‘Opportunity youth’ want to work. National service can make that possible.
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Xavier Jennings lost his dad at age six. While his mother struggled to raise five kids on her own working low-wage jobs, Xavier looked for ways to belong. Faced with few options, he decided to join a gang and began dealing drugs at age 13. He attended six different high schools before he dropped out. At 18 he found himself unemployed, without direction and facing a potential lifetime of struggles. Then his brother recommended Mile High YouthBuild, a national service program, that not only offered him the chance to earn his GED and develop construction skills, but also save money for college from AmeriCorps and the chance to make a difference in his own community. Today, as a college graduate and parent of two, Xavier works to help young people facing similar challenges.

Not every young person, however, gets that second chance. In fact, even with the low overall unemployment rate, more than 4 million young adults, known as “opportunity youth,” are out of school and not working. Many of these young people face barriers built by extreme poverty. Some have criminal records. Others are teen parents. Many have spent time in foster care. Few live with two parents, and some are homeless. They are disproportionately black, Latino and Native American. While many live in city centers, rural youth are more likely to be disconnected. Opportunity youth are a large part of the reason that young adult unemployment stubbornly remains double the overall unemployment rate even as experts point to a growing crisis in the availability of workers.

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Most opportunity youth do not choose this fate. Research shows that disconnected young people want to work or go to school and have aspirations for a better life. What’s missing, according to experts, is the guidance, professional networks, encouragement, and life supports that more advantaged young people, with access to well-resourced high schools, colleges, internships, and of course, families, take for granted. It’s not surprising that the young adult years widen the opportunity gap that already exists between the lowest and highest income young people.

National service can help to make up some of the difference.

On Dec. 3, experts convened at Service Year Alliance’s Opportunity Youth Summit explored the ways in which well-constructed national service programs help opportunity youth change their circumstances. National service programs--designed to place young adults in full year, paid service positions--help develop social and emotional skills, build the 21st century skills necessary for success in the workplace and, sometimes, offer specialized skills training. Some provide access to secondary education or employment certifications and access to professional networks, and a range of other supports.

But most important, these programs help youth redefine themselves in relation to society and discover their purpose. These qualities make national service transformational for young people of all backgrounds, but especially opportunity youth. As Xavier points out after his YouthBuild experience: “The program valued me as an individual and helped me shift how I looked at myself. That was the first time I was seen in a positive light. . . Now I am a positive example of what happens when you make the most of a second chance.”

Research by Burning Glass Technologies, released at the Summit, compared 70,000 resumes of national service alums with those of similar peers who did not serve to reveal that alums are more than twice as likely to go on to complete bachelor’s degrees, and work in education or social services fields and highlight skills related to leadership and organization at higher rates than peers. Alums without bachelor’s degrees earn slightly more than similarly educated peers ten years after service, despite the larger number who stay in lower-paid public service career fields.

Today, about 66,000 full-time national service opportunities are available annually, about a third of which go to disadvantaged young adults. They include full-time AmeriCorps programs such as Public Allies and the residential National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC), as well as programs like YouthBuild and youth conservation corps that embed service in a comprehensive program involving education and workforce development.  

Congress could increase the number of opportunity youth in national service fourfold, engaging 100,000 annually, by expanding funding for YouthBuild and AmeriCorps, and by passing the 21st Century Conservation Corps legislation now pending. To do so would not only change the lives of some of the hardest-to-reach young people, but save taxpayers billions of dollars over time, as opportunity youth too often face lifetimes of unemployment, incarceration, or dependence on public assistance. One estimate places the lifetime direct cost to taxpayers of one 20-year-old who does not reconnect to education or employment at $235,680, and the social cost at $704,020.

That’s a cost we can’t afford. And an investment in service is simply one we cannot afford to pass up.

Sagawa is the CEO Service Year Alliance.