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Luck On 9/11 And In The Lottery Of Poverty

For some, 9/11 is our Pearl Harbor, the opening of an all-out war with forces of evil. For me, it is a reminder of the randomness of fortune. But it is also a motivation to help overcome the hand that fortune deals to so many young people.
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Early on the morning of September 11, 2001, I boarded a flight from Terminal B at Logan Airport in Boston. About that same time, five men were boarding another plane at a nearby gate. I and everyone on my plane landed safely in Washington, DC. The other flight was American Flight 11.

Shortly after arriving at my DC law office, located less than a block from the White House, my partner's spouse called to tell us to get as far away from there as possible. America was under attack. We soon found ourselves in a hotel lounge watching in horror with the rest of the world as the first Tower fell. My only thought was to find a way to get back to my family in Boston as fast as possible. Through more luck, I found what might have been the last available rental car in Washington, and soon a companion and I were, perhaps foolishly, driving north.

For miles we seemed to be the only car on the road other than the occasional state trooper. Fifteen years later I am still seared with a memory of reaching a small rise on the New Jersey Turnpike and suddenly seeing a black, hideous plume of smoke rising to heaven. With all roads into Manhattan shut, we crossed the Tappan Zee, passing an unbroken stream of rescue, ambulance and fire vehicles filled with first responders from cities and towns across the region, a vision of the selflessness that day brought out in so many, many people.

Yesterday, I attended a gathering of people devoting time and energy to changing the conditions that result in 3 million young adults in America ending up poor, out of school and not in work. Memories of 9/11 flooded back. Through sheer luck that day, terrorists chose a different plane, and I lived, while others died. In America every day, through random luck, some children are born in zip codes of plenty, while others are born into zip codes of poverty.

Consider that being born into poverty is its own sentence to high risk of an early death. In one study of 900 young adults who had graduated the YouthBuild program, researchers asked students before they entered how long they expected to live. The average expectation? These 16-24-year-olds believed they would be dead by age 30. For young adults who had seen friends killed in gang violence, or die of overdoses, or be killed in confrontations with police, their answers were rational, although shocking. (Notably, these same young adults gave a very different answer after completing YouthBuild, seeing a future in which they expected to live until age 70.)

As a country, even 15 years on we will struggle to make meaning out of the attack of September 11th. For some, 9/11 is our Pearl Harbor, the opening of an all out war with forces of evil. For others, it is a reason to keep out those who are "different."

For me, it is a reminder of the randomness of fortune. But it is also a motivation to help overcome the hand that fortune deals to so many young people. We can't do anything to bring back those who senselessly die due to the twisted hatred of a handful of misguided men. But we can do much to change the future that flows from the economy of inequality we've created. It's the least can do with the time we've been given.