Opportunity Youth Take Lead in Recommendations for Increasing Opportunity and Decreasing Poverty
By Andrew Mulinge
Earlier this month, youth and young adults from the National Council of Young Leaders (Opportunity Youth United) convened in Washington for an event aimed at addressing their recommendations for increasing opportunity and decreasing poverty. A panel of young leaders from across the country discussed various aspects of The Council's mission, which is focused on college affordability, justice system reform, and employment opportunities.
The young adults addressed themselves as opportunity youth, which is defined in a Civic Enterprises report as “youth who may have dropped out of high school or college and been unable to find work; may have been involved in the criminal justice system; may have mental or health conditions that have inhibited their activities; or may have care-giving responsibilities in their families.” Currently, there are an estimated 6.7 million opportunity youth between the ages of 16 and 24. Opportunity youth face many challenges today, including high unemployment, disproportionate incarceration rates among racial backgrounds, or low high school graduation rates. The young leaders from The Council discussed how they have taken initiative to address these critical issues at an important moment in our nation’s history. It is imperative for our youth to be engaged in formulating solutions for the issues that affect their communities.
The young leaders used personal testimonies to address the six areas of their agenda:
- Expand effective comprehensive programs that directly benefit youth in areas such as job training, pathways to college, and mentorship. According to a Civic Enterprises study, investing and expanding current federal programs of $6.4 billion a year would have implications for providing positive social benefit worth $350 billion. In addition to the financial returns, there would be many benefits to communities as a result of increased youth engagement.
- Increase participation of low-income people in national service programs. Inclusion of low-income people of all ages in programs such as AmeriCorps, National Civilian Community Corps, Senior Corps, and similar organizations is an effective way to engage the communities with the greatest need. When young people engage in service in communities that are representative of their experiences and backgrounds, youth are empowered to take ownership of their own communities and inspire others to do the same. This builds communities’ human capital and strengthens their institutions.
- Invest in internships. Several panelists discussed their experiences interning in various fields. Internships are critically important, particularly for opportunity youth who most struggle to find employment. In addition to the benefits of closing the unemployment gap among youth, internship programs often are a transition or trial employment opportunity that can lead to full employment. Internships also open doors to mentorship opportunities, another key recommendation being advanced by the young leaders.
- Increase all forms of mentoring. In many communities with opportunity youth, access to individual mentors is scarce. The young leaders seek to expand mentoring programs to help create more informal and formal mentoring relationships. These programs give opportunity youth access to crucial guidance from mentors who have similar backgrounds and have overcome similar obstacles.
- Make postsecondary education more affordable by protecting and expanding pathways to higher education. For youth like Shanice Clowney, a panelist and college graduate, having alternative ways of paying for college is crucial during matriculation. A recent Wall Street Journal report shows that the class of 2014 is the most indebted class ever, with $33,000 of debt per student on average nationally. For any millennial—and particularly those who are already financially disadvantaged—college has become more difficult to pay for than ever before. The young leaders recommend providing year-round Pell Grants to students, providing funding for more educational award opportunities, and disallowing predatory or excessively burdensome loans.
- Reform the criminal justice system. The United States incarcerates more people than any country in the world. Additionally, although only 30 percent of Americans are of color, they make up 60 percent of the entire prison population. Communities concentrated with people of color and poverty face higher risks of incarceration. Individuals released after incarceration struggle to find employment, which often leads to high levels of recidivism. Expanding second-chance and re-entry programs for all offenders is one of the ways the young leaders aim to achieve their goals.
The upcoming implementation of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act offers state and local communities, along with their nonprofit partners, to advance many of the solutions presented by the young leaders. WIOA can foster new and expanded opportunities to re-engage out-of-school youth and help them as they transform their lives. To read more about the report, click here.