Solutions Are Obvious for a National Emergency

Education is the top priority of our nation if we are to thrive in the 21st century. We need to invest in the education, well-being, inspiration, and character development of every young person born.
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Every year 1.2 million American teenagers leave high school without a diploma. One-third of all students nationwide, and in low income communities half the students, do not graduate. Some leave to make money to support their family, but most will say they left because nobody in the school actually cared about them. Nobody cared to help them learn, to overcome problems, to take themselves and their futures seriously.

As a result, there are 6.7 million young adults between the ages of 16 and 24 who are out of work and out of school. About half of them grew up in poverty. This cohort of young people will directly cost the taxpayers $1.3 trillion over their lifetimes, and will generate a social burden of $4.7T.

At the same time, there are American companies that cannot find employees qualified for the jobs they have available. There are millions of jobs in health care and technology going unfilled. We have a serious mismatch between the jobs available and the qualifications of our workforce.

The military is affected as well. Young people without diplomas are not eligible for the military. Many others are ineligible for health or other reasons, leaving only 25% of American young people carrying the burden of national security on their shoulders.

We also have over 350,000 16 to 24-year-olds behind bars, many for nonviolent offenses. There are a total of 2.3 million Americans incarcerated. Sixty-eight percent of inmates in state prisons lack a high school diploma, showing a profound correlation between lack of education and crime.

Without a diploma, it is hard to get any kind of job. Add to that a criminal record, and it is virtually impossible. Living in families with no food in the refrigerator and no parent with a job, in neighborhoods filled with drugs, gangs, and police, with hardly any second chance programs, what do we expect young men and women to do? It looks to them like the only door open to make any money leads to selling drugs. It also looks like the most welcoming community is made up of gang members.

As a result, many young men in low income communities expect to be dead or in jail by the time they are 25. That's what they see happening. In fact, there are more young men dying on our streets than dying in military service in Iraq or Afghanistan; and a larger proportion of young men are in prison in the United States than in almost any other country.

Meanwhile, there is an expanding industry of for-profit prisons benefiting from this situation. Their profits depend on the number of inmates. They have a multi-billion dollar stake in perpetuating poverty and spreading punitive laws for non-violent drug offenders state by state. They have done this through the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). The Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO are the two largest for-profit prisons, traded on Wall Street. Their profits come directly from taxpayers who pay the costs of incarceration.

For-profit prisons did not exist in America between 1880 and 1980, but they have expanded rapidly in recent years and now have over 125,000 inmates. At the same time, since 1980 second chance programs for young adults to resume their education and prepare for the skilled jobs available in our economy have not expanded. Federal spending on job training programs has contracted.

Overall, this is a horrifying and shameful picture. It is getting worse, not better. Yet, if we can build the political will, there is still hope. We know exactly how to empower disconnected young adults to turn their lives around. They do not want to end up dead or in jail. They have dreams, and talents, and if you reach an inch below the surface you find they are simply yearning to belong to a family or community where someone cares enough to guide them in the pursuit of happiness, in the creation of a life worth living. So far, their families, schools, and communities have failed them.

At the Aspen Ideas Festival in July, Steve Patrick, program officer from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in charge of their portfolio of programs generating post-secondary access for previously disconnected youth, hosted a panel of three young adults who had recently graduated from different national programs that had empowered them to overcome serious obstacles and get on track to high school and college degrees.

Xavier Jennings, a graduate of the YouthBuild program sponsored by Mile High Conservation Corps in Denver, funded by the Department of Labor, vividly described the difficulties of his life living in public housing with his grandmother who was sick with heart disease and had lost her food-stamps because she could no longer travel to renew them. Surrounded on the streets by opportunities to make money selling drugs, he entered the lifestyle, got in trouble with the law, and was expelled from school. Nobody moved to help him, until a friend told him about YouthBuild, where he could earn money building affordable housing in the neighborhood while earning his diploma and preparing for college. A way to earn money, a diploma, and skills, sounded good. He joined.

He described a transformative moment that occurred in the first couple of weeks. He went with a crew of YouthBuild AmeriCorps students to renovate the back yard of a senior citizen. She didn't welcome them warmly. He was sure their baggy pants caused her to stereotype them. But after the young people had restored her yard, she came out the back door with tears in her eyes, carrying a tray of cookies she had just made for them, thanking them from the bottom of her heart. Xavier also began to tear up, experiencing for the first time appreciation and respect rather than blame and rejection, from the same woman who seemed to scorn them when they arrived. That moment triggered his decision to seize the opportunity to turn his life around and become a person who helped others.

This is a common experience for young people in YouthBuild, AmeriCorps, and Service Corps. Making a difference for other people is a universally inspiring human experience that works miracles for young people who have been seen as the trouble-makers in their neighborhoods. "I used to be a hoodlum," they say. "Now I am a hero." Many move into long-term leadership roles to improve their communities and diminish suffering. Recent research from Tufts University documents this phenomenon at YouthBuild.

Ernesto Aguilera, graduate of the Los Angeles Conservation Corps, and Rayonna Hall, from Gateway to College at Durham, NC, told their stories of how these programs valued their abilities, helped them set and achieve goals, and made it possible for them to succeed in college. They contrasted the caring relationships with staff to what they experienced as uncaring and punitive approaches in the public schools they had left.

Clearly, the public schools need to change. Every principal and teacher needs to be trained in how to show respect and caring to every student, how to create a safe community committed to the success of every member. This would be the most decisive step toward diminishing the drop-out rate. But meanwhile, we need to invest in the second chance programs that are succeeding with these same young people that have walked out or been forced out of the public schools.

Each 20-year-old who is unemployed and out of school will directly cost taxpayers $236,000 over his or her lifetime and will produce a larger social burden of $704,000 unless something is done to open a door to education and employment.

It costs an average of just $22,000 to give a student a life-changing year in a job serving the community while earning his or her GED or high school diploma, gaining industry-recognized credentials, belonging to a positive peer group, experiencing the respect and dedication of caring adults, internalizing positive values, and preparing for college or a career. If we conservatively estimate based on prior research and experience that half the participants will permanently succeed, the direct return on taxpayers' investment will be $4.36 per dollar spent. The social value will be even greater.

Can we afford not to do this? It would be stupid and self-destructive not to invite every unemployed, out-of-school, young adult into second chance opportunities to build a productive life-style.

Every solution for every problem faced by our great nation is subject to political decisions. The twin challenges of improving our public schools to lower the drop-out rates, and expanding our second chance programs to reconnect those whom the schools have so far failed, require public funding. Elected officials of all persuasions need to hear this loud and clear from their constituents. They need to be invited to visit local programs, to witness their success. Even skeptical legislators can sometimes be won over through listening to the testimonies of the youth and seeing the data.

Education is the top priority of our nation if we are to thrive in the 21st century. Please, let's get active on every front to ensure that we do not continue to lose one third of every generation growing up in America. We need to invest in the education, well-being, inspiration, and character development of every young person born. They can all grow up to be responsible, productive, caring citizens.

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