The recently released report “Connecting Youth to Opportunity: A Resource Map of the District’s Disconnected Youth Dollars,” by the DC Alliance of Youth Advocates, clearly delineates the amount and source of federal funding available in our nation’s capital for specific programs to serve “Opportunity Youth,” 16- to 24-year-olds who are neither in school nor working. DC residents can read the report and know the amount of federal funds going toward programs geared toward out-of-school youths and building career pathways for young adults, among others. If only such clarity existed around funding for Opportunity Youth in New Orleans.
A 2012 report about funding streams for Opportunity Youth here in the New Orleans area presents a murkier picture. The report found that while Louisiana receives $193 million annually in federal funding that could be used for Opportunity Youth (such as from the Workforce Investment Act), as of 2011, less than 1 percent of that was spent on education and job training for Opportunity Youth in New Orleans. This is astonishing given that New Orleans has the highest concentration of Opportunity Youth in Louisiana.
Even more jarring was that the report’s authors had an exceedingly difficult time determining where Louisiana was directing the rest of those funds. What determinations could be made showed that while those federal funds are intended to support the economic livelihoods of low-income individuals, the state uses many of the funds for other purposes, such as support for pre-kindergarten programs and private kindergarten. While early education should be a focus in Louisiana, the state should find another way to fund it, rather than draining funds that could be used for economic development opportunities for our young adults. Considering that nearly 20 percent of New Orleans’ young adults aged 16-24 are Opportunity Youth, compared with 17 percent nationally, that paucity of funding is simply not good enough.
The only way to significantly reduce our Opportunity Youth population is through cross-sector collaboration. We must align the business, education and nonprofit sectors around the creation and support of economic opportunities for Opportunity Youth. We can’t do this without transparency for funding. When it comes to their use of the WIA and other federal dollars, states, including Louisiana, need to ensure those funds are going toward helping reconnect Opportunity Youth to education and work in communities nationwide. Further, they need to do so in a way that’s transparent so that the DC-AYA report becomes the norm rather than an exception.
It should go without saying that if we don’t invest in our young people now, we will all have to spend more later when those Opportunity Youth become chronically unemployed or underemployed adults who are more reliant on social services and, where those fail, more likely to end up in prison. Opportunity Youth are not a homogenous group and the reasons behind their disconnection vary greatly. However, one thing is certain: We all lose when we underinvest in our young people.
When you factor in lost revenue and increased reliance on social services, Opportunity Youth cost the country $93 billion a year. That’s a staggering figure and speaks to the urgency of finding ways to reconnect these young adults to work and educational opportunities. That investment must begin with an accurate account of the public dollars available to help serve Opportunity Youth. As with any crisis, it’s not enough to know the scope of the problem; it’s also essential to know the extent of the resources available to help solve it.
Amy Barad and Vincent Rossmeier work at the Cowen Institute in New Orleans.