Guest commentary: Young people can lead but they need us to invest in them

Stephen Patrick
Guest commentary

COVID-19 is having, and will have, an unprecedented impact on the long-term financial health of nearly all Americans, especially the rising generation. Young people who have grown up during the time of the Great Recession are now left to navigate a second unprecedented economic catastrophe. Youth of color from places of longtime disinvestment, a history of racist systems and concentrated poverty are starting from even further back.

Achieving the long-term vision for the America we want will require us to invest in our country’s greatest and most underutilized natural asset: the next generation. At the Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions, we partner with over two dozen foundations to implement the national Opportunity Youth Forum/Fund (OYF), where we fund and work with community networks and opportunity youth — 16-24-year-olds — who are not connected to education or employment.

At the start of 2020, we were celebrating annual declines in the number of disconnected young people. After years of coalition work — scaling best practice, advocating for systems change, and investing in youth-led efforts — the number had reached an all-time low of 4.5 million opportunity youth, according to Measure of America. We could envision a future where America would have second chance opportunities for every young person who was out of school or work and wanted a better life. That is no longer the case. The latest unemployment data tells us that the estimated number of opportunity youth has likely more than tripled — with some estimates putting that number at 18 million.

The painful reality of what it means to be graduating from high school in the midst of a pandemic and an economic freefall, or the trauma of being 22 years old, recently laid off and struggling to decide between paying for college tuition or basic needs, is only part of the story. These millions of young Americans are our hope for a sustainable future: they are tech-savvy, motivated, filled with talent and untapped potential, and represent the most diverse generation in U.S. history. Most importantly, they are committed to both a belief in serving the greater good and in a more compassionate capitalism. COVID-19 can either represent the barrier that stopped them from being the next “Greatest Generation” or the catalyst that catapults America into a prosperous equitable future.

To invest in young Americans, Congress must prioritize public employment and paid service opportunities in the next recovery bill. The $4 billion increase for existing federal youth pathways that is being recommended by the Reconnecting Youth Campaign and by young grassroots leaders who are part of Opportunity Youth United would be a good start. The proposed expansion of AmeriCorps, the Pandemic Response and Opportunity Through National Service Act will also help, investing in 750,000 service positions over a three-year period and increasing the AmeriCorps living allowance so that low-income Americans are able to serve. For years, AmeriCorps service participation has been predominantly accessed by those who can afford to commit to a term of service, often with support from more affluent parents. These new AmeriCorps opportunities should prioritize and scale up paid service opportunities for youth from low-income communities. For example, some service infrastructure exists in Native and Tribal communities and urban centers with concentrated inequity. New national service resources should target and grow community-based youth employment organizations in low-income communities — shifting the service paradigm from a neo-colonial “helping those people” to one that is anchored in community self-determination and self-reliance.

Elected officials and government agencies must find other ways to channel resources to those young people who represent the hardest hit communities. The pandemic has exposed what happens to communities that have lived with structural inequities for generations. Recovery must target those who have been stifled by racial inequity and poverty for generations.

Additionally, donors must invest in youth-led strategies and in approaches that harness youth civic engagement and activism focused on systems change. We can all support young people to seize the opportunity to end mass incarceration, including the school to prison pipeline, and finally achieve sustained juvenile justice and police reform.

Our country has a history of turning profound challenges into societal advancement. Creating the environment for the next generation to lead the rebuild will set the country on a course to a new, more inclusive definition of greatness. It is the only way we will achieve our highest promise and in the words of the poet Langston Hughes, Let America Be America Again, post-pandemic.

Stephen Patrick is vice president at the Aspen Institute and executive director of the Forum for Community Solutions. He has previously held senior leadership positions at three foundations, most recently leading a portfolio focused on disconnected youth at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. He is the co-founder of Rocky Mountain Youth Corps in Northern New Mexico and started his career as a youth worker in the northern pueblos of New Mexico.