Is Opportunity the Forgotten Issue of This Election?

Is Opportunity the Forgotten Issue of This Election?

Why you should care

Because unemployed and undereducated youths cost taxpayers billions each year.

This is the second story in a multipart series about under-the-radar campaign issues.

Consider your news feed, your cable channel and your watercooler conversations. If there’s any political bent to them, it’s probably to mention the outrageous remark of the day. Lost in the sensational news, though, is a solemn truth: that while the economy has slowly recovered from the Great Recession, opportunity still seems to be the currency of a select few.

That’s the imbalance that Opportunity Nation, and its 350 organizations, spanning nonprofits, companies and government agencies, is trying to address. In a political arena where “bipartisan” can seem like an expletive, the nonprofit aims to measure inequality with its Opportunity Index while advancing legislation with sponsors from both sides of the aisle. At the core of all these issues lurks a menacing figure: 5.5 million Americans from ages 16 to 25 are not working or in school, and are costing taxpayers $9.3 billion annually. Read our edited conversation with Melanie Anderson, Opportunity Nation’s government affairs director, to learn how this situation might be addressed.

OZY: What can be done about disconnected youth in the United States?

Melanie Anderson: There is no silver bullet. There is no easy way to solve this crisis. It’s important to look at this from a number of different angles, think about what each group requires. About what they need if they are teen parents, or coming out of the foster system, or at risk of dropping out. A big part of the puzzle? Looking at it from an employer perspective. Pointing out to them that they keep talking about the open jobs they have, and now reframing this population as an asset. Companies say they don’t have a skilled workforce, yet 72 percent of these people say they want to achieve their goals, 67 percent say they want a postsecondary degree or credential and 77 percent believe they are ultimately responsible for achieving those goals. The disconnected youth can be part of the solution to solving the jobs crisis.

You have 55,000 young adults incarcerated every day, and we are losing billions of dollars in our economy because of that.

Melanie Anderson

OZY: How are employees and potential workers being made more aware of this?

M.A.: We worked last year to do a roundtable with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Their members are really concerned about the open positions they’re trying to fill. I think that one of the biggest disservices we’ve done to young adults is given them this idea that they need to have the success of a four-year degree. There are all types of trainee programs out there, whether you’re looking at a two-year degree or a credential that would help them find a family-sustaining wage. A great example of that, and something of that in our presidential agenda, is pushing for career technical education. And supporting universities that create programs that let you graduate from college with not just a diploma but also some type of working certificate.

OZY: What other steps can be taken?

M.A.: The first item in our agenda: the creation of the White House Office of Opportunity. It would be a fantastic way for the next president to demonstrate that increasing opportunity broadly is important and a central focus of their administration. Another one, which has a lot of bipartisan interest, is reforming the criminal justice system. It’s broadly talked about, but a real focus should be on the young adult or juvenile justice system. You have 55,000 young adults incarcerated every day, and we are losing billions of dollars in our economy because of that.

OZY: In a hyper-partisan environment, are you able to get people to work together?

M.A.: I think we are. At our summit last year, we had Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, a Republican, and Sen. Cory Booker, a Democrat from New Jersey, who pieced together legislation that incentivized apprenticeships. Children who have college savings accounts are more likely to attend universities — Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida have worked together on the American Dream Accounts Act, which is incentivizing communities to start savings accounts for kindergartners.

You can make a really big return-on-investment argument. If you have a community invested in its young people, the opportunity as a whole is just better, from crime rates to the economy to education.

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