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Mellody Hobson talks about today’s youth who, despite their troubled pasts or challenging circumstances, have potential value to our communities and economies.

What is “Opportunity Youth”?

Yes. It’s defined as kids and young adults aged 16-24 who aren’t in school or working. They’re frequently referred to as Opportunity Youth because of their potential value to our communities and economies. Nationwide, there are 6.7 million young people (or 17%) who are estimated to fall into this disconnected group.

And they’re all over the country?

Yes. Opportunity Youth are disproportionately male and disproportionately minorities. They may have been incarcerated or have bad health. Some have care-giving responsibilities that overwhelm them. And this group is disturbingly large. American teens and young adults have never done worse in the job market than they have in this century.

Why is this such a growing issue?

The first problem is that the economy is simply not producing enough jobs.  Some 22 million jobs were created in the 1990s in the U.S.  Since 2000, about two and a half million new jobs have been created on balance. That’s about twenty million fewer than the precious decade. And those harder to get jobs are paying less to boot: For young men aged 16 to 24, the average salary is about 29% lower adjusted for inflation than in 1973, and for women, it’s about 17% lower. The worst part is that those are the lucky ones: Unemployment of young people is at a historic high and communities across the country are in search of solutions that can help reverse the trend.

Can it be reversed?

Well, the good news is that this under-served group is eager for help. There was an optimistic survey by the Social Sciences Research Council that found the majority of Opportunity Youth are hopeful about the future and claim responsibility for their lives. Specifically, 77% of those surveyed believe that getting a good education and a good job is their own responsibility and whether they succeed depends on their own effort, and 73% of Opportunity Youth are confident or hopeful in their ability to achieve their life goals. Enthusiasm and a willingness to work are a great place to start, especially when you consider the extraordinary challenges these young people face.

Disconnected Youth are more likely to grow up in poverty than their peers and were hit hardest by the recent recession. They are unlikely to have role models with degrees, the qualifications they need, transportation options for traveling to a job, or access to good jobs in their neighborhoods.

So what can we do to try to tackle this issue while everyone’s in the Christmas spirit?

This problem is so pervasive that it really needs to be addressed at a national level with social programs. And there are programs that work.  Through Project U-Turn, the City of Philadelphia raised the city’s high school graduation rates from 52% in 2005 to 64% in 2012.  The program recently won $499,000 in funding from the Aspen Institute as part of a plan to use it as a prototype for a national model. Another program is YouthBuild, a nationwide Department of Labor program for high school dropouts. In addition, AmeriCorps-funded programs, which offer young people from diverse backgrounds the opportunity to serve in communities across the country, have been found to improve graduation and employment rates. The 2009 Serve America Act passed by Congress committed to increasing the number of AmeriCorps positions from 75,000 to 250,000 by 2017. But the Act has not been implemented, and 85% of more than half a million applicants were turned down in 2012.

On top of the social responsibility factor of giving our nation’s young people opportunities, investing in our youth makes sound financial sense for the country. Because the long-term societal costs of disconnected youth who don’t get help include lost taxes, more government transfers, higher prison budgets, and other untold costs, upfront investment in these programs is much more economical.

On a personal level, I would suggest donating to local chapters of programs like the Urban League and Jobs Corp. If you own your own business, take on a young intern, or find another way to mentor an at-risk kid. ‘Tis the season!

Mellody is President of Ariel Investments, a Chicago-based money management firm that serves individual investors and retirement plans through its no-load mutual funds and separate accounts.  Additionally, she is a regular financial contributor and analyst for CBS News.