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Youth Jobs: A Part of the Solution

Charles J.Ogletree Jr. | 9/21/2011, 1:16 p.m.
The current economic recession has hurt almost everyone in the country who doesn't work on...
Charles Ogletree Jr./Courtesy Photo

If members of Congress fully understood the extent to which the federally-authorized YouthBuild program generated a substantial return on investment for the public, would they not support its continuation, or for that matter, its expansion? The fact is that independent research from 2007 has shown that a return on investment of $7.80 is achieved for every dollar spent on every 16- to 24-year old who participates in the YouthBuild program. (That number increases significantly for those young people who have been adjudicated.)

As one example, let's consider North Carolina. Last year, Philip Cook, an economics professor at Duke University, released findings that the continued use of the death penalty costs North Carolina taxpayers almost $11 million more than they would spend if the state replaced capital punishment with life sentences without the possibility of parole. These costs include additional attorneys, resources demanded by the District Attorney and courts for capital prosecutions, and the lengthy appeal process. These costs continue to be incurred by the state each year, even though death sentences have declined considerably and no one has been executed there since 2007.

What might that $11 million buy if it were reinvested? Well, for starters, it could provide over 700 slots to young adults who wanted to join YouthBuild but were turned away for lack of spots. Another choice? The Alliance for Excellent Education estimates that a 5% increase in male high school graduates in North Carolina would generate annual savings of approximately $152 million. In addition to these increased savings, this rise in graduation rates would also yield $80 million in annual earnings.

So, why not invest that $11 million in implementing the Talent Development program in more high schools in the state? Talent Development provides structured support to struggling students during the critical ninth grade year, a year when many students opt to drop out. Like YouthBuild, it has been subjected to rigorous independent evaluations. At an average cost of $200,000 per school, an additional $11 million could provide 55 schools in the state with an intervention that will prevent early dropouts. By any objective measure, an investment in either of these programs will ultimately yield financial profits for the state.

Obviously, some in this country will continue to push for draconian spending cuts, regardless of their negative long-term yield. But we must appeal to those who believe, like President Obama, in "the thread running throughout our history - a belief that we are all connected; and that there are some things we can only do together, as a nation....." It is this impulse within the American public that we must reactivate in order to demand that our public officials not only pose the right questions, but, even in the toughest of economic times, make the smart choices.