President Barack Obama talks with kids from the Children's Miracle Network in the East Room of the White House, June 9, 2010.

Photo by: Pete Souza

President Barack Obama talks with kids from the Children’s Miracle Network in the East Room of the White House, June 9, 2010.

More than1 million American students don’t finish high school on time each year–nearly one in three. In many of our largest cities, the dropout rate is 50 percent or higher. That this is happening at all is cause for public alarm and political action. That it continues to happen when economic success increasingly requires strong academic and occupational credentials is a crisis that the nation simply cannot afford to continue to ignore.

Public discourse regarding at-risk youth often focuses on dropout prevention and education reform. Lost in this narrow focus is the plight of the millions of youth who drop out, are pushed out or are otherwise failed by our education system. Without intervention, these youth fall into a socially and economically disconnected abyss from which it is difficult to escape. Worse, right now there is no public accountability for delivering them to successful education and labor market outcomes after they drop out. The dropout problem is thus an economic and labor market problem.

The employment-population ratio in 2010 for youth 16 to 19 is at the lowest level in more than 60 years. According to the March 2010 Bureau of Labor Statistics report, only 38 percent of high school dropouts ages 16 to 24 are employed. For black youth in this category, fewer than one in four has a job. For many youth of color in areas of concentrated poverty, work is no longer an option. This high level of youth joblessness and idleness during the time that youth should be developing work ethics, honing their work and occupational skills and building an employment portfolio will have enduring negative consequences not just for these youth as they assume adult responsibilities, but for the communities in which they reside and the nation as a whole.

For almost two decades, experts have warned about an impending crisis for low-income, low-skilled, and minority youth in the labor market. Despite the warnings of researchers, analysts and economists and their consistent recommendations to increase investment in our low-income, disadvantaged youth population, federal funding supporting youth employment and training decreased precipitously over the past two decades. Federal funding (in current dollars) to state and local areas for youth programming declined from $3.2 billion in 1991 to $1.6 billion in 2001 and to just $924 million in 2010, a nearly70 percent decline.

The unemployment crisis has affected all classes of workers but poses a particular challenge for low-income and unskilled youth. We know from past recessions that low-income and low-skilled individuals are most often left behind as the economy recovers. President Obama has presented a vision for economic recovery built on growth, innovation and investments in renewable energy, health care, technology, and rebuilding our physical infrastructure. That vision must be expanded to include an action plan for youth recovery that is built on those same economic engines, one that integrates strategies to get disconnected youth off the streets, back into classrooms and training programs and onto pathways that prepare them for emerging opportunities. We can equip these youth with the skills necessary to meet 21st Century employer demands, not just at the entry level, but as skilled technicians, craftsmen, managers and other professionals that different industries will need.

There are inherent challenges in implementing this vision. Youth who are disconnected from employment and education have extensive deficits in their academic, labor market and life-management skills. Their horizons have been limited by lack of exposure, and their risk behaviors have created other barriers that will need to be addressed.

But we have the knowledge, experience and technology to build multiple, supported pathways that will move youth from the margins to the labor market mainstream. Research has shown that by combining caring adult advocacy and mentorship with well-designed academic programs linked with training, work experience, leadership development and career exposure, youth can achieve successful labor market and post-secondary outcomes.

Across the country, there are workforce programs, community-based providers, youth development programs, youth service and conservation corps, transitional jobs programs and alternative education programs that are providing the only life-line to youth who desperately want a chance for a better future. For example, the Boston Youth Options Unlimited focuses attention on young offenders with serious offenses. They intervene early in the adjudication process, work with the youth while incarcerated to develop a re-entry plan that connects them to the most appropriate education option and a job, help them navigate the various public systems and provide ongoing support until they are successfully anchored in the labor market or other post-secondary endeavors.

Similarly, Baltimore’s Youth Opportunity System provides a supportive community-based environment where youth who are behind in school or have already dropped out can access the support of a cadre of experienced youth development specialists, connect to multiple education options including non-traditional venues for attainment of high school diploma and get work experience via internships and try-out employment in growing industries. Programs like these exist throughout the county, but they are extremely underfunded and only touch a small fraction of the approximately 5 million youth ages 16 to 24 who are out of school, out of work, and need help.

We need the public and political will, leadership, and sustained commitment to implement investments at a scale commensurate with the problem. The Center for Law and Social Policy, The Children’s Leadership Council, and the Campaign for Youth have all advocated for a $10 billion annual investment to create a comprehensive and sustained movement to reach out, re-engage and prepare these youth for the future economy.

For this to occur, the President must use his bully pulpit to make this a national priority. Congress should use the reauthorization of the Workforce Investment Act, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the jobs bills before them over the course of the next year to make youth an essential legislative priority.

The nation’s global competitiveness will be tied inextricably to the caliber of younger workers – including those who are currently outside of the mainstream. We simply can’t afford to defer making investments in developing their skills for yet another decade.

Harris is the Director of Youth Policy for the Washington-based low-income advocacy group CLASP.