YouthBuild: solving America's youth crisis

YouthBuild has helped 120,000 low-income high school dropouts produce more than 23,000 units of affordable housing while studying for their high school equivalency diploma.

Courtesy of YouthBuild USA
YouthBuild provides unemployed low-income youths with jobs building affordable housing while studying to complete their high school education.

Every year 1.2 million American youth leave high school without a diploma. One-third of all students nationwide, and one half in low-income communities, do not graduate.

Some students leave to make money to support their family, but most will say they left because nobody in the school actually cared about them. Nobody cared to help them learn, to overcome problems, to take themselves and their futures seriously.

As a result, there are 6.7 million young adults between the ages of 16 and 24 who are out of work and out of school in the USA. About half of them grew up in poverty.  This cohort of young people will directly cost American taxpayers $1.3 trillion over their lifetimes, and will generate a social burden of $4.7T. Worldwide this problem is even greater and deserves enormous attention and investment. For now, this article will focus on the USA.

While millions of young adults can’t find jobs, there are many companies that cannot find employees qualified for available jobs. Millions of jobs in health care and technology are going unfilled. The US military is similarly affected. Young people without diplomas are not eligible. Furthermore, over 350,000 youth aged 16 to 24 are behind bars, many for nonviolent offenses. Sixty-eight percent of inmates in state prisons lack a high school diploma, showing a profound correlation between lack of education and crime.

Without a diploma, it is hard to get a job. Add to that a criminal record, and it is virtually impossible. Living in families with no food in the refrigerator and no parent with a job, in neighborhoods filled with drugs, gangs, and police, what do we expect young men and women to do? It looks to them like the only door open to making money leads to selling drugs. It also looks like the most welcoming community is made up of gang members.

As a result, many young men in low income communities expect to be dead or in jail by the time they are 25. In fact, there are more young men dying on our streets than dying in military service in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Overall, this is a shameful picture. The talent being wasted by extreme inequality of income, education, job training, family supports, and community-based opportunities is enormous. The young people who are out of school and out of work have recently been called “opportunity youth” by researchers in the United States, because they are seeking opportunity and they offer society an enormous opportunity, if only we would invest in them.

We know exactly how to empower disconnected “opportunity youth” to turn their lives around. They do not want to end up dead or in jail. They have dreams, and talents, and if you reach an inch below the surface you find they are simply yearning to belong to a family or community where someone cares enough to guide them in the pursuit of happiness, in the creation of a life worth living. So far, their families, schools, and communities have failed them.

Various community-based and publicly funded programs have emerged to welcome them into supportive pathways to opportunity, enabling them to overcome serious obstacles and get on track to high school and college degrees. For example, in the YouthBuild program that has been supported by the Skoll Foundation, over 120,000 low-income young people who had previously left high school without a diploma in 273 American communities have produced over 23,000 units of affordable housing while attending a YouthBuild school where they study for their high school equivalency diploma.

On a panel at the Aspen Ideas Festival, Xavier Jennings, a graduate of the YouthBuild program in Denver, Colorado, described the difficulties of his life living in public housing with his grandmother who was sick with heart disease and had lost her food stamps because she could no longer travel to renew them. Surrounded on the streets by opportunities to make money selling drugs, he entered “the lifestyle,” got in trouble with the law, and was expelled from school.

Nobody moved to help him, until a friend told him about YouthBuild, where he could earn money building affordable housing in the neighborhood while earning his diploma and preparing for college. A way to earn money, a diploma, and skills, sounded good. He joined.

He described a transformative moment that occurred in the first week. He went with a crew of YouthBuild AmeriCorps students to renovate the back yard of a senior citizen. She didn’t welcome them warmly. He felt their baggy pants caused her to stereotype them. But after the young people had restored her yard, she came out the back door with tears in her eyes, carrying a tray of cookies she had made for them, thanking them from the bottom of her heart. 

Xavier also began to tear up, experiencing for the first time appreciation and respect rather than blame and rejection, from the same woman who seemed to scorn them on first view. That moment triggered his decision to seize the opportunity to turn his life around and become a person who helped others.

This is a common transformational experience for young people in YouthBuild, Making a difference for other people is a universally inspiring human experience that works miracles for young people who have been seen as the troublemakers in their neighborhoods. 

“I used to be a hoodlum,” they say. “Now I am a hero.” Many move into long-term leadership roles to improve their communities and diminish suffering.  Recent research from Tufts University documents this phenomenon at YouthBuild.

Speaking after Xavier, Ernesto Aguilera, a graduate of the Los Angeles Conservation Corps, and Rayonna Hall, from Gateway to College at Durham, N.C., also told their stories of how these programs valued their abilities, helped them set and achieve goals, and made it possible for them to succeed in college. They contrasted the caring relationships with staff to what they experienced as uncaring and punitive approaches in the public schools they had left.

Clearly, the public schools need to change. Every principal and teacher needs to be trained in how to show respect and caring to every student, how to create a safe community committed to the success of every member, and class sizes need to make that possible. This would be a decisive step toward diminishing the drop-out rate. But meanwhile, we must invest in the second-chance programs that are succeeding with the young people who have already left high school.

Each 20 year old who is unemployed and out of school will directly cost taxpayers $236,000 over his or her lifetime and will produce a larger social burden of $704,000 unless something is done to open a door to education and employment.

On the other hand, it costs just $22,000 to give a YouthBuild student a life-changing year in a paid job producing valuable affordable housing for the community while earning his or her GED or high school diploma, gaining industry-recognized credentials, belonging to a positive peer group, experiencing the respect and dedication of caring adults, internalizing positive values, and preparing for college or a career. Research on YouthBuild has shown that the direct return for every dollar spent is a minimum of $7.80. The social value is even greater.

Can we afford not to invest in comprehensive programs that provide reliable pathways to success for all American young people? It would be stupid and self-destructive not to invite every unemployed, out-of-school, young adult into comprehensive second chance opportunities to build a productive life-style. What are we waiting for? Some kind of an irresistible uprising or threat? We already know it’s damaging and wasteful to ignore the problem. Furthermore, we have proven solutions.

Every solution for every problem faced by our great nation is subject to political decisions. The twin challenges of improving our public schools to lower the drop-out rates, and expanding our second-chance programs to reconnect those whom the schools have failed, require public funding. Elected officials of all persuasions need to hear this loud and clear from their constituents. Even skeptical legislators can often be won over through listening to the testimonies of the youth, seeing what they produce, and reviewing the data.

We need to invest in the education, well-being, inspiration, and character development of every young person born, including those who were born into poverty through no fault of their own.

They will grow up to be responsible, productive, caring citizens if society recognizes their value and invests in opportunities for them to realize their full potential.

• Dorothy Stoneman is founder and president of YouthBuild USA.

This article originally appeared at the Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship, the premier international platform for accelerating entrepreneurial approaches and innovative solutions to the world’s most pressing social issues.

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