The Brookings Institute says that in our nation's top 100 metropolitan areas, the employment prospects for teens and young adults dropped drastically. Indeed, Brookings used the word "plummeted" to describe changes the employment situation between 2000 and 2011. White youth had an official unemployment rate of 15.9 percent in April, while African American youth have a rate of 36.8 percent, more than twice the white rate. These are just the official numbers. The unofficial numbers would suggest that a third of White youth, and about 70 percent of Black youth, are out of work.
Many choose to focus on adult unemployment. And certainly, the ability of adults to support their families is of greater concern. But in addition to earning money, the 16-19 year old population benefits from summer jobs because they learn work habits, such as promptness and appropriate dress, when they are exposed to the labor market. Many who do not find summer employment will find that later an employer will prefer someone who has worked to someone who had not.
In the past, some city governments have provided resources to help put young people to work. In economic hard times (though some say they are improving), it is often easier for young people to find unpaid opportunities than those that generate income. That's fine for those who can afford to work for free, but there is a definite class bias when unpaid internships are considered. Those whose parents are moderate earners are more likely to be willing or able to work without pay. Yet, unpaid internships are often stepping-stones to lucrative paid employment opportunities.
The youth employment situation is dire, and it is all the more dire when our rhetoric about valuing youth is examined. How often have you been to an event focused on youth issues that played the Whitney Houston song, The Greatest Love of All? The song begins with the words, "I believe that children are the future, teach them well and let them lead the way." What are we teaching our youth when we fail to provide opportunities for them?
We have made it more difficult for young people to find summer work, and more difficult for them to attend college, but very easy to fast track them into the criminal justice system. We are determining our nation's future tomorrow by our actions today.
All youth are not in the same position. Race, class, and ethnicity shape the opportunities presented to young people. The offspring of the top 1 percent certainly don't have to worry about summer jobs or college costs. And some children of the 1 percent can murder with impunity. A Texas teen got probation for killing four people when he was so drunk that his blood alcohol was three times the legal limit. His defense said he suffered from "affluenza," which means he had too much money to have any sense. The judge bought the bizarre argument.
This summer, some will complain that young'uns playing with fire hydrants will bring water pressure down (fix that by opening the pools), or that youngsters gathering in the street are a nuisance (so open a playground). We'll hear about literacy challenges (keep libraries open longer hours), and other ways that the young people who are out of school occupy themselves. Job creation, summer programs, and other links between school and work possibilities are all ways to connect our young people to opportunities. It costs money now, but as a dear friend, the late Charles Franklin said, "you have to pay, but if you wait too long, you will pay penalties and interest."
Our beloved ancestor Maya Angelou wrote, "A Pledge to Rescue Our Youth" at Essence former editor Susan Taylor's request and it was read at the 2006 Essence Music Festival. These are the last lines of her charge, "You are the best we have. You are all we have. You are what we have become. We pledge you our whole hearts from this day forward."
We can't afford to discard that pledge.
Julianne Malveaux is a Washington, D.C.-based economist and writer. She is President Emerita of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C.