US civil rights gains fall short on economic opportunity — just look at the youth unemployment numbers



Emily Judem

Like many young Americans, I was fascinated by the renewed attention on the civil rights movement in 2013. Last year marked the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, the document that arguably set the course for the long struggle for racial inequality. In August we celebrated the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s paradigm-shifting address at the March on Washington.

What’s sometimes lost about that iconic rally fifty years ago was that it was more than a demand for political and civil equality and a demonstration of racial harmony. The march was also rooted in the economic plight of people of color in the United States and laid out an economic agenda to expand economic opportunity for all citizens. The full name of the event was The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, after all.

The public policy community took advantage of the renewed attention to expose that while America has accomplished much in progressing past the dark days of racial discrimination, it’s the economic agenda that remains elusive.

The Economic Policy Institute reported that overall black poverty rate is almost triple those of whites. Poverty among blacks is more concerted too: nearly half (45 percent) of poor black children live in neighborhoods with concentrated poverty, compared to a little more than a tenth (12 percent) of poor white children.

Young Invincibles calculates youth unemployment by race and ethnicity in every month’s jobs report, and the disparities are disturbing. Black workers consistently have higher unemployment rates than whites, but the dispersion is even worse for America's youth. Nearly one in five black 16- to 24-year-olds was out of work (and looking for a job) in December, compared to only about one in ten white workers in the same age group.

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Those young African-Americans suffered an unemployment rate of 20.7 percent in December. That’s a 2.5-point decrease from the previous month, but a lot of that was driven by a drop in the labor force. In fact, YI calculates that there are 50,000 fewer 16 to 24-year olds in the workforce than there were a year ago. This is a serious problem that needs to be addressed.

An important step in fixing any problem is clearly defining it. In our newest report, In This Together, we tried to establish the collective burden that every citizen shares for high youth unemployment. By putting a price tag to the disproportionate levels of youth unemployment, including young people of color, we hope to earn buy-in from a wider audience, not just those looking for a job. A few conclusions:

• It costs the government $9 billion every year in lost taxes and expenditures due to high youth unemployment. That breaks down to $53 for every single per taxpayer.

• It costs the government $4,100 for every additional unemployed 18 to 24 year old above the pre-recession levels (and there are 500,000 of them) and almost $10,000 per 25-to-35 year old (of which there are 1.5 million).

• The vast majority of these costs, around 90 percent, derive from lost tax revenue, not social safety net expenditures like unemployment insurance and welfare. That’s collective money that we could be using for other priorities (or giving back to taxpayers).

Considering the average tuition and fees for an in-state resident at a public college during the 2013-2014 school year was $8,093, it’s actually costing America more to keep the typical 25 to 34 year old unemployed than to send him or her to college. Considering that 65 percent of all jobs will require some sort of post-secondary education degree by 2020, those aren’t priorities of economic justice and equity.

To address the problem, we call on Congress to reinvest in proven programs like AmeriCorps, that only has slots for 80,000 for its half a million applicants, and earns nearly $2.50 return on every $1 invested. Small investments in our nation’s youth will earn big dividends among the nation’s currently unemployed young adults, and as we demonstrated in our report, the nation as a whole.

As President Obama said during his remarks at the anniversary celebration last August (citing March on Washington organizer Asa Philip Randolph): “We may have come here on different ships, but we all are in the same boat now.”

Tom Allison is the policy & research manager at Young Invincibles, an organization committed to amplifying the voices of young adults ages 18 to 34 and to expanding economic opportunity. Young Invincibles ensures that young adults are represented in today's most pressing societal debates through cutting-edge policy research & analysis and innovative campaigns designed to educate, inform and mobilize.


This piece is part of a new GlobalPost Special Reports/Commentary initiative supported by the Ford Foundation called "VOICES." The mission of VOICES is to present the ideas and opinions of those who are less frequently heard in the media, including women, people of color, sexual minorities, citizens of the developing world and young people. These voices will consistently discuss topics important to GlobalPost Special Reports including human rights, religious issues, global health, economic inequality and democracies in transition.