Spotlight Exclusives

Reconnecting Our Youth to Fix Our Economy

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Increasing attention has been paid to the growing ranks of America۪s youth who are disconnected from school and work, and who face endemic challenges to accessing opportunity. Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity recently asked several experts to address the challenge of “disconnected youth” and what we can do about it. Read what they had to say here.

There are 6.7 million young people ages 16 to 24 comprising almost 17 percent of their age group who are disconnected from school and work. These young people who we call “opportunity youth” have often faced and are trying to overcome significant life challenges. Some left high school without earning a diploma, while others completed high school but did not attend or finish college. Others are teenage parents, current and former foster youth, have experienced periods of homelessness, or have been involved with the juvenile justice system. Despite their challenging circumstances, these youth represent an opportunity for the nation to tap into the talents of millions of potential leaders and productive workers at a time when America’s skills gap is significant. 

A recent survey of opportunity youth found that, despite their challenges growing up, they remain optimistic about their future. In fact, nearly three in four 73 percent are very confident or hopeful that they will be able to achieve their goals in life, including continuing their education and getting a good job. Sixty-five percent say one of their goals is to finish high school or college, and they know they can achieve it.

In addition to the strong moral case for action, failing to reconnect opportunity youth costs the nation billions of dollars every year in lost productivity and increased social services.  In 2011, these youth cost the American taxpayers $93 billion in lost revenues due to lost labor productivity and increased social services. They cost our economy a total of $252 billion. The economic burden of these young people over their lifetimes is $1.6 trillion to taxpayers and $4.7 trillion to society.

The good news is that the challenges and opportunities facing these young people to reconnect to school, find meaningful employment, and reach their full potential have started to capture the attention of leaders across the country.

The White House Council on Community Solutions recently completed a two-year effort to identify strategies to reach out to and reconnect with opportunity youth. Employers across the country made commitments to hire nearly 300,000 opportunity youth through 2012. And, on September 19, Opportunity Nation will provide a national call to action to help opportunity youth and other young people move up the ladder of economic mobility through career and technical education, four year degrees, and beyond.

We must continue to build on this growing national momentum from local scalable programs in communities, to statehouses, and the halls of Congress to ensure all of America۪s young people have the opportunity to reach their full potential. Together, we can begin to turn the tide for these young people and our country۪s economic recovery. 

To print a PDF version of this document, click here.  

John Bridgeland is the president and chief executive officer of Civic Enterprises and former director of the White House Domestic Policy Council.

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author or authors alone, and not those of Spotlight. Spotlight is a non-partisan initiative, and Spotlight۪s commentary section includes diverse perspectives on poverty.  If you have a question about a commentary, please don۪t hesitate to contact us at


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