The current economic recession has hurt almost everyone in the country who doesn’t work on Wall Street. But it probably won’t surprise many to learn that the harshest effects are being felt in communities of color, where unemployment rates are double those of the nation as a whole. 18% of black males are now unemployed. An astonishing 46%-yes, half–of black teenagers are out of work.
And yet, in the face of the bleakest job outlook since the Great Depression, we are being told by our public officials that our highest priority should not be job creation, but debt reduction. In the name of debt reduction, Congress may miss an opportunity to lower unemployment in America by advancing a jobs program for low-income young adults who are otherwise unlikely to secure meaningful employment because they lack a high school education and marketable skills.
Earlier this year in the FY’11 budget, the House chose to zero out programs, such as the federally authorized YouthBuild program, that successfully turn around the lives of troubled youths, many court-involved, most of color, living in urban and rural communities all across the country. YouthBuild keeps these youths out of prison, sends them back to school and offers them a supportive network of peers and adults. It puts them to work building affordable housing units in their own communities. In testimony after testimony, graduates of YouthBuild explain how the program literally saved their lives. YouthBuild costs the taxpayer between $15,000 and $18,000 per youth per year — what we might call a bargain. And, not surprisingly, the demand for YouthBuild far exceeds the number of slots available. Last year, over 18,000 applicants to YouthBuild programs were denied admission because of lack of funding. Fortunately, the Senate saved YouthBuild from elimination, but not without a 37% cut imposed by the negotiations with the House.
Without YouthBuild, and programs like it, we have more crime, more joblessness, more welfare, more fractured families, more substance abuse, more violence, more despair, more hopelessness, and more alienation. Those “mores” cost the country a lot more than $15,000 per year/person. Given the rhetoric, Congress’ choices have been confusing. Still, Congress has a chance in this budget cycle to take decisive action to re-commit to providing education and training to the youngest unskilled members of our workforce, and help them onto a pathway to productive futures.
At the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice, we examine the trade-offs that are made, regularly, when our public officials choose the most expensive and least effective interventions, such as prisons, juvenile halls, and death penalty prosecutions, over programs like YouthBuild, that actually promote public safety and improve quality of life in communities hardest hit by crime and violence. And then we ask the question: In an era of drastically shrinking public resources, is the choice to continue to lavish public dollars on the most expensive and least effective interventions, even as entire communities of color are starved for the resources and opportunities they need to thrive, a deliberate one? Or, if given more complete information about the public safety returns of alternative strategies and investments, would lawmakers and the public choose differently?
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.