A Long Cold Summer For Young People Looking For Work

Isaiah J. Poole

I got my first job while I was in high school through a small community organization run by Willie J. Hardy, a community activist (and later D.C. City Council member) who operated out of what legendary Washington Post writer William Raspberry described as a “tiny, hopelessly cluttered quonset hut” in the Deanwood section of Washington.

The work itself wasn’t particularly memorable, but the impact I will never forget. Instead of having to hang out at grocery stores and carry groceries for tips or go door-to-door scrounging for yard work or errands, I could earn steady money off the streets. For the first time, I had defined work hours, a timesheet to fill out, and in the end a check to cash. And that had an exponential impact on my dignity.

The Sinking American Electorate

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This summer too many teenagers will not have the opportunity I had to get a lift onto the first rung of the economic ladder. One reason is that organizations like Hardy’s that many youth could depend on for their first job long ago lost much of the federal support they need to provide these pivotal job opportunities. This year’s federal budget sequester worsens an already serious and continuing failure of Congress and the Obama administration to agree on a set of initiatives that would ensure an adequate supply of jobs to young people, particularly in communities where unemployment is highest.

It is making for a cold summer of discontent that will have a devastating impact on the lives of millions of young people and the economy as a whole.

Just in the past decade Congress has cut $1 billion from youth jobs programs, according to a report by the Center for American Progress. And that is at a time when even before the Great Recession youth unemployment was at chronic high levels: Average unemployment rates for youth between the ages of 16 and 19 had gone up from an average of 13 percent in 2000 to close to 16 percent in 2007, the year before the economy crashed. So far this year, unemployment rates in this age group are averaging 24 percent. The unemployment rate for 16-to-19-year-olds hasn’t been below 20 percent since October 2008.

There is currently a youth jobs deficit of 4.1 million; that is the number of jobs that the economy would have to produce to restore the job market to what it was in 2007, according to a Demos report on youth joblessness.

These unemployment rates remain historically high even as the labor force participation rate for teenagers has plummeted from around 50 percent in the early 2000s to an average of 34 percent in the past year. If it were not for that drop in labor force participation, the unemployment rate would have been far higher.

The same tragically high unemployment rates have rippled through the 20-to-24 age group. So far this year, unemployment rates in this age group have been averaging well over 13 percent. Their rates have been in the double-digits since May 2008. In 2007, this group was seeing rates hovering around 8 percent.

“Youth employment is at its lowest level since World War II; only about half of young people ages 16 to 24 held jobs in 2011,” notes a Youth and Work policy report by the Kids Count project of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which calculates that at the end of 2012 6.5 million people ages 16 to 24 were both out of school and out of work.

The report paints a picture of a job market that pits young people, including college graduates, in a competition with adults for low-paid, entry-level service sector jobs. With so many more educated and more experienced workers willing to accept whatever job they can get, the hurdles for youth without at least a high-school education can be almost impossible to leap.

“At this rate, a generation will grow up with little early work experience, missing the chance to build knowledge and the job-readiness skills that come from holding part-time and starter jobs,” the report said.

At a time when the news is filled with whipped-up so-called “scandals,” one of the most serious real scandals in Washington right now is the failure of Congress and the Obama administration to come together on a jobs program – including a massive youth jobs corps program. Demos’ youth jobs report calculated that it would cost the government a net $85 billion to close the youth jobs gap through a variety of public sector initiatives, ranging from low-skilled maintenance work to higher-skilled jobs in areas from education to construction to health care. Imagine: Instead of an $85 billion sequester that is slowing down the economy and damaging lives, we could be investing $85 billion in repairing the economy and building the lives of young people through valuable work experiences that will have a lifelong impact.

It may be too late to do much for the teenagers who are now beginning to end their school years and will face a summer without serious job prospects. But Congress has still before it a fiscal 2014 budget. If House Republicans would end their stonewalling on negotiating with the Senate on the budget details, Democrats can insist that a robust youth jobs program be a priority for 2014.

This is not only a moral and economic imperative but a political one. Young people are going to remember who stood up for them and were their champions for economic opportunity, and who chose to respond to the youth jobs crisis by fighting government job-creation efforts and condemning young workers to a future of low wages and high debt.

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