Jim McGreevey, 60%: American Dream Deferred

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Photo Credit: Governor’s Office/Tim Larsen.

Editor’s Note: Jim McGreevey serves as executive director of the Jersey City Employment and Training Program. He also serves as chairman of the New Jersey Reentry Corporation (NJRC), which provides for addiction treatment, sober housing, employment and training, identification services, and linkage to healthcare for formerly incarcerated persons. He previously served as New Jersey governor, State Senator, State Assemblyman, and as Mayor of Woodbridge, one of New Jersey’s largest municipalities.

My American Dream score was 60 out of 100. In large measure, any success that I have had in life, I attribute to my parents. Having a stable household with loving parents, who placed a premium focus upon education and sweat equity, helped me to largely overcome life’s challenges. In addition, access to a sound parochial education in primary school and secondary school enabled me to develop the necessary scholastic skills, capacity for critical thinking, and academic confidence to compete in the classroom. While growing up in a working-class community did not avail me the advantages of my university peers, it did provide a sense of grit and gratitude for the gifts presented.

Unlike my upbringing, the clients with whom I work have spent considerable time either in jail or in state prison languishing for “football time” (double digit years) without the benefit of rehabilitative cognitive therapy, remedial academic programs, or the necessary medical, mental health, and addiction treatment. Sadly, the largely young men and women who walk through our doors at the New Jersey Reentry Corporation are scarred by virtue of their upbringing within dysfunctional families, as well as their contact with government systems, including public education, which has mostly failed them. The average client reading level is between fourth and fifth grade. Many clients have not had the full spectrum of expected vaccinations and healthcare services (many are also suffering from hepatitis, diabetes, and HIV). And overwhelmingly, they have not had the benefit of skill-based employment training, which grievously leaves them unqualified for prospective employment.

Our clients grow up in violent neighborhoods with an expectation of early death. Their harrowing personal stories of domestic violence, sexual abuse, and drug addiction not only negates the wisdom of deferred gratification, but insists upon a quick and brutal life of “running, gunning, and doping.” Life is violent and short. For many of our clients, there is no American Dream; in fact, they can’t even imagine one.

It is important to also recognize that the decisions that are coerced upon our clients as to the battle for survival, the sheer complexity of the struggle to live, and the violence of their neighborhood milieu. Very few of us have to decide whether to pick up a gun or a knife, let alone use it, whether to prostitute ourselves for the money to survive, and where to hide when we are being sought by rival gang members. These are decisions, challenges, Faustian bargains, that are well beyond most Americans’ personal experience.

We have labored to work with our clients to create a new narrative within their lives, to envision and implement a new story. By affording structured, sober housing, employment training and job opportunities, addiction treatment, and legal services, we hope to provide an integrated framework of support for our clients to move from the hellish nightmare of their neighborhoods to a world that offers them a minimal promise.

Successfully moving between their past and future requires our clients to straddle the distressing trauma of today, while being relentlessly committed to avoiding the “sticky paper” of the criminal justice system, which at times operates merely to ensnare those who have already passed through its cages, even with minor infractions.

Lastly, our nation expends $74 billion annually on the American Dream of incarcerating that one percent, who are among the most failed of our culture and country. While reentry and the process of rebuilding lives is messy, cost-effective, and yields demonstrably good results, this nation continues to warehouse persons in the “efficient,” expensive, and the failed prison industrial complex. American prisons are a moral cancer upon this nation. Tragically, prison has perversely become a rite of passage among certain communities of men of color. The substantial percentage of African American men who have served prison time has invariably impacted those neighborhoods from which people had lived and children, who have been left behind.

As Saint Paul states in his Letter to the Galatians, “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.” This nation mocks decency in our willingness to invest large measures of money to build concrete walls with barbed wired turrets, while failing to provide for a safe and rigorous education, which would serve our children. We willingly sow the seeds of social demise for the poorest and most marginalized because we eventually place them behind high walls to forget our sins. For our clients, the American Dream is wanting. Their “dream” is the legacy of dangerous housing, failed schools, brutal drug trade, and wanton gun violence. God help us.

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ABOUT YOUR AMERICAN DREAM SCORE

Your American Dream Score is an initiative of Moving Up, an online platform designed to create a new conversation about what it takes to get ahead in America.  Both were created by Bob McKinnon, author and founder of GALEWiLL, an organization that designs social change programs. Digital design for the tool was done by Sol Design.

Your American Dream Score asks respondents to answer 13 questions about their life. Each question represents a factor that research shows correlates to social mobility and/or happiness in life. Similarly, all of the options within each question are also based on specific research related to mobility or positive life outcomes.  Once completed they receive a composite score and a list of factors working for and against them.  The higher your score, the more you had to overcome.  The lower the score, the more you had working in your favor. People are also given a link to a song that symbolizes their journey (i.e. gratitude, struggle, pride). With score in hand, people are then encouraged to take an action —  including sharing it with others, thanking those that helped them get ahead, diving deeper into each factor and connecting them with organizations that help people move up in life.

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