Four “pillars” could help communities lift children up to flourish as adults, regardless of the disadvantages in their lives. But young people may not snag those keys to success because they never learn what they are.

That’s according to innovator and educator Ian Rowe, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, who has distilled decades of observations made working with young people and their families into what he calls the “FREE Initiative.”

FREE stands for “family,” “religion,” “education” and “entrepreneurship.”

Rowe and the institute have formed community partnerships to bring the message to different cities through public forums in hopes of sparking action in place of just conversation.

Thursday, AEI and Utah’s Sutherland Institute hosted a series of panel discussions featuring local and national experts at the Hyatt Regency Salt Lake City. It’s the third FREE Forum, following programs in Birmingham, Alabama, and Chicago, Illinois. 

Rowe unpacked “FREE” for the Deseret News on Wednesday. He said that in his role at the institute and also as founder of an international baccalaureate high school in New York City, “I’m very focused on helping young people understand the mechanisms by which they can lead a self-determined life.” 

He touts the “success sequence” — graduating from at least high school, getting a full-time job, then marrying before having children — as important on that pathway. But it’s not enough on its own, he said. To thrive as adults, young people also need:

  • The family component that matters most to success, he said, is not the family children are from, but the family that they formed when they grew up. “It’s so important that we teach young people that there are different rewards or consequences associated with different life decisions,” Rowe said. “Know that your life is not constrained by the circumstances within which you were born or raised.” That doesn’t mean disliking your family, he added. “It just means you have an opportunity to break a cycle.”
  • Religion includes a strong moral compass and value system that helps you be accountable and know what’s right as you make decisions. Rowe said those who succeed are anchored in a moral framework. “Kids I’ve seen break the cycle of disadvantage that has been sort of this hamster wheel in their lives, they’ve usually had some kind of personal faith commitment, where they were part of a religious community that held on to certain principles, morals, tenets that they all agreed to live by.”
  • Education isn’t just going to school, but having the choice to pick a good school that provides excellent education, whether public schools, charter schools, microschools, home schooling, hybrid schools and other options that meet a family’s situation and really bolsters the ability to learn. Of those who overcame challenges, “even if they were in a tough family situation, their guardian, their parent by hook or by crook was going to get them into a great school,” he said.
  • Entrepreneurship develops from the first three pillars, per Rowe. He said while entrepreneurship is associated with business start-ups and great ideas, his own definition is more expansive: It includes creativity, problem-solving and the ability to pick yourself up when things go wrong so you can excel despite challenges. “There’s resiliency built into my definition.”
Ian Rowe, American Enterprise Institute senior fellow and Vertex Partnership Academies co-founder, poses for a portrait at the Triad Center in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, March 22, 2023. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Rowe told the Deseret News that 97% of young people who follow the success sequence will avoid poverty. “From an economic framework, a decision-making perspective, it’s very powerful. But it’s also extremely challenging to do without the other elements,” he said.

He and others at the forum lamented that young people are not taught any of those steps in school.

In the Bronx, where they opened the charter high school, only 7% of students who started ninth grade emerged from high school competent enough in subjects like math and English to launch well into college — if they graduated high school at all, Rowe said.

Young people may not be equipped naturally by their surroundings and their education to move onto the next steps, he said.

The FREE forums

Rowe wrote the book “Agency: The Four Point Plan (F.R.E.E.) for ALL Children to Overcome the Victimhood Narrative and Discover Their Pathway to Power,” but said the book, the interviews, and even the forums have no power unless communities apply the lessons in the form of policies and deliberate action. 

The hope of the forums is to inspire local leaders.

Each is co-sponsored by local leaders “who are already doing some amazing programs.” That included Pastor Corey Brooks, who spent nearly a year on a roof in Chicago to raise the money for a community center in a crime-ridden neighborhood, and Liz Huntley, president of The Hope Institute in Birmingham, which works with schools to provide character development curricula.

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Rowe said they partnered with Utah’s Sutherland Institute because it’s looking to “operationalize the idea of FREE into actual policy.”

He noted that Utah is very different from the Alabama and Illinois venues. Utah has the best nonmarital birth rate in the country, at roughly 19%. In the Bronx, where they opened the high school, the rate was 84%.

