Let’s Talk About Youth Employment Problems

Missed Opportunity in the 2012 Republican Presidential Debates

Desmond Brown offers some advice to conservatives running for president about how to address the problem of youth unemployment.

Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich speaks at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Friday, November 18, 2011. While speaking at the school, Gingrich presented a plan for youth that would hire poor minority middle-school students as janitors. (AP/Charles Krupa)
Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich speaks at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Friday, November 18, 2011. While speaking at the school, Gingrich presented a plan for youth that would hire poor minority middle-school students as janitors. (AP/Charles Krupa)

Republican presidential candidates over the past few months engaged in 25 public debates, sharing their views on a wide range of issues from who best embodies the ideals of former President Ronald Reagan to why the wealthy deserve more tax breaks. Yet in all of these engagements, the candidates rarely took the opportunity to present a comprehensive strategy to support our nation’s young Americans.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich presented a plan for youth that would turn poor minority middle-school students into an army of janitors. That is not the bold, grand vision that one expects from the professed leading thinker of the conservative movement. For his part, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney only presented a set of vague ideas that would provide more block grants for states to build human capital.

Republican candidates in these debates missed a real opportunity to articulate their vision for young Americans. Instead, the candidates seemed to be speaking of an alternate reality where the real challenges facing young Americans simply didn’t matter. This is alarming. Young Americans need a comprehensive policy vision from their potential presidential leaders as well as a grasp of the targeted resources needed to help our youth build and share in the future prosperity of our nation. Instead the candidates have repeated conservative party-line mantras about more block grants, lower taxes, and fewer regulations—all designed to shift more of our nation’s resources to those who need it least.

So when the Republican presidential candidates meet again later this month for their next debate, here are some facts they could usefully explore.

Challenges facing young Americans

The backdrop of these debates is rising poverty and economic hardship among children and young adults. Recent census data show an alarming increase in the number of children who were poor or near poor, with more than one in five children under age 18 living in poverty, and 44 percent of children living in families with annual household incomes below $44,700 for a family of four. Across all racial groups, the rate of child poverty increased between 2009 and 2010.

This trend of economic hardship continues into the young adult years when most Americans typically start to get a foothold in the workforce. Young adults ages 18 to 24 are falling into poverty at higher rates than older adults. Roughly 22 percent of these young people lived in poverty in 2010, almost one in three young African Americans, and more than a quarter of young Hispanic Americans. The data also revealed that more young adults ages 25 to 34 are moving back into their parents’ homes, with 5.9 million young adults living with their parents during the year.

A future without a plan for youth

Today’s changing U.S. economy requires youth to earn a high school diploma and some form of postsecondary credential to compete for the types of jobs that are available. At the same time, starting one’s career during the Great Recession and subsequently slow recovery will keep more young Americans out of the workforce than previous generations. This could exacerbate the recent trends where younger workers have lost ground and have seen a reduction in wealth and assets.

In 2009 households headed by adults younger than 35 years old had 68 percent less wealth than households of their same-aged counterparts in 1984. By contrast, households headed by adults ages 65 and older possessed 42 percent more median net worth than their same-aged counterparts in 1984. These employment and economic trends are particularly alarming for young Hispanic and African American workers. In 2011, amid positive signs of economic recovery, the average unemployment rate for workers ages 20 to 24 was 14.6 percent; one in four African Americans and 16 percent of Hispanics in this age range were out of work.

Without an aggressive response, today’s young workers will continue to experience lower labor market attachment and reduced long-term earnings. Over time, if fewer young people are able to find employment with adequate wages, their ranks among the middle class will shrink, further exacerbating the current wealth gap in the United States.

Five simple strategies to support youth

A comprehensive plan that includes job training, access to education, and youth engagement will allow young Americans across all racial groups to share in the future prosperity of our country. Here are five simple strategies all candidates for president should embrace to reduce poverty and create more opportunities for all young Americans.

Invest in child care and early learning

Investments in child care and early learning provide multiple benefits. First, by improving access to safe and affordable child care, more low-income parents can enter the labor market and begin earning. Second, studies show that children who participate in early learning programs perform much better in school and are much more likely to graduate from high school on time.

Promote high school graduation and improve access to higher education

Among young workers, greater educational attainment, including a high school diploma or some college coursework, reduces the rate of unemployment. During the recent recession and the economy’s initially uneven recovery, between April 2007 and April 2010, the unemployment rate for young workers (16- to 24-year-olds) with no high school diploma and not currently enrolled in school increased from 19.7 percent to 33 percent.

Develop an inclusive jobs creation and training plan for young workers

Critical investments are needed for year-round youth employment programs that will allow youth to gain needed job skills, promote on-the-job training programs, mentorships for at-risk youth, and expand sector-specific training partnerships to prepare youth for jobs in growth sectors such as information technology and health care.

Promote youth service

Expanding opportunities for youth to serve their communities is a critical component of building skills for at-risk youth. These opportunities not only allow young people to provide much-needed service to their neighbors, but they also provide critical workforce skills, which are necessary to get a foothold in the tight labor market.

Invest in stronger community systems

Youth who grow up in high-poverty communities often lack resources such as high-performing schools, adequate public transportation, and access to information technology. These community factors place low-income youth at a higher risk of growing up poor. Investments and innovations are needed to address these challenges through targeted programs to spur economic growth, rebuild crumbling infrastructure, and create more opportunities.

Taken together, these five simple strategies to support children and youth would be an effective and efficient way to help those most in need of a hand up in our economy to get a good start in life. The Republican presidential candidates often talk about their commitment to providing opportunity to all Americans, but more must be done than just presuming the marketplace will provide.

Desmond Brown is a consultant to the Center for American Progress Action Fund’s Half in Ten antipoverty project and an expert on poverty issues and welfare reform.

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