Cities Can Lead National Effort to Get More Young People Working Again

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Here are three specific areas in which cities and their partners can continue to demonstrate effective practices, adopt supportive policies, and determine what’s needed to grow initiatives that benefit more youth.

(Getty Images)
Working constitutes a critically needed developmental experience, puts money in the pockets of youth and their families to spend locally, and builds social capital that pays off over the long term. (Getty Images)

“A country for all, and all working when able.” If more city leaders were to adopt this vision – along with those of us providing support and assistance at the national level – we could continue to build effective local stair-step responses to a nagging national dilemma: nearly six million youth and young adults between the ages of 16 and 24 remain out of school and out of work, and less than 50 percent of youth work each summer.

As we enter into a new era of national politics, it’s wise to recall that the federal government has a critical role in assuring high quality and fairness nationwide in areas such as housing, health care, infrastructure and the environment, under an umbrella characterized by equal justice, equal opportunity, and improved outcomes for lagging groups. And when it comes to scaling what’s effective or signaling what’s important, the federal government has no peer. Yet the intensity of a presidential campaign and transition taking place in a 24-hour news cycle has a distorting effect worth noting that, too often, obliterates individuals’ sense of agency and conveys instead that “it all comes down to what happens in Washington, D.C.”

In fact, in policy areas essential to getting more young people working, cities and their partners can continue to demonstrate effective practices, adopt supportive policies, and determine what’s needed to grow initiatives to benefit still more youth – with more long-term impact. For instance, three areas to consider:

  • Reengagement of Out-of-School Youth: Over the past several years, mayors and other city leaders across the country have jumped at the opportunity to institute structured approaches to help young people finish school so they can reach the baseline qualification needed just to enter the labor market. Those same leaders also witness the persistently high cost of school dropout and pushout along dimensions ranging from public budgets to neighborhood efficacy. With too many young people still not finishing high school, and concentration of that effect in people of color and low-income communities, cities and towns have plenty of reasons to advocate for and support comprehensive reengagement initiatives. Even as the past year has seen an uptick in federal attention to reengagement, local energy and funds will continue to drive the spread of reengagement beyond its presence in some 20 cities and two states.
  • Summer Youth Employment: Mayors and the cities they lead stand at the vanguard of efforts to reduce the catastrophic recent trend of declining work experience for youth and young adults. Working constitutes a critically needed developmental experience, puts money in the pockets of youth and their families to spend locally, and builds social capital that pays off over the long term. Efforts to grow high-quality local youth hiring initiatives with the all-in participation of city governments and private sector employers might smartly leverage some federal funds, but ultimately will not depend on federal sources. Showing the benefits of bringing a new focus to summer jobs programs, to ensure that young people who need jobs the most get jobs – alternative school students, for example – must begin at the local level.
  • Juvenile Justice Reform and Jail Reduction: Cities have begun to join county and state partners in efforts to hold youth and young adults accountable in developmentally appropriate ways. In keeping with the goal of getting young people to work, reducing justice system involvement and attendant long-tail records removes a potentially significant barrier to employment. For those who do develop records, Ban the Box and similar strategies playing out mainly at the local level hold promise as tools for effective reintegration.

Meanwhile, as elements of city government, police departments have a particularly prominent role in shifting what happens at the first moments of contact between an officer and a young person, in most cases away from an emphasis on arrest and toward increased supports or formal diversion and restorative justice. Federal support could promote continued peer learning and sharing about police training, diversion, and related practices, yet has not proven essential in instituting reforms to date. Building out a robust continuum of supports and services for youth – with the major exception of mental and behavioral health services supported by Medicaid – remains a largely local and locally-funded task, alongside training and support for police officers.

Demonstrated local success in these three areas (and others) will “trickle up” to the state and federal levels.  The portion of the youth development field focused on older youth has at least six million reasons to continue generating such concrete successes.

Andrew Moore About the author: Andrew Moore is the Director of Youth and Young Adult Connections in NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education & Families. Follow Andrew on Twitter @AndrewOMoore.