New Orleans's Youth Unemployment Problem Demands a Government Solution

Aug 22, 2013Jeff MadrickNell Abernathy

The federal government has let New Orleans down in the past, but it can still provide equal opportunity for the city's next generation.

Our federal government has failed New Orleans more dramatically than any other U.S. city, and the growing number of unemployed and undereducated young adults is one more example of our failure to deliver on the promise of equal opportunity for all. With 23 percent of 18-24 year olds neither working nor in school, New Orleans’s rate of youth disconnection from social institutions far exceeds the national average. Nevertheless, cynicism is not a solution. Creating new opportunities for young Americans will require us to use every tool at our disposal, and that includes active and effective government.

These “opportunity youth," ages 16-24, are more likely than their peers to be poor and unemployed as adults. Neglecting these young people costs New Orleans taxpayers hundreds of millions in lost income annually and billions over a lifetime.

Maybe more important, these young people are deprived of the fundamental dignity of work and education. Still, most remain motivated to succeed. 85 percent say that it is extremely important to have a good job or career in order to live the life they want,and most opportunity youth are willing to work toward their goals, with 77 percent agreeing that getting a good job or good education is their personal responsibility, according to a 2011 survey conducted by Civic Enterprises.

With government missing in action, a network of effective non-profit organizations is leading the effort to equip these young people with the skills and support they need. In just seven years, New Orleans’s Youth Empowerment Project has grown from a small program serving 25 children to a locally renowned organization helping close to 1,000 at-risk youth a year. The Urban League of Greater New Orleans is expanding mentoring and training programs designed to connect teens with trade or college education. And Partnership for Youth Development, which coordinates over 180 local programs to better serve these opportunity youth, was selected by the Aspen Institute in June to pilot strategies that could be employed nationwide.

By contrast, consider how derelict the federal government has been. Funding cuts from sequestration have cut education by $3 billion and decimated early education and after-school programs. Congress has dithered over reducing interest rates for student loans and cut eligibility for critical Pell grants, specifically barring around 65,000 of the most at-risk students. The government has failed to fund its 2009 commitment to expand the successful AmeriCorps programs from 75,000 to 250,000 by 2017, resulting in 85 percent of the 2012 applicants being turned away. 

Tonight, the Roosevelt Institute is hosting a public panel with local organizations in New Orleans to help formulate a policy that will serve young people nationwide. Because as effective as private funders, local non-profits, and national organizations are, the scale and breadth of the challenge demands public solutions.

Disappointment with our government’s past failures is understandable, but the anti-government movement too often blinds Americans to our shared goals and responsibilities. We forget our history of achieving great works together. As a nation, we decided way back in the 1800s to support our young people by outlawing child labor and establishing free primary school. We tackled youth unemployment during the Great Depression with the Civilian Conservation Corps, a government program that directly employed nearly 3 million young men over nine years. We sent 2.2 million veterans to college on the G.I. Bill and gave our young people opportunities through national service programs like AmeriCorps, the Peace Corps, and the Job Corps. These are but a few examples.

We must now, once again, use our government as a tool to restore the promise of equal opportunity to our youth. Join us as we seek solutions to one of our nation’s most pressing challenges.

In New Orleans? Join the Roosevelt Institute tonight at 6 p.m. at the Contemporary Arts Center for "Tackling Youth Unemployment: Strategies That Work in New Orleans." The event is free and open to the public.

Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Jeff Madrick is the Director of the Roosevelt Institute’s Bernard L. Schwartz Rediscovering Government initiative and author of Age of Greed.

Nell Abernathy is a Research Initiative Associate for the Bernard L. Schwartz Rediscovering Government Initiative.


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