08/02/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

A Distressing Disconnect

I've now become convinced that an entire generation (I'm 61) has suffered collective amnesia as to what we were like when we were teenagers and young adults.

The most extreme case, of course, is Bill Cosby, who goes on about the lack of morality and values among African-American young men living in poor communities. His view is pervasive across class and racial lines. It probably goes back to our earliest ancestors, shaking their heads after a particularly wild post-hunt party.

Maybe I'm an outlier, but I'm constantly cleaning up stories about my youth when I talk to my adult children, just to make sure they don't use them against me in the midst of an argument when I'm criticizing their behavior, either currently or for something they did when they were younger. I'm stunned about how reckless and downright stupid you can get at 16 or 17, not to mention what a 49-year-old governor can get up to.

But, of course, I did survive, but I see this as less my own moral standards and more about luck and, even more significantly, caring adults who gave me second, third, fourth, ad infinitum, chances to get back on track.

That's why I've become somewhat obsessed with the plight of "disconnected youth," young people 16 to 24, who are out of work and not in school. The nation has an estimated six million of them in this position. They come from virtually every part of America. We've got larger concentrations in urban areas. New York City has nearly 200,000; Chicago and LA with nearly 100,000 each.

In urban areas, disconnected youth are overwhelmingly of color, but the numbers are also large in suburban and rural areas where job opportunities for young people without a high school diploma were evaporating even before the recession. With globalization, the prospect for being pushed out or dropping out of high school has risen dramatically in the last 20 years.

If you left high school when I was young - back in the 50's or 60's - it by no means foreclosed you from becoming a successful member of the middle class. In fact, it wasn't uncommon to find heads of companies who had dropped out and worked their way up from the shop floor. We still find cases of the triumph over adversity for many of the disconnected today. But it's gotten immeasurably harder because of the enormous number of people competing for low-wage jobs. There is growing competition from the newly unemployed and the elderly on fixed income coming back into the workforce.

What can be done? This problem doesn't take a new Marshall Plan, but it will take a national commitment on two fronts - 1) a focus on school to work transitions for young people not on a college track, and 2) coming up with subsidized jobs in the public and private sectors to give young people a second chance to connect with work.

There are two important tracks that can be taken. My organization, CSS, has worked on one of them - the first is two pieces of legislation in Congress. One bill we helped Congressman Charles Rangel develop is already part of the federal stimulus. It involves a tax credit for businesses willing to hire and train disconnected youth. The other, introduced by Congressman Jerrold Nadler (H.R. 2497), is to create a job corps for disconnected youth to work on new transportation infrastructure projects. Both are aimed at providing a way back into the economy for young people from Bedford Stuyvesant to Topeka, those who want to get back on track through work.

The second track is how this country looks at education. Anyone who thinks that equity in education exists in the country is delusional. Back in 1973, Thurgood Marshall, in perhaps one of his most famous dissents, in San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez - a case to determine whether education was a constitutionally protected right - excoriated the majority, assuring them they had done fundamental harm to democracy by not making education a mandatory right of all Americans.

We see it today in school districts separated by only a few miles, some lacking textbooks, teachers, and laboratories, while just next door in the adjacent district everything is available, based solely on a local tax base. Fix education and the number of young people who fall by the wayside will drop.

The costs of leaving six million young adults completely out of the economy and bereft of hope are going to be dangerously high. Everyone recognizes that this population is inevitably a source of crime. Currently, New York State has 60,000 people incarcerated and 23,000 on parole and the fifth highest recidivism rate in the country. It destroys individuals, their victims, and their families.

But I don't think crime is the most significant cost. I think this population if left without hope is corrosive to democracy. They become the prime target for simplistic and violent ideology, whether it's the neo-Nazi fervor gaining hold in Europe and the U.S., or the massive growth in gang violence in cities like Oakland, LA, or Chicago. They see no hope for second chances even in the richest country in the world. We leave them to their own devices at our peril.