Disconnected youth are white and black, Hispanic and Asian. They are middle-class and poor, native born and immigrants. They live in rural, suburban and urban areas.
Some struggled in school and lacked adequate supports to make it to graduation day. They include in their number the estimated one million students who drop out of high school each year, and fall through the cracks. Others are youth involved in the justice system, teen parents or foster care children who “aged out” of the system without a clear plan for adulthood.
Many are looking for work that they can’t find, often because they lack the technical, communication and problem-solving skills required by today’s job market. And too many young people can’t come up with the money to pay for increasingly expensive post-secondary job training or college they need to get ahead. In fact, some of them enrolled in college, only to drop out because of financial constraints.
Yet we know that young people are key to vibrant neighborhoods, communities and economies. The Opportunity Index clearly shows that one of the indicators most correlated with a region’s Opportunity Score is the percentage of young people ages 16-24 who are not in school or not working. If we can reconnect more youth to meaningful educational and career pathways, we will all benefit.
The personal and collective costs of youth disconnection are steep. Young adults who are not in school or working cost taxpayers $93 billion annually and $1.6 trillion over their lifetimes in lost revenues and increased social services.
There are plenty of reasons for youth disconnection – societal, familial, financial, educational, personal. But other countries have figured out ways to support families, children and students that produce more equitable societies, adaptable economies and richer environments for opportunity. We can, too.
The fact is the U.S. must do more to retool our educational supports, economic systems and federal policies so that our young people can meet the challenges of the 21st century global economy.
Whether liberal or conservative; working in government, business or the nonprofit sector; leaders or everyday Americans; we all have a role to play. Fortunately, there are success stories all around the country we can learn from and emulate, many from the Opportunity Nation Coalition.
These young adults are our future and deserve our urgent attention and investment. We all have a stake in helping the next generation meaningfully connect to education, the economy and civic life and restoring our promise as a land of opportunity.