Iowa: home to 35,000 unemployed, out-of-school kids

by The Des Moines Register   •  

Iowa is home to more than 35,000 students who are out of work and unemployed — an issue that the national campaign Opportunity Nation should be at the forefront of during the 2016 presidential race.

Opportunity Nation, a national, bipartisan campaign pushing the importance of economic mobility, presented its Opportunity Index, which uses economic, educational and civic factors to judge the level of mobility across states and counties.

“What this is all about is that your zip code should not determine your destiny,” Paul Kendrick, director of coalition and grassroots, told a crowd of community leaders gathered for the daylong event at Des Moines Area Community College’s Ankeny campus.

Officials with Opportunity Nation also released a presidential agenda and encouraged Iowans to bring up these issues when visiting with candidates ahead of the first-in-the-nation caucuses.

Across the country, economy opportunity has increased since 2011, Kendrick said. But wages have stagnated and income inequality has widened. Kendrick said Iowa and the nation at large are still home to far too many “disconnected youth,” that is 16 to 24-year-olds who aren’t working and aren’t in school.

In 2011, that population reached 5.7 million nationally. By this year, Kendrick said it had dropped nearly 5 percent to about 5.5 million people, still higher than pre-recessionary levels.

“But that’s 5.5 million talented young people who are on the sidelines,” he said. ” We’ve got to get them into in the game.”

In Iowa, Opportunity Nation counted 34,655 young adults who were out of work and out of school in 2015. The group uses Census Bureau data and other estimates. About 5,500 of those young adults were in Polk County.

Opportunity Nation’s national index ranked Iowa 8th in the nation for economic opportunity. But local business, nonprofit and government officials said there’s still plenty of local concern over economic opportunity.

Elisabeth Buck, chief impact officer for the United Way of Central Iowa, said many Iowans are earning too little to support their families on their own.

She said families need earnings of 200 to 250 percent of the poverty level to survive self-sufficiently without assistance from government programs or other outside sources. In 2015, the federal government’s poverty threshold for a single individual was $11,770. It was $24,250 for a family of four.

Buck said 35 percent of Central Iowans are living below that self sufficiency threshold.

“The wage gap that is there right now is not allowing for working Central Iowans to thrive,” she said.

She said early childhood education programs are important to improving economic opportunities. And she pointed to United Way’s efforts to get more Iowans to complete a high school equivalency program. Currently, more than 250,000 adults in Iowa do not hold a high school diploma.

“For them to get out of poverty is virtually impossible without it,” Buck said.

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