If you caught Clint Eastwood’s Super Bowl commercial, perhaps you got shivers going up your spine as Eastwood spoke about tough economic times and American perseverance: “Its half time in America too, people are out of work and they’re hurting…and they’re wondering what they’re going to do to make a comeback.”

It’s a sentiment that resonates with a lot of Americans, but perhaps especially with young people who are not connected to education, training programs or the workforce.

In response to the current economic crisis and growing need to connect youth to employment opportunities, the Obama Administration recently launched their Summer Jobs+ initiative, designed to to create 250,000 meaningful employment opportunities for low-income young people this summer. It’s an exciting opportunity for corporations, families and community-based organizations to come together to better prepare our young people for success in college, career and life.

Summer Jobs+ is a good start, but there is much more that our nation can do to ensure that young adults are on a clear pathway to economic opportunity.

According to America’s Promise, of the 38.9 million 16- to 24-year-olds in the nation, more than 17 percent (6.7 million) are disconnected youth—that is, they are not connected to school, training or the workforce. This population is sometimes referred to as “opportunity youth.”

The costs to these young people, their futures and their families are great—and they affect all of us. In 2011 alone, these youth cost taxpayers $93 million in lost revenues from a lack of productive work and increased use of social services. The lifetime economic burden of such youth is up to $4.7 trillion.

When we examine who these children and youth are, we find that they are disproportionately children and youth of color who have experienced a host of risk factors associated with poor academic achievement, delinquency, recidivism, substance abuse and mental health issues. These issues stem from a broader systemic issue dealing with poverty, adverse childhood experiences, and poor family-school relationships.

As these risk factors intersect, the chances are greater that they will intensify one another, deepening the negative outcomes for children and youth.

An Opportunity Waiting for Us

But before you lose hope and click off to a blog with happier news, take heart. We know what works, and we have evidence to back it up. There are several policy and programmatic strategies we can pursue. If we can boost the urgency and commitment around this issue and the solutions, we can mitigate the adverse effects of poverty for our most deserving students.

A report titled Addressing the Unmet Educational Needs of Children and Youth in the Juvenile Justice and Child Welfare Systems by the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform at Georgetown University identified the following six principles that should drive education reform for these children and youth:

  • Early education is essential.
  • Quality education services are critical for successful development of all youth.
  • If outcomes matter, they must be measured.
  • Support services are needed to help some youth succeed.
  • Interagency collaboration and communication is vital
  • Change requires within-agency and cross-agency leadership.

There are several things we can do from both a policy and a grassroots standpoint to address the comprehensive needs of disconnected youth and ensure that all young people have access to the services and supports necessary for success.

Across the country, organizations, institutions and individuals are working tirelessly to provide academic and nonacademic supports and advocate for policies that reengage this vulnerable population into the education system and the workforce.

Illuminating Specific Examples

In the coming months, we and others will be working with Sparkaction on a series exploring the specific ways in which national, state and local organizations are addressing the comprehensive needs of disconnected youth by providing workforce development training, investing in evidenced-based academic and enrichment programming, increasing community-school and cross-system collaboration, and advocating for policies that get our young people back on track.

These will be blogs, articles and stories produced by both adults and young people.

As President Obama said, “America’s young people face record unemployment, and we need to do everything we can to make sure they’ve got the opportunity to earn the skills and a work ethic that come with a job. It’s important for their future, and for America’s.”

As we continue to pull ourselves together in the “second half,” together, we can make certain that our young people receive the best services and supports to fuel our economy and help secure America’s future.