Disconnected Nation: 5.8 Million Out of School and Out of Work•
Allie Bidwell, Education Reporter
Many young people face challenges getting through college and often struggle to find gainful employment after graduation. But nearly 6 million others are stuck in a sort of limbo – they’re neither in school nor working.
That’s largely because of a lack of opportunity and social mobility in America, according to the national advocacy group Opportunity Nation. For those 5.8 million youths, between the ages of 16 and 24, not having a job isn’t the only thing holding them back. Some communities throughout the country struggle with access to basic needs such as affordable housing, the Internet, quality health care and good schools, says Mark Edwards, executive director of Opportunity Nation.
For the past three years, the group has been measuring dimensions of opportunity in states and counties across the nation and scoring them in what it calls an “Opportunity Index,” comprised of factors that can help or hinder a person’s success.
“The American dream is about more than just unemployment,” Edwards said at a forum Tuesday releasing this year’s index. “Too often, the zip code where you’re born does determine your destiny.”
Sen. Robert Portman, R-Ohio, spoke at the event and said there are ways to recover economic growth and help struggling families that should not be partisan issues.
Policymakers need to look for new ways to raise revenue throughout America, by reforming what Portman said is an “antiquated” and “inefficient” tax code. Portman said working to lower health care costs and better align the education system with the needs of employers could also help turn things around.
“It’s not that there aren’t opportunities out there for jobs,” Portman said. “There are 400,000 people out of work in Ohio, and yet there are 100,000 jobs being advertised. Here is a specific example of where our education system is failing us.”
Indicators within a state or county, such as median household income, the number of violent crimes, and high school graduation rates, are predictors that can shape a child’s trajectory through life, Edwards says.
One of those people is Michael Long.
A Florida native, 22-year-old Long grew up in a home where he says his father instilled in him the belief that by working hard and playing by the rules, you would come out on top.
“I am a firm believer that opportunity can’t exist without hope,” Long says. “At its most core and basic level, you have to have hope if you’re going to have opportunity.”
But that changed when as a young child, Long watched his father lose the business he created, the home he helped build, as well as his sense of hope.
Not long after, when the family had moved into a smaller apartment on the outskirts of Sarasota, Fla., Long says he learned his father had succumbed to the same drug addiction that his mother had fallen prey to years before.
That was one of two turning points for Michael.
“I think that’s when I stopped believing in opportunity. I think that’s when I lost hope,” Long says.
Long says that’s when he stopped “playing by the rules,” and spent much of his youth moving in and out of juvenile detention centers and getting into fights. “When you don’t have hope, you’re willing to do just about anything,” Long says.
And that’s what he did.
In 2007, Long dropped out of high school as a sophomore. Although he returned a few months later, the time still had a significant impact, he says. He broke into people’s homes, stole their property and even began selling drugs.
The second turning point came when a group of men broke into the apartment Long says he paid for with drug money and severely beat him while he was at home with a broken ankle.
“One of them had a hammer and the rest had guns,” Long says. “The guns went straight to my head and the hammer went straight to my broken ankle.”
“That moment, as painful as it was, made me hopeful again. How strange is that?” Long added.
Lucky to be alive, Long says he decided to get his life back in order. He returned to school and brought his GPA up from a 0.6 to a 4.1 by the time he graduated.
While a student at the New College of Florida, Long served as student body president for two years and represented more than 300,000 students in the state while serving on the Florida Board of Governors, which directs the State University System. Soon to be a college graduate, Long says he plans to use the prestigious Truman Scholarship he won in April to attend graduate school in the future.
“I was lucky,” Long says. “I … did all kinds of crazy things I never, ever, ever thought that I would be doing. But it was because I had that second chance. It was because in that moment of really just pure despair, I found hope.”
The kinds of obstacles Long and his family faced – unemployment, crime rates, poverty and education – vary widely across the country.
In Sarasota, Fla., for example, where Long grew up, the unemployment rate decreased from nearly 10.7 percent in 2011 to 6.8 percent in 2013. But in that same time, the mean household income decreased by more than $2,000, the poverty rate increased by 1.2 percent, and the number of high school freshmen who graduate on time dropped by about 10 percent, to 70.7 percent.
Compare that to an area like Nelson, N.D., and you’ll see a much different picture. Although the unemployment rate in that county increased by 2 percent, to 5.9 percent in 2013, the mean household income increased by nearly $4,000; poverty dropped from almost 9 percent in 2011 to 0 percent in 2013; almost 90 percent of children ages 3 and 4 are enrolled in preschool; and about 91 percent of high school freshmen graduate in four years.
In Sarasota, nearly 15 percent of youth between the ages of 16 and 24 aren’t working, while in Nelson, only 5.5 percent fall into that category. Additionally, violent crime is nearly four times as frequent in Sarasota as it is in Nelson, according to the Opportunity Index.
“Youth disconnection is too big a problem for kids to solve alone,” said Sarah Burd-Sharps, co-director of Measure of America, a project that measures well-being and opportunity in the nation. “Talking about giving them a job or an internship is very important, but it’s very clear that they come from communities where there is disconnection on every level, where challenges are really great.”
Burd-Sharps said in a panel discussion Tuesday that many of the communities with high numbers of youth neither in school nor working were also disconnected a decade ago.
“We have to look at this issue in a bigger understanding,” Burd-Sharps said. “There are places that need more than just finding a match between a kid and a private sector opportunity.”