Urban America is Facing Challenges; Youth Employment Could Help Solve Them



Key Points

  • Urban America continues to face social and economic crises, bolstered by historical disenfranchisement and institutional racism.
  • Heeding lessons learned from the 1930s, one solution is to launch a public infrastructure initiative that would offer employment to some of the 5.7 million youth who are looking for work.
  • By investing in both our infrastructure and our people, we will be modernizing our economy, while also the lessening economic disparities that exist in our communities.

(Photo Credit: istockphoto)

(Photo Credit: istockphoto)

Though the recent headlines from urban America point clearly to a policing problem that must be addressed, like so many challenges affecting our nation, the issues go much deeper than that. When you read coverage of unrest in places like Milwaukee, Chicago, and Baton Rouge, or talk to people who are there, the message is clear: Communities are frustrated by the historical disenfranchisement and structural racism that have led to the current crisis.

To address these seemingly intractable issues plaguing our communities, long-term and sustainable solutions must include taking a fresh look at the 5.6 million young people between the ages of 16 and 24 who are neither enrolled in school nor working, known as “opportunity youth.” Our nation must expand its focus to consider the enormous potential of our young people to rebuild their communities and help them grow and prosper.

Recent studies show that more than 75 percent of the 5.6 million jobless opportunity youth are seeking gainful employment.

At the same time, there are lessons to be learned from solutions applied by an earlier generation that faced a similar underutilization of young talent. In the 1930s, legions of young Americans sat idle, rode boxcars, or walked the highways in search of work. Although the problem today is more concentrated in urban areas and hollowed-out factory towns that have been in decline for decades, there are important similarities between today’s enormously high youth unemployment rates, and the unemployment problems that President Franklin D. Roosevelt faced during the Great Depression.

Today, like then, young people want to work. Recent studies show that more than 75 percent of the 5.6 million jobless opportunity youth are seeking gainful employment. We can learn a lesson from the response during the Great Depression. In the 1930s and early 40s, the Works Progress Administration, the largest federal infrastructure initiative at the time, employed more than 8 million people to build roads, parks, and public buildings.

There is a growing consensus that the time is right to launch a new and similarly ambitious initiative aimed at public infrastructure development. In fact, the current presidential campaign — in which both of the major party candidates are calling for the federal government to invest hundreds of billions of dollars to rebuild America’s infrastructure — reflects the same potential to connect young people and jobs.

There is a growing consensus that the time is right to launch a new and ambitious initiative aimed at public infrastructure development.

Candidates running for our country’s highest office, along with a growing number of political, business, and community leaders –across both sides of the aisle – are talking about America’s need to modernize its public facilities in order to keep pace with the rest of the world. We need bigger and better airports and seaports. One in nine of the nation’s 600,000 bridges have been deemed structurally deficient. Many of our urban transit systems, which are critical to connecting citizens in poor neighborhoods with job opportunities, are creaking and need massive upgrades. Portions of our electric grid, originated in the 1880s, need significant upgrades to keep our economy humming and to make our growth greener and more sustainable. State-of-the-art broadband, which is essential to creating economic opportunities at the family, community, and corporate levels, is sorely needed in many of our inner-city and rural areas.

And this is only the beginning. Significant infrastructure development would also shore up the middle-class and middle-skilled part of the job market, which even in a growing economy has been hit by the loss of a million construction jobs over the last decade. Moreover, these changes will add boom to the national economy and strengthen our communities.