Almost 5 million people under age 30 are looking for work. Millions have gone back to school only to face skyrocketing college tuition and few opportunities upon graduation. Not surprisingly, a national poll of 18- to 34-year-olds found that almost half of our fellow Millennials fears they will end up worse off than their parents. And now, the so-called fiscal cliff threatens to bring the latest round of devastating setbacks to this country’s young people.
Given the scale of the problems facing our generation, you might expect Congress to prioritize successful and cost-effective programs in education and training. Unfortunately, that’s not the trend in Washington these days. President Obama, John Boehner, and GOP lawmakers are negotiating the so-called fiscal cliff – a combination of looming across-the-board budget cuts and tax increases. If those cuts took effect, they would blindly slash funding for programs that provide essential education and training for young people.
In a new report, we demonstrate the enormous gap between the scale of the challenges facing young people and the meager public investment in their success.
Although education and training beyond high school are now all but crucial to economic prosperity, the share of total public spending devoted to education is on the decline since 2000. Cuts at the state level have driven up tuition at public universities and fueled increases in student debt. The United States once boasted the highest proportion of college graduates in the world, but it has now fallen to 12th place.
Meanwhile youth employment is on the decline as well. The share of young people (ages 16 to 24) in the labor force has been on a downward trend since 2000, and that trend accelerated when the Great Recession wiped out an estimated 2.7 million youth jobs. To make matters worse, the federal government cut funding for core youth training and employment services by $1 billion over the past decade.
Consider YouthBuild, a federal initiative that teaches trade skills to low-income 16- to 20-year-olds who simultaneously earn high school diplomas. Kim, a young woman from Columbus, Ohio, enrolled in YouthBuild, learned basic construction to help her land a job, and now plans to pursue higher education. Looming budget reductions would cut around 8 percent from the program’s already meager funding, while also reducing resources for nearly every other federal education and training initiative.
Meanwhile some people insist that spending cuts benefit the next generation because young people will be on the hook to repay the national debt. While deficits eventually should decline to a stable share of the US economy, shortsighted cuts in education and training would harm America's long-term economic future. Ignoring the millions of young people who are neither working nor in school costs taxpayers an estimated $93 billion annually. That’s the price in juvenile justice, social services, and the reduction in tax revenue that results from these young people staying out of the work force.
But taxpayer can save money in the long-run by expanding – not defunding – investments that connect our generation to good jobs. By one estimate, Youthbuild returns between $10 and $43 for every $1 invested in youth involved in the court system and between $7 to $11 for every dollar invested in participants not involved in the court system. Another study found that the youth training program Job Corps saves two dollars for every one invested.
Funding such investment is a matter of priorities. Our report found that the federal government currently spends more on tax breaks for oil and gas companies than on the major youth training programs, and a lot more on subsidies for livestock feed than on national service employment for young people in AmeriCorps. The annual budget for federal education programs in science, technology, engineering, and math – the fields that offer the best wages to young people starting a career – cost the US Treasury less than two weeks’ worth of Bush tax cuts for the top 5 percent of taxpayers.
Right now those tax cuts and nearly every program in the discretionary budget are up for negotiation, as lawmakers devise a plan to deal with the fiscal cliff. This is a chance to align America's spending and tax priorities with investment in the young people who are this country’s future.
We’re hoping lawmakers don’t throw our generation over the edge.
Both Millennials, Mattea Kramer is a senior research analyst at National Priorities Project and Rory O’Sullivan is Policy and Research Director at Young Invincibles. They co-authored the new report “A Fight for the Future: Education, Job Training, and the Fiscal Showdown.”