Private philanthropy has long addressed gaps in our nation's social safety net, funding new work that later shapes changes in how public dollars are spent. Perhaps no aspect of these efforts is more consequential than support to help young adults transition to independent adulthood. YouthBuild USA and New York City's Multiple Pathways to Graduation, for example, were nurtured for years by small, local grants before becoming major initiatives, again with the help of private funders.
Today, changes in the economy and challenges to the public sector mean that private philanthropy must develop creative and rigorous responses to a dire situation.
While the recent recession has greatly increased the obstacles for young people entering the workforce, not everyone has been affected equally. Unemployment among college graduates is only 5 percent, about half the national rate, while unemployment among young adults (ages 16-24) who have dropped out of school has hit the highest levels ever recorded 18 percent for all youth, and 33 percent for African-American youth.
Young adulthood is a period of extraordinary potential and vulnerability. It is a time when young adults consolidate their sense of self, test career possibilities, develop workplace skills, and begin to build resumes and relationships that will help them advance professionally. Work gives structure to young lives and practice in the discipline of being productive each day. Through their activities and earnings, young adults contribute to others, strengthening their sense of self-worth. All these activities help them to become independent adults.
While the recession is waning, its effects are certain to be long-lasting. Indeed, because of its deep and sustained nature, many young adults will go years without holding jobs that pay a significant wage. As a result, they may never become capable of earning enough to support a family. As studies have shown, lifetime earnings and even marriage potential are seriously reduced by long periods of unemployment.
In 2003, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation published a report, Connected by 25, focusing attention on the problem of youth disconnection. Still earlier, in 1988, the William T. Grant Foundation report The Forgotten Half: Non-College Youth in America highlighted issues in the transition of the non-college-bound population. Both studies highlighted the economic and moral dimensions of the issue. Yet, changes in the labor market over the last decade or two have made it even more difficult for young workers to land entry-level jobs.
Today, elected leaders and private foundations are seeking to increase high school and community college graduation rates much-needed efforts that attempt to address root causes. Still, large numbers of youth continue to drop out. There are, for example, more than 3.5 million high school dropouts in the United States between the ages of 16 and 24, while community colleges, on average, manage to graduate only 22 percent of their students in three years. Both of these trends affect youth of color disproportionately.
Philanthropy has demonstrated that it can have a positive impact on such problems. As the Multiple Pathways initiative in New York City and Project U Turn in Philadelphia have demonstrated, thousands more students are graduating from high school. In both cities, private funders worked with municipal officials to identify problems, build support for solutions, and then fund implementation of those solutions. The models on which these projects are based were established years ago, often by local funders supporting innovative organizations like Good Shepherd Services, the Youth Development Institute, and the Philadelphia Youth Network. Other funders have helped YouthBuild USA, which assists youth who leave school, grow from a small East Harlem project into a national organization with hundreds of sites.
For their part, young adults have demonstrated in programs such as Community Education Pathways to Success in New York City that, with adequate support and a focus on learning, they can make rapid gains in preparing for work and furthering their education.Yet, there is a large gap in support for these youth. The Workforce Investment Act, the largest source of public funds for school dropouts, serves only a small percentage of youth, most of whom are close to completing their GED. Major youth brands like Year Up, AmeriCorps, and City Year are showing promise but focus on more highly skilled youth. Most dropouts are low skilled, reading below the eighth-grade level. These youth represent by far the majority of dropouts. They have few options.
What can private philanthropy do? The field offers lessons as well as challenges, and both need to be examined. Here are a few thoughts and observations.
Collaboration with the public sector and each other is essential.
- Thoughtful collaborations have been responsible for much of the success of initiatives like the ones mentioned above, and they invariably include roles for both large national and small local foundations.
- Joint initiatives that pool resources often are the only way to move the field.
The power of convening and dissemination to drive change should not be underestimated:
- Funders should not be shy about using their clout and resources to increase understanding of a problem by bringing people together and disseminating information.
Build on sound research about existing needs and proven solutions:
- Learn the field. Generic business-oriented outcomes models are useful but do not ensure good investments. Draw upon strong research and best practice to identify what works and where there are gaps.
- Identify the key subpopulations most likely to benefit from targeted investments. Much private and public funding is focused on youth who are job- and GED-ready, while youth with low or poor academic skills represent a far larger population.
- Address education and work experience for young adults. Both are essential for success later in life.
- Build pathways: Look for opportunities to connect programs that serve youth as they move to higher levels of proficiency and paid work.
- Be rigorous but sensible: It may take time for programs to achieve strong outcomes, but improvements in capacity should be apparent in the shorter term.
- Examine carefully the idea du jour with an eye to whether it will make a difference for young people.
Enabling thousands of young adults to further their education and work experience will reduce social and personal costs in many ways and will help to build a more equitable society. Given our current political and economic challenges, however, progress on this front will require the flexibility, boldness, and vision of the private sector. The good news is that history has shown philanthropy can make a difference. The time to support this proud tradition is now.
Peter Kleinbard consults and publishes widely on youth issues.