THE BLOG
12/11/2014 12:58 pm ET Updated Feb 10, 2015

The Power of Civic Engagement: Opening the Door to Opportunity for American Youth

The number is staggering. Today, 5.6 million teens and young adults ages 16 to 24 throughout the United States are neither in school nor working. They are disconnected from the very paths -- education and career -- that will help to make them productive participants in our society and our economy.

Helping young adults succeed isn't simply altruistic -- it's essential to our collective wellbeing. And while we've always known this in our hearts, it is also supported with data. Helping our youth embark on meaningful education and career pathways is crucial to ensuring our communities are places of opportunity for all Americans. A growing body of research indicates that increased civic engagement may be a key factor in helping achieve this outcome.

Fortunately, the recently released 2014 Opportunity Index included some welcome news. The Opportunity Index measures key economic, educational and civic factors to provide a snapshot of access to upward mobility across the country. As we continue to emerge from the Great Recession, the number of disconnected youth has dropped by 200,000 teens and young adults since 2013, when 5.8 million youth were neither in school nor working.

While this drop shows progress, we know that there is much more to be done. High school graduation rates remain far too low in many school districts. And youth unemployment rates persist at unacceptably high levels -- more than double the nation's overall unemployment rate.

Since the Index launched four years ago, it has illustrated just how vitally important the future of young Americans is to our competitiveness and health as a country. The Index has shown that the higher the number of disconnected youth in a region, the lower a region's Opportunity Score. Conversely, the lower the number of disconnected youth, the higher a region's score, indicating stronger community conditions for upward mobility.

The Index also measures two indicators of civic engagement: the number of adults who volunteer in each state and the number of adults who are members of civic, religious or social organizations. There is mounting evidence that volunteering, participating in service projects and other forms of community involvement are more than feel-good activities. They can contribute to better outcomes for youth and for communities.

What if civic engagement could also help young Americans move toward economic success? Or help businesses identify and nurture new talent and impart valuable job skills to potential employees? What if civic engagement benefited all of us, by enhancing economic opportunity in every state in the country?

According to a new report released by Opportunity Nation with support from the Citi Foundation, Connecting Youth and Strengthening Communities: The Data Behind Civic Engagement and Economic Opportunity, civic engagement can help move towards achieving these goals. The data shows that youth who volunteer are considerably less likely than their non-volunteering peers to be disconnected from work and school. In fact, the likelihood that a teen or young adult is disconnected drops in half if he or she volunteers.

Unfortunately, these crucial volunteer opportunities are not always accessible to all. Currently, millions of low-income youth are cut off from a host of valuable civic engagement opportunities that can impart transferrable skills, leadership experience and social capital that can help them get ahead.

That's a scenario we simply cannot afford.

Fortunately, companies, schools and nonprofits across the country are working to change the trajectory for thousands of disconnected youth. They are using a blend of volunteering, internships and mentoring:

New Door Ventures, a skill-building and job-training nonprofit, is pairing paid job internships with training and support for disconnected youth in San Francisco with a heavy emphasis on mentoring and GED tutoring from caring adults. Its goal is to help youth transition to a successful, self-sustaining adulthood.

The Ritz Carlton hotel chain is partnering with the nonprofit America's Promise Alliance, which focuses on boosting the nation's high school graduation rate. Together they launched a skills-based volunteering program designed to reach youth at risk for disconnection. Since 2009, thousands of Ritz-Carlton employees have worked one-on-one with 15,000 students at their hotels and at schools, teaching them critical life and career skills.

ServiceWorks, a national program powered by AmeriCorps, the Citi Foundation and Points of Light, is using volunteer service as a strategy to help 25,000 low-income teens and young adults ages 16 to 24 develop the skills they need to prepare for college and careers. AmeriCorps VISTAS are working with young people in 10 cities: Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Newark, San Francisco, St. Louis and Washington, D.C.

The City of Baltimore has started the Hire One Youth program that aims for every business owner to hire at least one teen or young adult. City officials work with nonprofits and businesses to help place youth in paid internships where they learn professional skills and build confidence.

These leaders are providing powerful examples of how cross-sector collaboration can help young Americans. We need more of them.

The truth is, it will take all of us -- private, public and nonprofit sectors -- working together to ensure the rising generation gets their fair shot at the American Dream. We must lower the rate of youth disconnection and help more young Americans acquire valuable skills that can help them get good jobs. Civic engagement can, and should, play a major role in that effort.

Connecting Youth and Strengthening Communities: The Data Behind Civic Engagement and Economic Opportunity was produced by Opportunity Nation with data and analysis provided by Measure of America and with support from the Citi Foundation.

Russell Krumnow is Managing Director of Opportunity Nation, a national, bipartisan campaign comprised of more than 350 businesses and educational institutions, nonprofits and civic organizations working together to expand economic mobility and close the opportunity gap in America.