“What I want to do with FREE is also visit localities where the positive impact of the pillars can be seen, to learn from them” why things go well, he said. But he also hopes Utah will not rest on what’s going well, realizing there’s always room to do better.

Narratives for failure

While there are actual barriers, there are also a pair of competing narratives that stunt upward mobility and other forms of success, Rowe said: Blame the system. And blame the victim.

The former narrative says that America “is an inherently oppressive nation,” he said — that based on your race, your sex, your class, systems are rigged against you, so powerful that you are powerless.

The other says that America is so great, the land of opportunity, that “if you’re not successful, you’re a loser,” he said. But there are sometimes actual barriers that make improving your life hard: you’re 7, in poverty, without a faith community and don’t have a good school to attend.

“Those two narratives add up to a singular lie, telling young people either you have no power or it’s your fault. That’s the debilitating narrative I’m trying to fight,” he told the Deseret News.

The truth, he adds, is agency — and the courage to challenge those false narratives even when it makes you unpopular or vulnerable.

Timothy P. Carney, American Enterprise Institute senior fellow and Washington Examiner senior political columnist, speaks on the Integrating Family Structure in Policymaking panel at the FREE Forum at the Hyatt Regency Salt Lake City in Salt Lake City on Thursday, March 23, 2023. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Standing up for family

In a discussion on family, panelists emphasized that children do best when they grow up in homes with their married parents. AEI senior fellow Timothy P. Carney said he once tweeted that fatherlessness — dads who are not present in their kids' lives — creates many of the issues that plague young people. He said it drew sharp pushback. In truth, he added, family structure does matter.

Jenet Erickson, associate professor in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University, said marriage provides the “most consistently stable structure” for family life.

Carney noted that teachers tell him that the most important way to make struggling schools more like successful schools is to get parents involved — and married parents often drive that. He said while we help families regardless of their structure, as a society we should “still be marriage-oriented.”

Family-friendly communities are also walkable and welcoming, said Carney. Kids should be able to ride their bikes away and come back for dinner. Families should have places to enjoy time together. “Communities have very strong effects on the strength of families,” he said.

It’s not enough to focus solely on kids, though. Sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox, an AEI nonresident senior fellow and director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, said couples need to invest in their relationships and take time out to be together and care for each other.

Timothy P. Carney, American Enterprise Institute senior fellow and Washington Examiner senior political columnist, Janet Erickson, BYU associate professor, and W. Brad Wilcox, AEI nonresident senior fellow and director of The Home Economics Project, speak on the Integrating Family Structure in Policymaking panel at the FREE Forum at the Hyatt Regency Salt Lake City in Salt Lake City on Thursday, March 23, 2023. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

The role of work

A sense of personal efficacy is important if individuals and families are to thrive — and men 18 to 54 are especially challenged when it comes to work, John Bailey, another institute nonresident fellow, told participants at the forum.

The number that dropped out of the labor force has been growing. And it’s not a lack of jobs, he added. There are plenty. He said men are withdrawing from the labor market and from social institutions as well, including from church.

Bailey said death rates are growing from drug overdoses, suicide and alcohol. Those are sometimes called deaths of despair because to die from those causes indicated one has lost hope and a sense of purpose.

Policies can echo that sentiment, he said. He said a well-intentioned policy like basic universal income, for instance, can suggest that one has nothing to offer and is not expected to contribute anything.

Work provides a sense of accomplishment, several panelists said. They agree everyone needs a high school diploma to thrive, but note there are other paths besides college to a good life and adequate resources, including apprenticeships and making way for those with some college but no degree.

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“We need to start hiring for skills, not degrees,” said Bailey, who added that degree inflation has kept too many people out of jobs they are qualified to do.

Kids also need positive role models, said Margaret Woolley Busse, executive director of Utah’s Department of Commerce. Many don’t have that.

While role models are important for upward mobility, diversity is also important, said Natalie Gochnour, associate dean of the David Eccles School of Business and director of the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah. Young people need to see themselves and their own possibilities reflected in their communities.

And investing in families, churches and other community institutions creates healthy neighborhoods, she said.

John P. Bailey, American Enterprise Institute nonresident senior fellow and host of the TechEnabled podcast, speaks at the FREE Forum at the Hyatt Regency Salt Lake City in Salt Lake City on Thursday, March 23, 2023. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
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