01/15/2014 02:21 pm ET Updated Mar 17, 2014

The War on Poverty 50 Years Later -- Time to Focus On Youth

The mixed legacy of 50 years of our War on Poverty has sparked a lot of partisan bickering in recent weeks. A wiser response is to put aside stale arguments and launch a collaborative effort to lift up a critical segment of our population. Together we must ensure that our young people get their fair shot at the American Dream.

The War on Poverty undeniably improved outcomes for older Americans; they saw their rates of poverty plummet more than any other demographic. Today, we face another urgent challenge.

Nearly 6 million young people in the United States are floundering, unable to secure a meaningful foothold in either school or work. 20 percent of them live in poverty, numbers that soared since the Great Recession and have remained stagnant. Such disconnection carries steep costs, diminishing their job prospects, earnings and savings well into adulthood. According to a nonprofit youth advocacy group, Young Invincibles, the sky-high unemployment rate of young adults ages 16-24 costs the U.S. as much as $25 billion a year in lost tax revenue and increased social service costs. Their bleak future will be ours.

We can avoid this outcome by creating more opportunity for our young people. In so doing, we will reclaim the idea that America is the land of intergenerational mobility, and if you work hard and play by the rules, you can get ahead in life. Unfortunately, for many of our nation's youth, their outcome depends far too much on where they live and how much income and education their parents have.

The success or failure of young adults creates a ripple effect across every aspect of community life. If more young people are on career pathways, the overall community is more likely to achieve economic mobility and security.

But our old education and job-training approaches are outdated, and must be revamped if we are to meet the challenges of our increasingly global and technical economy. In 1973, just 28 percent of U.S. jobs required an associate's degree or better. By 2020, more than 65 percent of jobs will require such credentials. We are not equipping our rising generation to meet these workforce demands, especially compared to our international peers.

In order to stay competitive globally and meet the demands of the current and future American workforce, we must:
  • Strengthen pathways to school and careers, including improving career and technical education.
  • Help more students graduate from high school.
  • Work with employers to expand internships and apprenticeships.
  • Make it easier to save for education and job training after high school.

Slowly, we are building consensus on many of these issues. Elected officials from both sides of the aisle have spoken passionately about the need to focus the nation's energy on expanding opportunity and increasing economic mobility. Now is the time for more people to come to the table. But, this effort must involve all sectors -- business, civic and religious organizations and nonprofits -- not just government. Many business leaders, educators, civic leaders and members of faith communities have already joined the chorus.

There are even some areas -- albeit modest ones -- in today's partisan political climate where there is some agreement.

A growing number of Republicans and Democrats recognize that encouraging families to save for education after high school is essential, and Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Chris Coons (D-DE) have come together to sponsor legislation to promote college savings. Business leaders, government officials and educators have joined forces in Iowa to launch Opportunity Iowa, a statewide, cross-sector collaboration to create more pathways for young adults after high school, and close the skills gap. IBM is partnering with Republican and Democratic mayors to increase career readiness for students by combining high school, college and work in one setting. These leaders already recognize that progress will not come from one sector alone.

In a free society, some inequality is unavoidable. Not everyone will rise to the same level; people simply differ in skills and ambition.

But inequality without the chance for mobility is economically inefficient -- and unjust. And when the American Dream is at risk for some, we all suffer.

We committed to building a Great Society five decades ago, when President Lyndon B. Johnson pledged changes that would "show the way to new opportunities for millions of our fellow citizens" and "provide a lever with which we can begin to open the door to our prosperity for those who have been kept outside."

Today, let's give the next generation of Americans the opportunity to reach their full potential. We will all reap the benefit.

Mark Edwards is the Executive Director of Opportunity Nation, a national, bipartisan and cross-sector campaign of over 300 organizations focused on expanding opportunity and economic mobility to more Americans.