Lifting Latin American Youth out of Poverty

Human Ecology, May 2010 | Go to article overview

Lifting Latin American Youth out of Poverty


In many parts of the world, young people in poverty are running in place as they try to advance from adolescence to adulthood.

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Their parents cannot provide financial support. Higher education is reserved for the elite. If they find work at all, it pays low wages and offers dim career prospects.

In Latin America, College of Human Ecology researchers are partnering with four local organizations to understand how exemplary local programs put such youth on a more promising track. Through the action research project Opening Career Paths: Youth in Latin America, they are exploring how to build or enhance social institutions to enable impoverished youth to become productive workers, active citizens, and nurturing family members.

Members of the Cornell research team include Stephen Hamilton, professor of human development and associate director of the Family Life Development Center (FLDC); his wife, Mary Agnes Hamilton, senior research associate and director of the Cornell Youth in Society Program; Davydd Greenwood, Goldwin Smith Professor of Anthropology; and three bilingual graduate research assistants. They are also examining how to reverse "structural lag," a term to describe how schools and other institutions have not kept pace with the needs of those they serve.

"In many cases, these young people have not finished high school, and if they don't do so by age 18, it's all over in these countries. After that, there's nothing for them," said Mary Agnes Hamilton. "Through these programs, they can go back and get their diplomas or learn trades and skills that get them on course."

The 18-month project, funded by a $400,000 grant from the Jacobs Foundation in Switzerland, includes partners in Argentina, Mexico, and Colombia. The local programs reach out to marginalized youth, typically between ages 18 and 27, in urban and rural areas, from modern cities like Buenos Aires to the forgotten slums of Cali, Colombia.

The programs take different approaches: some help young adults finish their high school degrees and acquire vocational skills, while others encourage community service, restore relationships with family members, and introduce adult mentors.

"In these countries, it's called life projects--working with young people expressly on the future of their lives," Stephen Hamilton said.

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