Social Capital

An Untapped Resource: The Key to Lifting the Nation’s Economy

December 12, 2013  • Walter Isaacson and Melody Barnes

Walter Isaacson is chairman and CEO of the Aspen Institute. Melody Barnes is chair of the Aspen Forum for Community Solutions.

What if 7 million youth disappeared from American society?  

That’s not a premise from science fiction, but reality in communities across the country where 6.7 million young people between the ages of 16 to 24 are no longer enrolled in school or employed in our businesses. These young people represent a tremendous potential loss to our nation and cost to society. In 2011, it was calculated that the lifetime economic taxpayer burden of these young people was $1.6 trillion; this includes lost revenues and increased utilization of social services. Reconnecting young people to school, work, and society is a challenge of enormous moral, economic, and societal consequence, one that we must get right for the benefit of our youth and communities. 

Formerly known as “disconnected youth,” these young people are now called “opportunity youth” to reflect their optimism, resiliency, and tremendous untapped talent. With effective support, they will become productive contributors to their communities and our next generation of leaders. America must invest in young people — opportunity youth included — to help them develop the skills employers are seeking for available jobs, and to ensure our country can compete with the rest of the world. As the saying goes, talent is everywhere, but opportunity is not. Our country’s future depends on our ability to harness the potential of young people to meet the demands of a rapidly changing global economy. 

The White House Council for Community Solutions, established by President Barack Obama to identify solutions to complex social problems, recognized the urgency of addressing the loss represented by disconnected young people. Understanding that the expertise to solve problems often lies in the communities themselves, the White House Council recommended bringing stakeholders from diverse sectors together to work collaboratively to confront challenges facing opportunity youth. 

The Aspen Forum for Community Solutions was created to continue and build on the work of the White House Council. Through the Opportunity Youth Incentive Fund (OYIF), the Forum for Community Solutions provided grants to 21 urban, rural, and tribal communities, bringing together leaders from government, nonprofit organizations, and the private sector to remove barriers, connect the many systems that touch young people’s lives, and build, deepen, and scale education and employment pathways.

Young people themselves are full participants in these collaboratives. Many youth have overcome significant barriers, including homelessness, involvement with the foster care and juvenile justice systems, and a frayed or non-existent safety net. Despite these obstacles, they still have hope for the future, and want to be connected and engaged in meaningful ways to improve the systems that have failed to meet their needs. It’s vital to have them at the table to ensure the reforms work and create powerful avenues for the advancement of future generations of low-income children and families.

Too often youth inclusion is an afterthought or cosmetic, but we developed a youth leadership track as part of the OYIF. At the first convening of our communities in November, 15 young people — formerly opportunity youth — came together in Aspen, with nearly 200 community leaders, to share their experiences, build a network of their peers, and develop advocacy skills to use in their communities. In addition, we have included youth on the OYIF Leadership Council. Jamiel Alexander, one of our members, shares his thoughts on this work here

Our community partners in the OYIF are engaging young people, too. The Maine Youth Transition Collaborative’s Youth Leadership Advisory Team (YLAT) helps young people in the foster care system develop leadership and advocacy skills. This week they are hosting a day-long retreat with the leaders of the Maine foster care system to discuss the translation of state policy into practice, and the youth leaders prepared the majority of the content for the meeting. According to Marty Zanghi, director of youth & community engagement, having youth leaders present made this meeting possible for YLAT. YLAT is planning to expand their work to include the voices of other youths, including those in the juvenile justice system, homeless youth, and youth identified as at-risk of dropping out.

This work is not easy, and we are in the early stages, but the initial signs are promising. And after listening to young leaders in Aspen, and around the country, who have overcome unimaginable challenges, we are inspired to work with them and local communities to make similar paths of opportunity accessible to all of America’s youth. 

Today, JPMorgan Chase announced a $5 million grant to the OYIF as part of a new $250 million five-year initiative to help close the “skills gap” — the mismatch between skills needed for available jobs and the skills available in the workforce. The Aspen Forum for Community Solutions will work with JPMorgan Chase’s New Skills at Work initiative to support the potential of opportunity youth.