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October 22, 2013 11:27 AM The Damaged

By Ed Kilgore

While there’s a general understanding that young people just leaving school have been terribly victimized by the Great Recession and its sluggish-economy aftermath, the persistence of the damage may not be fully appreciated. As Richard Florida explains in the November/December issue of the Washington Monthly, we can expect the effects to last for some time:

The consequences are dire for these young Americans. They’re not only more likely to have a hard time in the job market; researchers have found that disconnection has scarring effects on health and happiness that endure throughout a lifetime. Unemployed, uneducated youth are at greater risk for criminality and incarceration, and they often go on to become unreliable spouses and improvident parents.
The costs to society are also considerable. The direct support expenses and lost tax revenues associated with disengaged young people cost U.S. taxpayers $93 billion in 2011 alone—a bill that will only compound as the years progress.

Florida draws on data from a Measure of America report that will be released Thursday to look at how the nation’s top 25 metro areas rank in “disconnected youth” (the percentage of those between the ages of 16 and 24 who are neither in school or in jobs). And it provides another counter-argument to the common conservative picture that the small-government Sun Belt is the fertile crescent of American opportunity:

Eight of the ten areas with the highest levels of disconnected youth are in the Sun Belt, including Charlotte, Atlanta, Tampa, Phoenix, and Riverside-San Bernardino in Southern California. These cities’ economies were focused on suburban sprawl and thus were especially hard hit by the housing collapse. But that isn’t the only, or even the biggest, reason for their high levels of youth disconnection.
There is a close connection between youth disconnection and education levels or human capital, according to the study. Sun Belt metro areas have fewer highly educated adults and have tended historically to attract people with relatively lower levels of education. In contrast, the metro areas with the highest percentage of college-educated adults—places like Boston, Washington, D.C., Denver, and San Francisco—have smaller shares of disconnected youth.

Florida goes on to examine racial and ethnic patterns of “youth disconnection” (young African-Americans are twice as likely to be “disconnected” than their white peers), and possible solutions beyond a stronger economy and bigger investments in education. We should, for example, focus on the quantity and quality of the jobs people entering the workforce can most readily obtain:

[W]e need to upgrade low-skill, low-wage service work. The fastest-growing job categories—and the jobs that are the most available to young people, especially those with limited education—are low-pay, low-skill service jobs, in food preparation, retail sales, and the like. Those jobs can be made better—not just by mandating higher minimum wages, but by harnessing the creativity, knowledge, and initiative of workers to boost productivity and hence wages. We also need policies that are directly targeted at youth entering the job market. The more marketable skills young people have and the more practical experience they have accumulated in actual workplaces, the better their chances of finding and keeping work over the long term.

Getting government out of the way and hoping for the best just isn’t enough.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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