Rays of hope for our ‘opportunity youth’

They number in the millions – young people ages 16 to 24 who are out of school and out of work – and they are often forgotten by our society.   Many have drooped out of high school.  Others may have graduated and even attended college, but lack the essential knowledge and skills to find a job in an increasingly competitive global economy.  If the moral arguments do not persuade us to help them reattach to community, education and employment, the economic case should.  Just one cohort of these “opportunity youth” cost taxpayers $93 billion in lost productivity and increased social services every year.   Over their lifetimes, the costs mount to $1.6 trillion to the taxpayer and $4.7 trillion to society.

Nearly half of this vulnerable population is chronically disconnected – after 16, they never attended school, went to college or worked.  Nearly 1 million of all youth ages 18-24 are heads of household with incomes below the poverty line and 770,000 youth have care-giving responsibilities.  I’ve listened to these young people share their testimonials – in many cases, challenges you would not imagine any adult could navigate, let alone a child.  Despite unthinkable hardships, most remain hopeful about their futures and are desperate to find a way out of poverty, heal from domestic violence, help parents who are in prison, and more.  Our surveys show that most of these young people accept responsibility for their own circumstances and decisions, remain optimistic about their futures, and are ready to reconnect.

{mosads}Another half of these youth have some education and work experience.  They are particularly good candidates now for receiving job training, and economic and social supports to fully integrate them into the educational system and labor market.  If this were achieved, the taxpayer savings would amount to $770 billion and the gain to society would amount to $2 trillion, based on careful estimates by experts at Columbia University.

Neither group is monolithic and every child’s story is different.  But the community, state and national responses can become familiar and the norm.

Given their numbers and the economic costs of not empowering them to reconnect to the very systems that represent hope for their futures, President Obama’s announcement to jumpstart efforts to reconnect them was a particularly welcome one. 

More than 1 million young people will be given opportunities to find their first job, get the support they need to finish high school, and build skills through job training.  Communities will be given significant help to create those pathways for opportunity youth to finish school and find work.   There are outstanding programs, such as YouthBuild, that provide those pathways to a job while engaging young people in giving back to their communities, something our surveys showed that opportunity youth were anxious to do.

America is behind so many other countries in career and technical education and apprenticeship programs, notwithstanding there are 28 million jobs requiring a one year occupational certificate or two year associate degree.  The president’s $2 billion apprenticeship training fund is a welcomed down payment, together with career navigators who can help the unemployed advance their education, credentials and skills in ways that lead to available jobs.

There are many leaders on both sides of the aisle in Congress who have made the education to work pipeline a top priority and are making smart investments in evidence-based approaches. 

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) is outspoken about the opportunities presented by the on-demand or sharing economy where access to goods and services are facilitated by new technology platforms.  Recent data by TIME and the Aspen Initiative on the Future of Work show that opportunity youth are taking advantage of the fresh chances presented by the on-demand economy – think Uber and Lyft drivers – to help them pay for their education and gain the skills to find permanent employment.

On the other side of the aisle, Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) has advanced important job training programs and insisted that government’s role should be “paying for success.”

As the president’s budget moves through the sausage making of Congress, members should remember the lost potential of millions of opportunity youth, the moral obligation to empower them, and the staggering costs to taxpayers of not reconnecting them. 

Bridgeland is CEO of Civic and former director of the White House Domestic Policy Council under President George W. Bush. 

Tags Mark Warner Rob Portman

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