When unemployed at age 25, I did my damnedest to contribute to our national debt. Unintentionally, of course. I was in solidarity with millions of young adults who, despite economic recovery, continue to battle double-digit unemployment for the past six years.
I couldn't find a job straight out of school, so I took a full-time, unpaid internship. To pay rent, I bartended nights and weekend double shifts. Working 80 hours a week, I struggled to make my bills when 40 of those hours were unpaid. I left to take a contract job, assured that the project would employ me for months. Weeks later, my boss congratulated me -- I finished early, saving the client lots of money. I deposited my final paycheck, drank one of my roommate's cheap beers, jumped in the shower and cried.
It reminded me of springtime as a child. Growing up, a tornado barreled through town about every other spring. I huddled next to my classmates to duck and cover. With my forehead pressed to the floor, I could smell years of pencil shavings forever caught in loops of carpet. I prayed that I, too, would be tightly knitted to the earth, missed by the vacuum. As the sky darkened, my heart would pound quick and loud. I thought it might burst out of my ears. At some point, I couldn't tell whether the deafening roar came from the tornado or swelled up from base of my skull where I locked my fingers to protect my neck. Every year it missed me. The roar swept back across the plain, replaced by giggles of children feeling silly for panicking over nothing.
Joblessness felt like a tornado-induced anxiety attack. Except this time, the panic wasn't swallowed by calm, blue sky after cowering for 15 minutes. Sometimes anxiety was relegated to a supporting role so another gut-wrenching emotion could take center stage. If I bought something nonessential, the guilt of a mortal sin washed over me. With every rejection, shame hit me like a hammer to the temple of a cow in line for slaughter. Of course I panicked when paying my bills. But the slow burn of losing your dignity because no one, not a single person saw value in your time and talent felt much, much worse.
While I listened to the mind-numbing roar of a panic attack, my unemployment was a giant sucking sound for YOU. The personal price of unemployment as a young person is well-documented, a cornucopia of emotional and physical health risks, financial vulnerability and "depreciation of human capital," a phrase that sounds like a description of a degenerative disease. But today we know how severe youth unemployment is a hit to our economy as a whole. Even compared to just 2007 levels of youth employment, we spend nearly $9 billion every year on the jobless youth. That's an average of almost $61 a year added to the bill of every taxpayer in America.
The real kicker? I wasn't taking a red cent from Uncle Sam. As a former student, unpaid intern and part-time worker turned full-time job seeker, I hadn't earned enough to draw unemployment insurance. Instead, the real cost was what I wasn't putting into the system, to the tune of about $7,000 of lost tax revenue per year. I was in good company, too. A whopping 93 percent of the $9 billion yearly price tag is solely lost tax revenue -- only 7 percent accounts for unemployment insurance or other social safety expenditures.
Concerned about the national debt? Pay attention. When you include the millions of young people who left the job market entirely during the Recession, our federal and state governments miss out on $25 billion in revenue every year!
What a waste. These days, it's very fashionable to talk about cutting spending so that we can save the downtrodden Millennials from national debt doomsday and produce economic growth. But instead, we should invest in smart, proven programs that put young folks in skilled, paid jobs, such as Youth Opportunity Grant job centers and Cooperative Learning Programs. One example of this is the Department of Labor's Registered Apprentice program. It provides a 5,000 percent return on investment for every federal dollar spent. Businesses profit as well, with $1.40 returned to the employer for every dollar spent. And, in a stunning departure from typical stereotypes, it's a government program that 97 percent of businesses would recommend to other companies.
And if we are really serious about economic recovery and growth in this country, it's time we put young adults back to work. After all, we're in this together.