Is this just new social policy jargon, or does the opportunity youth movement that is gaining momentum nationally represent a game-changing moment for young people in this community? My job is to make sure the latter is true.

“Opportunity youth” is a relatively new term being used to describe 16-24 year olds who are not in school and not participating in the labor market. More positive than terms like disconnected youth, dropouts, or at-risk teens, the term is growing on me. There are at least two reasons I like it.

First, it reflects a persistent hope that so many of these young people have for their futures, despite the considerable obstacles they confront every day.  In a national survey of opportunity youth, 73% were “very confident” or “hopeful” that they would be able to achieve their education and career goals. Here at home, I think of a young man I met this summer from New Futures who was finishing his GED, working part-time, sketching during every free moment, and looking for an affordable graphic design degree program that could help him turn his passion for art into a viable career.

Second, the term opportunity youth is a constant reminder that these young peoples’ futures represent an enormous opportunity for our communities. Advocates know it is hard to make the case for investing in older youth when the overall pie is limited and the early childhood research is so compelling. Yet check out this math. Estimates released this week suggest there are nearly 6 million opportunity youth in the US. Each year the overall estimated cost – in lost revenue, earnings, and increased social services – is a whopping $250 billion. So while we do need to consider the costs of various approaches, find new ways to blend funding streams, and get more creative about financing strategies, failing to invest in these youth is exponentially more expensive than providing services to meet their needs. We cannot afford not to do a better job supporting these young people. All of our futures depend on it.

It should go without saying that preventing anyone from becoming an opportunity youth in the first place should be a constant priority. And it is – for a multitude of partners working inside and outside of schools in the Road Map Region. And our efforts to re-engage young people who have become disconnected need to intentionally build on prevention efforts so that overall, our approach is more seamless.

Many in this community have been working for decades to support opportunity youth, but until recently this population has gone largely unnoticed at the national level. That has changed, thanks to a White House Commission on Community Solutions, which led to the launch of the Aspen Opportunity Youth Incentive Fund, which this summer recognized S. Seattle and S. King County as a region with the potential to build a strong youth re-engagement system.

As a new staff member at CCER charged with supporting collective regional efforts to improve outcomes for opportunity youth, I look forward to making the most of this moment. This new blog is one small vehicle for spreading the word. Stay tuned for young peoples’ stories, snapshots of local data, promising efforts in our region, and highlights from national research.

Nicole Yohalem is the Community Center for Education Results’ Opportunity Youth Initiatives Director.

Posted in: Opportunity Youth

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