable; promises of rides from friends were often broken. Eventually, Angie accepted that she had to choose between continuing her classes and keeping her jobs: without convenient transportation she couldn't have both. She chose to keep the jobs. This decision did not seem life-changing to her; the manager of the bakery where she worked often mentioned that Angie had a knack for the "food industry" and should attend Cordon Bleu, a well-known culinary school. This seemed like the "smarter" option to Angie given the struggles of attending community college while working, and the fact that a college degree seemed a very distant reality. She announced that she would drop her classes, save up money, and devote all of her energy to her plan to attend Cordon Bleu the following year.

That did not happen. And although Angie eventually decided to go back to the local community college, often enrolling in nutrition classes, she usually dropped the classes soon thereafter, overburdened as she was with school and work and lacking sustained academic support at the community college. She imagined that her work at the local bakery would complement her nutrition classes at community college and ultimately afford her the opportunity to climb up the ladder in the "food industry." Sometime in the summer of 2013, when her grandparents suggested that she forget about college and work at an elderly care center with steady hours and pay above the minimum wage, Angie rebuffed their suggestion: "Ima do it [attend college] again 'cause I done it before. ... I left Port City to make it on my own. ... None of these niggas in my family ever done it [enrolled in college]. I am wiping no old people's butt." Moving back and forth between college classes and work was new to Angie and her family: no one in the family had graduated from high school before. For the same reason, however, it also seemed like Angie was upwardly mobile, breaking the cycle of oppression in which her family was stuck.

Angie acquired a variety of resources through several organizations and institutions such as school, family, church, and local nonprofits that allowed her to enroll and continue at community college and participate in the low-wage labor market. Within these institutions and organizations Angie also learned that is was imperative to avoid early parenthood, drugs, gangs, and violence in order to become socially mobile. However, although support for specific goals was available, the mobility puzzle Angie confronted was intricate. Angie faced irreconcilable choices as she attempted to solve this mobility puzzle. She needed a job to continue college, yet work conflicted with school. Her family gave her support and comfort, but her father also created obstacles for her. While abstaining from "risk behaviors" such as drugs, pregnancy, and gangs and attending community college made it easy for Angie to identify as socially mobile compared to many of her peers, the community's preoccupation with preventing risk behaviors often overshadowed the goals of providing educational and occupational opportunities. The promise of a college degree and a whitecollar job did not look viable despite Angie's investment toward achieving them.

This book focuses on the lives of marginalized youth like Angie-a group not captured in academic debates on urban poverty, which foreground drugs, gangs, violence, and early parenthood-who continuously seek to become upwardly mobile. Like Angie, the majority of economically marginalized black and Latina/o youth coming of age in the contemporary United States aspire to earn a college degree and well-paying white-collar job. However, racialized poverty deeply impacts the possibilities of educational success and work opportunities. Children growing up in marginalized households and neighborhoods attend resource-poor schools, while their parents and guardians work long hours at low-paying jobs and struggle to put food on the table and access healthcare. As sociologist Annette Lareau (2003) illustrates, class positions influence life chances starting at an early age. Middle-class parents engage in the "concerted cultivation" of their children. They expose their children to a variety of experiences that develop cultural capital essential to navigating social institutions later in life. They also use elaborate language that fosters reasoning skills, and parents convey a sense of entitlement among their children. By contrast, poor and working-class families that are constrained by their economic position engage in what Lareau calls the "natural growth" of their children. They struggle to provide their children with the basic necessities such as food, clothing, and housing, but allow them to organize their own days and engage in unsupervised leisure activities. Working-class and poor parents also teach children to navigate institutions with a sense of constraint and deference to authority. While neither approach is inherently more valuable, concerted cultivation provides middleclass children with comparative advantages to succeed in school and the labor market, which replicates and rewards middle-class cultural capital.

Marginalized children begin their journey toward college and good jobs at a disadvantage. Yet, as they move into adolescence, like Angie, they begin to learn from their parents, siblings, peers, neighbors, teachers, politicians, nonprofits, and media that they can act on these circumstances to overcome them. Specifically, they learn that they are "at risk" of becoming teen parents, drugs users, and violent gang members who reject academic goals and work ethics. Youth learn that if they work hard in school, cultivate a strong work ethic, earn a college degree, and avoid early pregnancy, drugs, gangs, and violence-that is, if they play by the "mobility rules" and avoid risk behaviors-then they can become upwardly mobile. This at-risk discourse now informs how government agencies, schools, and community organizations orient their efforts to target poverty.

By avoiding early parenthood, drugs, gangs, and violence, enrolling in college, and joining the labor market, marginalized youth like Angie often make what seem like concrete gains when compared to some of their peers. Angie enrolled in college, stayed out of prison, and did not have parental responsibilities. In fact, another youth in my study, Sandra, was even invited to interview with a Harvard alumna. Yet, youth who follow the mobility rules nonetheless often end up as low-wage service workers. The institutions and organizations that youth navigate in their everyday lives act in conflicting ways. They support youth, but simultaneously create impediments.

In the realm of family, which is the subject of chapter 3, some youth create elaborate exchange systems that facilitate their survival and mobility. However, the nature of the exchange between family members is often obligatory, constant, and sometimes one-sided, which may become burdensome and exhausting. This type of a relationship can uncomfortably blur the line between an exchange and unconditional relationships and further constrain youth's opportunities.

Their romances generate support, but are tenuous and emotionally draining under the constraints of poverty as youth often struggle to balance school, work, and relationships. Dominant risk narratives about black and brown youth's sexuality, which construct all women as potential teen mothers and welfare dependents and all men as sexual predators, impact the ways in which youth engage in intimate romantic and sexual ties. The young people often police their own bodies and the bodies of their friends and sisters within heterosexual romantic ties to prevent early parenthood. The young women use their romantic and sexual relationships to construct their own identities as socially mobile, morally superior, and without children, and in the process, they both stigmatize, and distance themselves from, their peers who are teen parents. This creates rifts in their community. I explore romance in chapter 4.


Excerpted from "The Making of a Teenage Service Class"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Ranita Ray.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


1. The Mobility Puzzle and Irreconcilable Choices
2. Port City Rising from the Ashes
3. Sibling Ties
4. Risky Love
5. Saved by College
6. The Making of a Teenage Service Class
7. Internalizing Uncertainty: Bad Genes, Hunger, and Homelessness
8. Uncertain Success
9. Dismantling the “At Risk” Discourse


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