Crime and ennui in Columbia Heights, D.C., overwhelmed the adolescence of Elmer Diaz, a first-generation immigrant from El Salvador. He was always bright, but with his hard-working parents constantly away from home, Elmer's life became entwined with gangs. He also got into drugs. Then he dropped out of high school. And then, a stabbing provided the violent climax to a young man's turbulent coming of age -- and seemed to seal his future.
A growing number of young people haven't encountered the American Dream, and for them, Elmer's experience reflects their American reality. They are the disconnected youth -- the more than six million 16-to-24-year-olds neither participating in the workforce nor enrolled in school. Many are high school dropouts, foster youth, and young people involved in the justice system -- those who have fallen off, who were never put on a good path, and too many of whom have been forgotten in the various debates around education or employment. As the ranks of disconnected youth continue to grow, the urgency increases for real solutions that provide a path leading marginalized young people back in from the edge. Finding those answers isn't just the right thing to do, it's the smart thing to do -- we need everyone to feel included and be included in building our future.
While it may be tempting to dismiss disengaged youth as an age-old problem, the severity of our nation's crisis is alarmingly new. The fraction of 16-to-24-year olds sitting on the sidelines in the United States is one in seven, according to the Social Science Research Council's Measure of America project, and the Great Recession (which is the only economic environment many young people have known as working-age adults) increased the population of disconnected youth by 800,000. It's of such pressing concern that last week in Chicago, leaders from government, business and the nonprofit worlds, along with civically-engaged young leaders, explored solutions to our disconnection crisis at the third meeting of Clinton Global Initiative America, a yearly gathering focused on accelerating economic recovery.
Youth unemployment is at its highest level since World War II. My father and mother both had their first jobs more than 50 years ago. In those days, the fraction of 16-to-19-year-old men out of work hovered around 15 percent (there was no tracking for an analogous percentage of young women then).
The unemployment figure for the same demographic has doubled since my father stocked shelves in the early 1960s. Even compared to 2000, the number of jobless 16-to-19-year olds of both sexes has surged more than 40 percent. For young people, disconnection when they should be gaining work experience or enrolled in school, building professional connections and skills, and developing independence can have serious consequences for their futures, including reduced job prospects and lowered earnings over their lifetimes. According to Measure of America, early unemployment can even negatively impact people's long-term mental and physical health outcomes and their prospects for marriage.
The astounding number of disconnected youth also creates long-term risks for our country. In California, the state with the largest foster care population, a study shows that women in the state who "aged-out" of foster care were more than four times more likely to end up on public assistance. Estimates of the number of California prison inmates who have a history in foster care range between 14 and 60 percent. According to Measure of America, youth disconnection's total bill to tax payers two years ago was $93.7 billion. And the Huffington Post reports that with 1.3 million 16-to-24-year olds out of work, youth unemployment could cost the U.S. $18 billion in lost income over the next 10 years.
To address the significant challenges posed by youth disconnection, we must develop and implement effective solutions targeting specific needs of specific populations. As one example, Youth Villages just announced at the meeting last week that it's committing through CGI America to serve all of the approximately 600 children aging out of foster care in Tennessee each year, addressing head on the challenges that confront far too many youth who age out of the system without support, resources, or a plan. This would be a national milestone, as Tennessee would become the first state to provide far-reaching transition services to all of its aging-out youth. Unlike other foster care programs found within the state, Youth Villages' program is truly comprehensive, with transitional living specialists assisting youth with all aspects of the transition to adulthood, big and small.
Another promising example of leadership in this area comes from 21-year-old Sixto Cancel, a remarkable youth advocate I met last week at CGI America. A former foster youth himself, Sixto's heart-breaking experience in the system was marked by abuse and violence, but he has demonstrated incredible resilience as a college student, a Jim Casey Young Fellow, and an advisory board member for the American Institutes Research (AIR) on LGBTQ and Allied Youth. Sixto also made his mark as a participant at CGI University 2013, where he and his group committed to mobilizing other young adults who have aged out of foster care to serve as leaders in reforming the child welfare system, here in the United States and around the world. After seeing him in action at the CGI America meeting, I have no doubt he will make a positive difference, helping to reconnect one of the most disconnected demographics through his CGI University commitment and his future work.
In addition to being targeted and specific, effective strategies for re-engaging youth should also prove practical and relevant. After all, research reveals what many, including CGI America participant Youth Radio, already know -- that tangible, real-world opportunities make youth less apt to drop out of school and also more marketable to employers. Last week, Youth Radio reported progress on its 2012 CGI America commitment to connect at least 60 low-income young adults to jobs in the technology and digital media industry. This includes the creation of a Break Through news desk which will provide participants with the ability to deliver reports on solutions related to youth unemployment.
As I've said and written about before, I believe that Millennials have the power to change the world. And now I'm challenging America to give underserved Millennials a fair opportunity to do so. If the Latin American Youth Center in Washington, D.C., hadn't given Elmer a chance to write a different future for himself, violence and victimhood could have been his final chapter. But after finding somewhere to turn and someone to mentor him, Elmer, now 28, has reclaimed his life and is a youth counselor for others. He's also a proud father and homeowner. He's soon to be a master's degree candidate, too. Most of all, he's living proof that no human being is hopeless. We can and we must get disconnected young Americans back on track. To achieve a real economic recovery, let's ensure that coming of age in the United States yields the promise -- not the memory -- of the American Dream.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the Clinton Global Initiative in recognition of the latter's third meeting of CGI America (June 13-14 in Chicago). CGI America convenes business, government, and civil society leaders each year to make commitments promoting domestic economic recovery and the long-term competitiveness of the United States. Since the meeting's launch, CGI America participants have made more than 200 new commitments, with an estimated value of more than $13.4 billion when fully funded and implemented. For more information, click here.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this post incorrectly stated that the parent institution of the Measure of America project is the Social Research Council. The parent institution of the Measure of America project is the Social Science Research Council.