09/05/2012 02:55 pm ET Updated Nov 05, 2012

How to Preserve Taxpayer Dollars? Invest in Youth!

Imagine a community in which all young people have hope and opportunity to be gainfully employed and contributing members of society.

What if I told you that we could save approximately $50 million in Los Angeles County alone over the next five years? Would you be interested?

What if we could save the country an annual amount of $4.9 billion in crime-related costs? Would you be interested?

We recently met a young man -- we'll call him Jerome to respect his privacy -- through Brotherhood Crusade, a community-based organization in South Los Angeles. Jerome faced a tough childhood, with an abusive father and the death of his mother when he was only 10 years old. Even after being shot at age 14, he found the strength to succeed through support from his grandmother, Brotherhood Crusade and a landmark new philanthropic initiative called BLOOM.

"I could be your greatest nightmare," Jerome told us. "But I choose to be your biggest asset." Today, through his connection to the Brotherhood Crusade, Jerome has gone to Africa for a one-month expedition and has ongoing exposure to adult men who are helping him become job ready and identify healthier long-term options for his future.

Youth in general need support to be guided on a path toward becoming assets to their community. Black male youth are especially in crisis today and in dire need of such support. They are more likely to be in trouble with the law than to graduate high school. In L.A. County, blacks make up 10 percent of the youth population but approximately 33 percent of all youth under county probation supervision. And unfortunately, black youth are arrested for juvenile felonies 16 times more often than their white counterparts.

The simple question is: How are these young men supposed to become self-sufficient, taxpaying, contributing members of society when quality education, job training and full-time employment constantly take a back seat to community violence and discrimination against them?

Although people across the country debate on what the approaches to the crisis should be, there is no question: there is a CRISIS. There is a need to act with urgency to stem the tide. America's future workforce and financial solvency depends upon it.

Now, there's a new initiative providing a model of community-based intervention here in Los Angeles. After two years of collaborating with many community members, researchers, nonprofit leaders and funders, the California Community Foundation launched BLOOM in May 2012. The goal of BLOOM, which stands for Building a Lifetime of Options and Opportunities for Men, is to help redirect black male youth ages 14 to 18 that are or have been under county probation supervision toward a path that produces improved employment and educational opportunities. The end game is simple: school completion and jobs!

The only current philanthropic effort of its kind, BLOOM is a five-year, $5 million-dollar investment by foundations and businesses in local nonprofit organizations with the ability, reputation and commitment to address mentorship, employment and educational opportunities for black teen males in the delinquency system and build a pipeline of job ready young men.

Not only does a BLOOM investment make sense for these youth, it makes sense for us, the taxpayers. It costs more than $100,000 to house one youth in an L.A. probation camp for one year. Alternative, community-based options cost anywhere from $3,000 to $10,000 per youth per year. It is disturbing that a significant number of these youth (approximately 43 percent) are not considered "hardcore" offenders that pose a significant threat to public safety. Over the next five years, BLOOM intends to contribute to a reduction in the number of black male youth under county probation supervision by 10 percent, or approximately 480 youth, saving taxpayers almost $50 million while producing more skilled, employable young men that will become part of a new segment of taxpayers generating more local, state and federal revenues. Additionally, according to the Alliance for Excellent Education, California's economy would accrue an additional $40 billion in savings if one year's worth of California's high school dropouts could be converted to graduates.

It's hard to argue with numbers like these -- harder still when you see the effect on the faces of young men who are simply bursting with potential.

BLOOM is about instilling that kind of confidence and ambition into all black male youth, beginning in South L.A. This is not a program for the best and he brightest -- it's about putting aside our stereotypes and prejudice, and investing in the potential of all kids, regardless of what has happened to them. It's about believing that we all deserve REAL opportunity and support at being a productive citizen.

L.A. County and our nation has billions in savings riding on it. Yes, that seems interesting to me.

Robert Lewis is the BLOOM Initiative Director at the California Community Foundation in Los Angeles.