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While effects of the recent recession and slow economic rebound on the U.S. labor market have been well documented, less attention has been paid specifically to youth unemployment and its potential long-term impacts. The rate of employment for 16 – 19 year-olds in the U.S. has dropped 42% since 2000, leaving 3 of 4 such youth jobless. Even brief spells of youthful unemployment can cause what the Economist calls wage scars” – decreased earning power lasting well into workers’ adult years. Consequently, it is of highest importance for policy makers to prioritize employment and educational opportunities for youth. 

Compounding this problem is the income gap between those with more education versus those with less. High school dropouts are likely to earn roughly $400,000 less over their lifetimes than their classmates who earn a diploma. Dropouts are facing dire circumstances with many minimum wage jobs requiring a high school diploma. For them, not only is there little work available, what work there is does not pay well. As more and more unskilled jobs are offshored or automated, this problem is likely to worsen. The Annie E. Casey Foundation (AECF) proposes a holistic approach to reengaging youth it refers to as disconnected” – those neither in school nor employed. It maintains that partnerships between educators, government and nonprofit agencies, and private sector employers are more effective than individual efforts. For instance, some high school dropouts are single parents who cannot afford to go back to school full-time. For them, one of the strategies AECF discusses seems a far more viable option. Here, young parents split time between work or paid job training and school, while accessing academic and social support. Programs like these can also have the collateral benefit of creating closer ties between youth and their communities – links researchers find to have been weakened following the recent economic downturn. Given nonprofits, private sector employers, and educational institutions have access to different funders (government, foundations, etc.), such collaborative, cross-sector efforts encourage diversification of funding streams. Further, when multiple stakeholders work together to empower disconnected youth, they can gather and share information about outcomes, both short and long term. This enables those involved with service provision as well as funders and oversight agencies to determine which strategies and programs work best. Similarly, less efficient or effective processes can be targeted for improvement or phase-out. 

Recognizing education as promoting community engagement and economic independence, it is encouraging to see advocates like AECF putting forth solid plans not only to reengage disconnected youth, but to develop model practices for doing so. Critically, AECF suggests that such innovation must involve collaboration and sound strategy combined with flexible funding and program evaluation. Such a measured approach is imperative to ensure youth have every possible opportunity to gain the education they need – not just to steer clear of the criminal justice system, but to succeed in our challenging and dynamic economic environment. 

~ S. Patrick Wynne 

CJCJ Communications and Policy