01/05/2012 12:47 pm ET Updated Mar 06, 2012

Reconnecting America's Forgotten Youth

By John M. Bridgeland and Jessica Milano

Nearly one in six youth ages 16 to 24 are disconnected from school and work -- and they are often completely forgotten by our country, unmentioned in the unemployment headlines, and overlooked in the political debate. Some are high school dropouts, while others graduate but fail to complete college. All of them struggle to find a decent job. Together, they cost the nation billions of dollars every year and over their lifetimes in lost productivity and increased social services. They also represent an opportunity for the nation to tap the talents of millions of potential leaders and productive workers at a time when America's skills gap is significant.

Two reports issued today serve as a wake up call to the nation, providing staggering facts about the costs of inaction and hopeful news about who these young people are, how they view their futures, what barriers they face, and what might help them become productive workers and responsible citizens.

There are 6.7 million so-called "disconnected youth" who are out of school and work. In 2011, these youth cost the taxpayer $93 billion in lost revenues from a lack of productive workers and increased social services and cost society $252 billion. In total, the economic burden of these young people over their lifetimes is $1.6 trillion to the taxpayer and $4.7 trillion to society. These conservative estimates from Columbia University should come as no surprise, given that youth unemployment is twice the adult rate at 18 percent and even higher for young African Americans (30 percent) and Hispanics (20 percent).

In a recent survey conducted by Peter D. Hart Research, more than half of these youth report they are looking for full-time work, but nearly equal numbers told us they do not have sufficient education or work experience to get a good job. Barriers such as the high cost of education, the need to take care of their families, a lack of transportation, difficulties balancing school and work, and not knowing how to apply to college or obtain financial aid all stand in their way to reconnecting to education, work, and community service.

The challenges these youth face are often severe -- three in five surveyed grew up in poverty, nearly half were raised by a single parent, and very few grew up in households with a parent who graduated from college. Yet more than half believe they will graduate from high school or college one day. Eighty-five percent see the importance of a good job to the life they want to lead, and the vast majority accepts responsibility for their own futures. Seventy-seven percent agree that getting a good education and job is their own responsibility and depends on their own effort.

Notwithstanding these and other challenges, these young people remain hopeful about and accept responsibility for their futures. Nearly three in four are very confident or hopeful that they will be able to achieve their goals in life, building on their big dreams. Boys surveyed wanted to be policemen, lawyers, athletes or in the military when they grew up, while girls wanted to be doctors, nurses, teachers and lawyers.

They want help from successful peers, college professors who can guide them in their education, and business leaders who can mentor them in the workplace. And recognizing the dual challenge of needing to 'earn and learn' to support themselves and their families, nearly 8 in 10 would like jobs that allow them to earn money while attending school and gaining credentials, and 7 in 10 long for job training and apprenticeships that give them on-the-job experience.

A White House Council for Community Solutions has initiated an aggressive plan to help the nation learn more about these "opportunity youth," build on community collaborations that are showing promise in reconnecting them to school and work, and ignite a multi-sector response that will bring more employers, non-profit leaders, policymakers, and the young people themselves at the table to innovate together.

The promise of a generation depends on our response. With the mounting costs of inaction in a tough fiscal climate and a skills slow-down that is crippling America's competitiveness, our nation doesn't have a moment to lose. America's opportunity youth are ready to re-engage.

John Bridgeland is former Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, CEO of Civic Enterprises, and a Member of the White House Council for Community Solutions. Jessica Milano is Senior Policy Advisor at Civic Enterprises. The reports, the Economic Value of Opportunity Youth, and Opportunity Road: The Promise and Challenge of America's Forgotten Youth, can be found at and