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.
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.
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.
A broad range of economists are coming to the conclusion that, after years of trying to stimulate business activity with near-zero interest rates, the only way to get private industry to make major investments is for the federal government to take the lead and make significant investments in public works. Economists note that only the federal government – not states or private industry – can borrow what is needed at near-zero interest rates over many years. These same economists are also convinced that a massive wave of private contributions would follow this type of public investment.
Imagine the impact this type of investment can have on efforts like the 100,000 Opportunities Initiative, which is co-led by the Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions and FSG. The effort brings together a coalition of more than 40 major companies who are committed to hiring and training opportunity youth. This type of public investment would expand on the jobs promised by the 100,000 Opportunities Initiative and similar efforts, while also creating new ones. At the same time, young people would be able to build critical skills that can jump-start their careers and place them on a path to economic and social mobility.
These investments can help to address fundamental issues of equity and opportunity – not just by rebuilding roads, bridges and transit systems – but by helping to repair a crumbling social fabric by deepening opportunities for civic engagement as communities organize to identify and address their infrastructural needs.
As we embark on this effort, our country needs to make sure these investments leave no one behind. These opportunities need to squarely address the historical underdevelopment and neglect of our urban and rural areas, while also bringing business into communities to hire residents and connect local citizens to jobs. The opportunities these investments could create for employment, training, and skill development, must extend all the way into America’s most traditionally underserved neighborhoods.
Accomplishing this goal will require learning from lessons of the past. It will depend upon our ability to listen to and engage community leaders, policymakers, and local residents. It will mean connecting new investments with efforts to find long-term solutions to unemployment and the lack of opportunity our young people currently face.
We need to look at the coming wave of investment as an opportunity to make all of our communities attractive places to build, to hire, to live, and to work. We need to tear down barriers and open up avenues of development, cooperation and economic activity, something that will require community engagement at all levels, as solutions are developed and applied.
Indeed, this is a cornerstone of the work of the Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions, to support cross-system and sector collaboration that helps communities effectively address their own challenges. We look forward to working with the incoming administration in Washington, along with community leaders, young people and many others across the nation, to make sure everyone is included as we work to invigorate America’s communities and make them places of prosperity, opportunity, hope, and pride.