The Kids Aren’t Alright

For millions of Americans, the Great Depression brought years of hardship and heartache — particularly for young people. The 1933 Relief Census found that although youths under 16 years of age represented 31 percent of the U.S. population, they constituted 42 percent of all poverty-stricken Americans. Now, 79 years later, there’s a similar human toll lying beneath comparable statistics.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 48.8 percent of young people between the ages of 16 and 24 were employed last July, typically the peak month of summer youth employment. This was the lowest July rate on record since this statistic was first tracked in 1948. Further, data released by the U.S. Census Bureau in September indicated that during the last decade, the unemployment rate for young people spiked to the highest levels since World War II. Only 55 percent of Americans aged 16 to 29 currently have jobs, a 12 percent drop from the employment rate in 2000.

“It is imperative that we ensure all children are given the opportunity to have access to meaningful jobs,” said George Russell Jr., executive vice president and director of corporate citizenship at State Street Corp., a financial services provider to institutional investors. “While the market environment is difficult, leaders can set an example by employing youth in summer jobs and encouraging similar practices among their peers.”

Earlier this month the White House announced Summer Jobs+, the federal government’s call to action for businesses, nonprofit organizations and government to work together to provide pathways to employment for nearly 180,000 low-income and disconnected youth this coming summer. The administration also announced its intention to launch the Summer Jobs+ Bank, a one-stop search tool for youth to access postings for any participating employers seeking to reach them, by the end of February.

These developments serve more than the unemployed. According to the White House Council for Community Solutions, in 2011 alone, taxpayers shouldered more than $93 billion in direct costs and lost tax revenue to support young adults disconnected from school and work. Over the lifetime of these young people, taxpayers will assume a $1.6 trillion burden to meet the increased needs and lost revenue of this group.

“The problem is the job market is changing more rapidly than the institutions that prepare people for job markets,” said James Bell, founder and executive director of the W. Haywood Burns Institute, a national organization working to reduce overrepresentation of youth of color in the juvenile justice system. “We have to have the ability, which we don’t, to be flexible enough to adapt what we teach and train young people for. The dynamism of the job market is too quick for our current educational system’s preparation for it.”

According to Bell, the unemployment rate can be greatly accredited to the lacking education system, specifically the way schools are built and run in low-income areas.

“It can’t be overstated that how the physical space is constructed and administered impacts learning,” Bell said. “Metal detectors, the line and time it takes to get through that; privacy issues; probation officers having a room or office on school grounds; all of this makes a school more about social control than learning. If your thinking is that these young people are more violent and more impulsive than other young people across their age group, then you set up an environment that brings about that result. The first thing that should happen is a mind shift — the sense should be that these kids want to learn and we have to put them in an environment to learn.”

State Street Corp. provides employment placement for more than 1,000 youth annually. The company uses a two-pronged approach — corporate funded and grant supported — to provide opportunities, driven by the recognition that summer employment must be provided to the full range of youth populations, including varied social and ethnic backgrounds. Approximately 250 of these jobs are internships for college students. “The remaining majority are jobs being created for youth in underserved communities, who are primarily black and Hispanic,” Russell said.

“These jobs all provide a paid work experience with quality supervision, a well-designed learning plan and connections to supportive services, particularly positive youth development and mentoring activities,” Russell said. “The company supports a continuum of meaningful job opportunities starting with funding subsidized wage placements in community-based organizations for first-time job experiences, as well as placements in professional positions at State Street for those who have developed basic employability skills and are ready for more responsibility.”

Further, in Boston, State Street joined forces with private philanthropies, other employers, state and local government and community organizations with the goal of employing 10,000 at-risk youth in the city’s toughest neighborhoods through the Youth Violence Prevention Funder Collaborative. This program, in conjunction with the city of Boston, engages area businesses, foundations and donors to provide funds to subsidize wages to place at-risk youth in well-supervised employment at local community-based organizations and small businesses.

“Education is one of the most important factors in determining young people’s future success,” Russell said. “Graduating from high school and pursuing higher education can change the trajectory of their lives forever, but underprivileged youth in particular need a lot of support along the way to ensure they can achieve academic and ultimately career success. That’s why mentoring and workforce development programs that encompass wrap-around services for young people are critical to getting them on the right path.”

Ladan Nikravan is an associate editor of Diversity Executive magazine. She can be reached at lnikravan@diversity-executive.com.