How many of today’s desperate adults were permanently ensnared by their youthful mistakes? Criminal records, credit scores, transcripts, email or social media gaffes—these never disappear.
Fifty years ago, how much easier was it to escape the indiscretions of one’s younger self by simply moving to a new town? Today, can anyone really make amends and leave the past behind? How much have the systems we’ve created to facilitate trust among strangers ended up raising the stakes of professional and social failure to the point where people can almost never escape their pasts? Lately, I’ve been wondering if the systems that make it impossible for us to forget also make it more difficult for us to forgive.
How many more doors are closed by an arrest—whether justified or not—today versus fifty years ago? There has always been a vortex pulling at desperate people. How much stronger is it today?
Failures of all kinds now follow us so closely. A young man’s teenage indiscretion makes him ineligible for a job when, five years later, he is a young father trying to support a family. A young woman’s financial mistake makes her ineligible for credit five years later as she is trying to pay for daycare so she can go to work.
What happens to people’s hopes and aspirations when their prospects for institutional absolution are so meaningfully abridged? Bitterness, anger, resignation? And for those who have thus far avoided blemishes on their indelible record, do they become less inclined to take professional or entrepreneurial risks?
On a trivial scale, I think about all the extra hoops a self-employed person must jump through to qualify for a mortgage. Lending institutions, increasingly governed by federal lending requirements, love W-2 income but loathe lumpy K-1 income. While this little annoyance can be bothersome to entrepreneurs, I can’t imagine how much more difficult are the institutionally governed lives of people who carry with them tainted records.
When gatekeepers are people, they can use their judgment. An empowered underwriter can see the merits in individuals that transcend their indelible record and make them worthy of an open door. They might even go with their gut and take a chance on someone. And from time to time, they might even offer grace in the form of second (or third or fourth) chances.
But institutional checklists don’t do that. It’s a binary yea or nay: Arrest record? The rules say no. Credit score below 600? The rules say no. No diploma? The rules say no. All three? The rules definitely say no!
What happens to a people who’s institutions effectively brand individuals for the mistakes they made as teenagers or young adults? Over time, I suppose successful conformists will gain more and more influence. Would-be pioneers will find the risks of non-conformity getting more and more intimidating and many will react by taking fewer and fewer professional risks. A smaller number will embrace those risks—sometimes they’ll achieve outstanding rewards but more often they’ll suffer cataclysmic defeat. What does this do to our engines of prosperity?
And worst of all, in a world where people’s records follow them everywhere, those born into at-risk communities—where it is far easier to stumble into a transgression—will find it more and more difficult to make better lives for themselves. The percentage who are born into intergenerational poverty will grow and the percentage who escape it will shrink. And if actuarial tables predict darker and darker futures for them, will the institutionalized bias against them grow? Will there be less grace extended to them?
We instinctively recoil at how the CCP records every behavior of every Chinese citizen and grants or withholds opportunity based on a person’s history of conformity. Gratefully, that’s not what we have here in the United States—but what we do have isn’t entirely not that.
For the last few days, I’ve been reading Isaac Bailey’s 2018 memoir, My Brother Moochie. The book is about a lot of things: a young man escaping poverty and violence, a brother being engulfed by it, prejudice and discrimination, family and loyalty.
Near the end, Bailey writes, “[We live in a] world that punishes people for having been punished.” That is so painfully true. Do we want that world?
Here’s hoping for less institutionalized door-shutting and a move back toward letting good people leave their difficult pasts behind them. And here’s hoping for systems that grant more people the agency to extend opportunity to the non-conformers, to extend absolution to those who deserve it, and to extend grace to those who might not.