Not in school, not working – and not voting

5.6 million young Americans are neither working nor in school. And only 1 in 4 young Americans plans to vote this fall. Shouldn't the alarm bells be ringing?

Image credit: Getty

In case you needed more reason to worry about the state of economic and civic opportunity for America’s young, consider these three facts:

  • As many as 5.6 million young Americans between the ages of 16 and 24 are “disconnected youth” – neither working nor in school, according to a new report from the non-profit Opportunity Nation.
  • Fewer than 1 in 4 young Americans plan to vote November 4, says Harvard University’s Institute of Politics, and their “trust in public institutions” is at a five-year low.
  • Among young high school dropouts earning less than $20,000, the voting rate is just 3.5 percent – practically zero.

Taken together, these three figures should set the alarm bells ringing for policymakers. Despite the press attention lavished on the economic plight of young Americans and millennials, not enough has translated into real-world impact, particularly for those at the lower end of the economic spectrum. And not surprisingly, young Americans – who proved so potent and promising a political voice in 2008 and 2012 – are increasingly disillusioned and cynical.

In the same survey cited above, Harvard’s Institute of Politics found that 62 percent of young Americans say “elected officials seem to be motivated by selfish reasons”; 58 percent say “elected officials don’t seem to have the same priorities I have”; and only 32 percent say they have trust in the President.

While the post-election “to-do” list for Congress is increasingly lengthy – and anxieties over Ebola and the Islamic State are taking precedence – policymakers should still look ahead to building a “millennial agenda” that can regain the trust of young Americans and bring them back into the political and economic conversation.

A few starting points:

1. Give young Americans a bigger slice of the federal pie. 

As the Urban Institute’s Gene Steuerle points out, just 2 percent of the expected growth in the federal budget over the next 10 years will go toward investments in children – while 58 percent will go toward spending on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid and 36 percent will go toward paying the interest expense on the national debt.

While it’s crucial to protect seniors from poverty and the exigencies of escalating health care costs, the extreme severity of the generational imbalance in spending bears, at least, some serious rethinking.

2. Close the “civic education gap.” 

In Compton, California – where as many as 85 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch – high school students involved in the civic education program offered by the non-profit Junior State of America (JSA) are transforming their lives with new skills and new opportunities for community and civic involvement. Among the impacts, according to Compton school board President Micah Ali: 66 percent of participants say they’re better writers, and 75 percent say they have a better understanding of how government works.

Civic engagement and economic opportunity are, in fact, intimately linked, according to another study by Opportunity Nation and Measure of America. Among other things, the researchers found that civic engagement is a “significant predictor of economic opportunity,” and that young people who volunteer or participate in civic organizations are much less likely to be “disconnected” from work and school.

Despite these benefits, not enough young Americans – particularly lower-income Americans – are getting meaningful opportunities for civic engagement, including through quality civic education. As JSA President Jeff Harris has long argued, greater opportunities for civic education can be an effective – and cost-effective – way to ensure the economic, social and political engagement of young Americans.

3. Encourage “apprenticeships” and “credentialing” to reconnect disconnected youth. 

For far too long, college has been an all-or-nothing proposition for students. Students who couldn’t afford to go to college, or didn’t have the right preparation, had few options for getting post-secondary credentials that would also have value in the job market. Recent years, however, have seen an interest in German-style “apprenticeships” that allow participants to gain both marketable skills and college credit.

While these programs shouldn’t replace college aspirations, they could serve as a promising alternative pathway for young Americans  currently disconnected from school and the labor force. South Carolina’s Apprenticeship Carolina program, for example, has served more than 10,400 apprentices and involves more than 60 employer partners, including BMW, GE, Time Warner Cable and Walgreen’s.

Although far from a comprehensive agenda, the three ideas above have the promise of broad bipartisan appeal and, in the case of apprenticeships and civic education, a track record of effectiveness.

While it’s likely too late to expect a “millennial surge” on November 4, the urgency for a millennial agenda has never been greater.

Anne Kim is Editor of Republic 3.0.