Why We Need to Help Unemployed Youth

A new study finds teen employment at a historic low, and this should be a wake-up call for investing in youth service programs, writes Shirley Sagawa.

Then-Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) holds the hand of Nikita McFarland, a student at Isles YouthBuild Institute, Friday, February 29, 2008, in Trenton, New Jersey. (AP/Mel Evans)
Then-Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) holds the hand of Nikita McFarland, a student at Isles YouthBuild Institute, Friday, February 29, 2008, in Trenton, New Jersey. (AP/Mel Evans)

While high unemployment plagues communities across the country, a large and growing population of young people has so little hope of finding a job that they are not even looking, and are therefore not reflected in the unemployment rate. As a study just released by Northeastern University’s Center for Labor Market Studies underscores, the employment of teens is at a historic low. And the hardest hit are minority male and low-income teens. Following a long decline over the last decade, the employment rate of black teens is less than 14 percent and for low-income Latino teens just 23 percent. Young adults, aged 20 to 24, fare slightly better, but both groups are far more likely to be unemployed or underemployed than they were just two years ago.

The consequences of teen unemployment may seem less important than for unemployed adults, but the long-term impact may be dire. Even part-time work is often a stepping stone to future employment. Without dramatic steps, low-income minority teens won’t be helped by any future recovery. They could end up permanently economically marginalized, and according to the study’s authors are likely to “face deep long-term declines in their employability, earnings, family issues, and marriage rates.” As a result, they are likely to impose “serious fiscal burdens on the rest of society associated with low lifetime earnings, lessened tax contributions, and higher correctional costs.”

History points to an overlooked strategy to head off these tragic consequences. At the height of the Great Depression, 2 million young men roamed the country in a futile search for work to help support their families. President Franklin Roosevelt recognized this human disaster in the making and created the Civilian Conservation Corps, or CCC, which took advantage of this itinerant labor pool to build lasting monuments, parks, and trails, and undertake large-scale conservation efforts that America benefits from to this day.

But the larger legacy of this program was in human terms. Millions of families lived off the small stipends paid to CCC corpsmembers, who received $30 a month but typically sent $25 of it home. Even more important was that these young men developed the work and civic skills that made them the heroic soldiers who fought World War II.

Like the Great Depression’s young men, today’s disconnected youth number in the millions and the number is growing. The percentage of Americans age 20 to 24 who are neither in school nor working jumped over 10 percentage points in just two years, reaching 28 percent in 2009. Disconnected teens and young adults are the prime targets of the CCC-style programs that exist today in the form of YouthBuild and service and conservation corps, which offer education toward a GED or diploma and the chance to develop job skills while serving the community, along with a rich array of supports that help disconnected youth move away from crime, drugs, and other risks to become productive citizens. Many programs also provide AmeriCorps education awards to set young people on a path to postsecondary education.

These programs work. A random assignment study by Abt Associates and Brandeis University confirmed the value of youth service and conservation corps for young people, especially for African-American men. The programs increased their employment and earnings, educational aspirations, associate’s degree attainment, and community involvement. But while the Depression-era CCC engaged 3 million young men, today fewer than 30,000 similar youth corps positions exist. The cost of such positions—$16,000 to $24,000—is well below many private-sector job creation efforts and far below the costs of doing nothing.

The CCC scaled up to 250,000 positions in just four months. With adequate public resources and building on the base of high-quality programs already operating across the country we could, at a minimum, double the capacity of the current youth corps, YouthBuild, and AmeriCorps field and train youth for a wide range of high-need fields, from green construction jobs to health care.

The jobs bill passed by the House providing funding for additional AmeriCorps positions is a good first step. The president’s budget also offers a substantial increase in AmeriCorps, to add 20,000 new positions, and an increase in YouthBuild funding to engage several hundred additional corpsmembers. In the face of frozen domestic discretionary spending, these increases are welcome. But in the face of the need, Congress should do more by scaling up both these programs more dramatically and creating a new dedicated funding stream for youth service and conservation corps. A recent Center for American Progress paper offers more detail about these opportunities.

We may well owe our freedom—as well as many of our great parks, forests, and monuments—to the Depression-era CCC. Choosing whether to invest in those young people being left behind today will affect not just their generation, but their children and their children’s children. These young people need not be left out of the recovery, and in fact, they could become one of our greatest generations—if we choose to invest in comprehensive youth corps programs.

Shirley Sagawa is a Visiting Fellow at American Progress.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.


Shirley Sagawa

Senior Fellow