Social Constructions of Children and Youth: Beyond Dependents and Deviants

This blog is based on an article in the Journal of Social Policy. Click here to access the article.

Although children and youth are the targets of many policies, there are widespread concerns that these policies are not as robust as they could be and that young people in general do not receive beneficial policy treatment in comparison to other populations.

In order to understand potential reasons for this, we examine the well-known theoretical framework of target populations and apply the framework to children and youth specifically. Building on the idea that target populations of social policies are socially constructed, the theory articulates that four categories (advantaged, contenders, dependents, and deviants) result in different types of policies for populations in these groups.  This has implications for both the type of policy tool and the on-going engagement of populations in the policy process.

How do we apply to children and youth?

There are many examples in which children are identified as “dependents”, for example in child welfare policies, or, “deviants” for example in juvenile justice policies. The questions examined in this article aim to explore these constructions in greater depth and to examine circumstances in which children and youth might be  considered an “advantaged” population or a “contending” population.

Using the scholarly and policy literature we identify children and youth often fit within one of these categories, but we also identify more ambiguous cases.  Core factors include the age of the young person, their connection to their parents, and rethinking concepts of power relative to children and youth.

For example, although child welfare interventions address young people under the age of 18 (or other designated age of adulthood), younger children may be more likely to be viewed as “dependent” compared to those in adolescence who may be more likely to be viewed as “deviants”.  Connection to parents is particularly notable for advantaged populations; it is through advantaged parents and the transfer of privilege and resources to children that some children and youth groups could fit in the “advantaged” category.  Conversely, the absence of parents is often a key factor that places children and youth in the “dependent” category.  This also informs ideas of power for children and youth.  Without voting power and with fewer resources, some forms of power come to youth through their connection to the power (or lack) of their parents.  Other sources of power may come from organizing strategies seen within contending populations.

What does it mean for policy-making for young people? 

Beneficial policy attention is more likely for those target populations considered to be contenders or advantaged.  Because children and youth are more likely to be dependents or deviants, this means they are less likely to receive beneficial policies and more likely to receive punitive and controlling policies.

Important to the theory of social construction of target populations is the resulting effects on target group members’ engagement in civic life, government, and policy processes.  Advantaged groups members who receive positive policy attention consequently view government positively (it works for them), feel empowered to engage in policy advocacy and therefore have greater ability to control the policy agenda that affects them.

Contrast this experience with deviant populations who are the recipients of negative policy attention (e.g., sanctions), become disempowered, and remain at the mercy of powerful policy actors.  Efforts aimed at youth empowerment have some core understanding of this dynamic.  Moreover, social characteristics of young people (race, social class and gender, among others) are observed in the various constructions.  More explicit recognition of these processes may facilitate further empowering strategies of young people.

What does it mean for policy-making in different countries? 

International comparisons would be welcome.  Our analysis focused on the US context.  But there are multiple political, cultural, and institutional differences across countries that may affect the social construction of children and youth as a target population.  Notably, the United Nation Convention on the Rights of the Child has been an important factor in many countries, albeit not in the US.  Also, children and youth have demonstrated capacities for self-advocacy in policy processes.  These capacities may be supported, encouraged and developed in some national settings; they may be thwarted, suppressed, or outlawed in others.

What is next for research in this area? 

First, each of the four categories of social construction require more in-depth application to child and youth populations.  In particular, since there is scant research, more enhanced attention to the possibilities of children and youth to be advantaged and contending populations would be a welcome addition to the field.  Longitudinal research that examines both the stability of constructions as well as changes over time is also needed.

Second, while there is ample evidence that children, but less so youth, have long been treated as dependents, often to their detriment, research might explore the numerous efforts of empowering this population to claim their rights and thereby move into more of a contending or advantaged status.  Sustained efforts at youth organizing and children’s rights-oriented policy vehicles implicitly aim to do so.  A more rigorous effort to document this work through the lens of the theory of social construction of target populations may accelerate understanding and lead to improved beneficial policy actions.

Third, as noted above, international comparison would be a particularly fruitful research endeavor.  Countries operate with different social welfare regimes, institutional structures, and cultural perspectives regarding the role of children and youth.  As one example,  democratic governments have greater tolerance for, and cultural training in, participatory processes and expression of political voice.  In other political environments this might not be tolerated.  We would expect, therefore, opportunities for children and youth to be “contenders” would be more available in the former than the latter.

About the authors

Mary Collins is Professor and Chair of Social Welfare Policy at Boston University.

Michelle Mead is Lecturer at Boston University.


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