Needed: pathways out of poverty. The challenge is to see the Forgotten Half in a new light, one that recognizes their strengths, respects their diversity, and draws attention to their talents. Without such a vision we run the risk of pitting one half of our youth against the other. -``The Forgotten Half: Pathways to Success for America's Youth and Young Families''

TIMES have never been tougher for young people, especially those who don't go to college, according to a recent study of 16- to 24-year-olds. Unemployment, part-time jobs with no benefits, and poverty-level incomes mean that today's young people without higher education are starting out far behind the previous generation. Called ``The Forgotten Half: Pathways to Success for America's Youth and Young Families,'' the study conducted by the William T. Grant Foundation found that between 1967 and 1986 the percentage of young people living below the poverty level has almost doubled.

``If you adjust today's earnings for this group and compare them with a generation ago, these youngsters are making 27 percent less money in inflation-adjusted purchasing power,'' says Samuel Halperin, study director of the Grant Commission on Youth and America's Future, which produced the report. ``If you're talking about black males, you're talking about over 40 percent less; female heads-of-household, over a third less.''

The reasons cited for this decreased earning power are not new: the disappearance of many high-pay, low-skill manufacturing jobs, the rise in minimum-wage jobs paying far below the poverty level, an increasing dropout rate, the explosion in the numbers of teen pregnancies and single-parent families. While many young people have always had a rough time getting started, this report says that current economic conditions mean that today's crop do not ``automatically grow out of their problems.''

And poverty has a grinding effect on families, says Hillary Rodham Clinton, one of the commissioners of the study, and a partner in the Rose Law Firm, Little Rock, Ark. ``The changing economy has had a depressing effect on family stability across the board, especially on those least able to cope with it. Certain young people postpone childbearing and marriage,'' she says. But there are a growing number of single-parent families in which young women continue to have children, but without the economic wherewithal to take care of their needs. A lot of young men feel themselves unable to accept the responsibilities of parenthood even though they're fathering children.''

The study found that the proportion of all 20- to 24-year-old males, regardless of race or educational background, who were married and living with their spouses fell nearly 50 percent, from 39.1 percent in 1974 to 21.3 percent in 1986.

But ``The Forgotten Half'' does not just present a bleak picture. In fact, most of it suggests broad new directions to correct the situation. It focuses on how to bridge students from high school into the work force and recommends a school curriculum with more hands-on learning, more work-study programs, and more training opportunities. It encourages the formation of better relationships between youths and adults, both in and out of the family. The commission proposes a voluntary national service for youths aged 15 to 25 to foster a sense of responsibility as well as ties to the community.

The report points to a need for change in adult thinking about teen-agers: ``An 80-year emphasis on the `problems of adolescence' may well have obscured the many abilities of real adolescents and added to the stereotyped view of youth as more often than not `in trouble.'''

Using existing research studies, the commissioners didn't find any one location that had all the answers, but they found individual programs that worked.

In three cities in Indiana, the Lilly Endowment and National Crime Prevention Council sponsor a ``Youth as Resources'' demonstration project in which young people make their cities safer and more livable. A similar program in Boston channels funds to groups of students for neighborhood projects. One such project cleans up an island in Boston's harbor and serves meals in a shelter for homeless women.

``Youth organizations like Big Brothers and Big Sisters, 4H, Future Farmers, most of them operate in great isolation from city halls and schools but can help kids develop skills,'' says Mr. Halperin.

The study proposes draft legislation, the Fair Chance: Youth Opportunities Demonstration Act, with a federal expenditure of $250 million for each of five years. It calls for a state-administered national project to increase access to post-high school education and training through financial aid, counseling, and academic support. The study also urges the federal government to spend $5 billion a year over 10 years to beef up existing programs: Head Start, Chapter I (remedial education for disadvantaged children), Jobs Corps, and the Job Training Partnership Act.

``This is not a giveaway,'' Halperin says. ``Demographic projections show that every single person is going to be important to staff our armed forces, give us educated workers, people to run the plants. Increasingly, the young people we have will come from folks with lots of deficiencies; whether it's non-English speaking or the traumas from poverty. Those folks won't be carrying their fair share unless we enable them to be, as Lyndon Johnson put it, `taxpayers instead of tax eaters.'''

``Like you invest in plant and equipment, you have to invest in young people. Not out of a sense of charity, it's mainly an issue that we need these people.''

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