As COVID-19 relief continues to roll out in stages, it’s been noted more and more that an entire generation of young adults is being overlooked. But largely invisible is a segment of young adults already left behind even in good times — the lower-income 16- to 24-year-olds not regularly in school or work commonly called “opportunity youth” — who are both in greatest need of relief and greatly able to contribute to recovery.
Even before the pandemic hit the country’s health and economy, an estimated 4.5 million opportunity youth were disconnected from work, education and service — roughly 1 in 9 young people in their age group. With over 26 million Americans filing unemployment claims in the last few weeks, we know that this disconnection cohort will surge: Young workers are typically first to be let go, particularly youth of color and those in poverty, who face the largest barriers to entering careers even in a normal economic climate.
Yet opportunity youth are also a tremendous national asset in this time of crisis, if only we invest in them appropriately. As someone who has been engaged with young adults in YouthBuild USA and other opportunity youth service programs for nearly 30 years, I’ve seen firsthand their tremendous talent and dedication to serving their communities. Graduates of YouthBuild and similar programs leave prepared for success in postsecondary education, careers and registered apprenticeships. We all benefit when these young people are treated not as problems to be solved, but as resilient problem solvers who have navigated broken systems with intelligence and creativity.
Opportunity youth mobilized early to help their neighbors. In March, Conservation Corps members in Placer County, California, transported thousands of surgical masks needed by front-line health care workers. In Baltimore, opportunity youth in CivicWorks continue to grow and distribute food for free to vulnerable low income neighbors. And on Staten Island, YouthBuild students made face shields for firefighters.
Yet youth programs across the country serving as lifelines for reconnecting opportunity youth have suffered all the disruptions of distance learning but without the resources to move online. Their students rarely have access to reliable internet and computers. As one West Virginia program director noted about a student who had no internet access: “The only access he had was patchy, on his phone. He was apologizing tearfully about not keeping up and letting us down.”
In Washington state, a rural YouthBuild program director highlighted other challenges: “Some participants are homeless; where are they supposed to stay at home? And those who do have a home and internet may be reluctant to connect on Zoom, embarrassed to let people see their households.”
While Congress’ coronavirus relief legislation recognized the importance of extending unemployment benefits to gig economy workers, opportunity youth who relied on an educational stipend as a source of basic living expenses have been overlooked. Similarly, many opportunity youth are living away from family and should be eligible for the $1,200 Economic Impact Payment. But for numerous reasons — lacking bank accounts, not having a regular mailing address, IRS forms that do not allow them to self-certify they are not dependents — those very much in economic crisis will once again be shut out.
We can reverse this situation and avoid consigning a huge swath of so-called Gen Z to decades of disconnection.
A strong first step would be emergency investment in all of the proven programs that serve opportunity youth through existing funding streams. These programs need funding now to successfully implement distance learning. We cannot afford to have these critical programs shut down in the midst of training young people to be health care workers, first responders and many other “essential workers” that we have all been relying on.
Moreover, these opportunity youth are poised to be on the front lines of the eventual recovery. Currently, federally-funded programs reach fewer than 10% of America’s opportunity youth. If we invest an additional $4 billion now, as suggested by the Reconnecting Youth Campaign, we can increase effective existing programs to reach 1 million young people per year and create multiple pathways for rebuilding our economy.
If we don’t include opportunity youth in the crisis funding response and once again view them as low priority, we know that hundreds of thousands more young people will be left behind, facing chronic unemployment, trauma, substance abuse and worse. That is a terrible waste when we know this population has the grit and determination to rise after this pandemic. We just need to provide the ladder up.
David Abromowitz is the chief public policy officer at YouthBuild USA, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that works to unleash the intelligence and positive energy of low-income young people to rebuild their communities and their lives.