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Education

Economic Prospects Said Bleak for the ‘Forgotten Half’

By Debra Viadero — April 24, 2008 5 min read

A new report by a national panel paints a grim picture of the economic realities facing the 20 million 16- to 24-year-olds in this country whose formal education ends with high school.

Lacking either the credentials to find a “good” job or the resources to start a family, these young people face economic prospects considerably bleaker than those of earlier generations, according to the report.

Such youths —dubbed “the forgotten half” by the panel —typically “flounder” for several years in dead-end jobs. The results of those wasted years, it says, are frustration for the young people and a $240-billion loss to the national economy in unrealized earnings and income taxes.

“The plight of ‘the forgotten half,’ never easy, has become alarming,” said Harold Howe 2nd, a former U.S. commissioner of education and the chairman of the commission that produced the report.

“This nation may face a future divided not along lines of race or geography but of educational attainment,” the report warns.

“The Forgotten Half: Non-College Youth in America,” is the product of a yearlong examination of the subject by the 19-member commission, which included prominent educators, business leaders, and sociologists.

Part of a two-year, $1.7-million effort funded by the William T. Grant Foundation, the panel’s 100-page report is among the first to take a comprehensive look at the 50 percent of the nation’s young people who do not go on to college--a group that it says has been largely ignored by the education-reform movement.

The problems facing young people stem from the rapid transformations that have shaken the nation’s economy in recent decades, according to the commission.

“The economy has been through wrenching changes and young workers have borne the brunt of those changes,” Mr. Howe said.

Most significantly, the report says, the pool of stable, well-paying jobs requiring no college training has shrunk markedly.

For example, in the manufacturing sector, the report notes, 1.7 million jobs disappeared between 1979 and 1985. Thousands more “good” jobs have been lost in transportion and agriculture, it adds.

In addition, the study notes, large corporate employers tend to hire young workers in their early to mid-20’s for entry-level, career jobs. The employers reason that young people just out of high school are “not responsible” or “not ready to settle down yet,” according to the study.

As a result, the jobs open to new high-school graduates are largely part time, low-paying, and lacking in benefits, opportunities for career advancement, and stability. Currently, it takes two retail jobs —now in abundant supply —to equal the wages lost by one manufacturing job, according to the study.

“The high-school graduate who can find no better full-time job than the youth job he or she held while still a student is far too prevalent,” the report says.

Among the sobering economic evidence used to paint its portrait of a generation “left at the starting gate,” the report notes that:

In 1986, young men ages 20 to 24 who had both high-school diplomas and jobs earned 28 percent less in constant dollars than did the comparable group in 1973. Corresponding groups of college graduates, by contrast, suffered only a 6 percent income decline over the same period.

The earnings gap was widest among high-school dropouts, who earned 44 percent less in 1986 than their predecessors did in 1973.

Even when employed, only 43.7 percent of young male dropouts earned enough in 1985 to support a family of three above the poverty level, down from about 60 percent in 1973.

The percentage of noncollege-bound high-school graduates under 20 in the full-time workforce fell from 73 percent in 1968 to 49 percent in 1986. Among females, the percentage decreased from 57 percent to 24 percent over the same period

Not ‘Laid Back’ Losers

The commission sought to dispel what it called “false assumptions” that " the forgotten half” is to blame for its own problems.

“Theirs is not a generation of ‘laid back’ losers, but rather one that is scrambling to succeed,” Mr. Howe said.

“These young people are working more than one job at a time, living at home longer with parents, delaying marriage and family, and seeking out new training to advance themselves,” he said.

The report points out, for example, that while public concern has been aroused by reports pointing to a high national dropout rate, statistics show that the annual dropout rate nationwide fell from 6.3 percent in 1973 to 5.2 percent a decade later. The study also notes that 86 percent of all 25- to 29-year-olds have earned a high-school diploma or its equivalent —twice the percentage for that age group in 1940.

“The primary problem lies with the economy, and the paths for youth who enter,” the report concludes, “rather than the youths themselves.”

The report also dismisses the notion that inadequate schooling has been the cause of the forgotten half’s problem, noting that “education can help but it is no cure-all for massive changes in the labor market.”

In fact, the report says, education-reform efforts that seek to solve such societal ills with a “cookie-cutter approach” to learning pose a special danger to such young people.

“For young people who have not fared well in school, a regimen of ‘more of the same’ may well result in less learning,” the report warns.

‘Making It’ Better

Instead, to help the nation’s non-college-bound young people betterbridge the gap between school and work, the commission calls for a $50-billion infusion of federal funds over the next 10 years in programs it says have already proven their success. They include the Head Start preschool program, Chapter 1 subsidies to help schools serve disadvantaged children, the Job Corps, and the Job Training Partnership Act.

The commissioners also urge educators, business leaders, and government officials to band together to lend this group a hand “up the ladder.” Such efforts, the report says, might include redirected vocational education programs, career internships, mentors from the community, and volunteer service for the young, among other possibilities.

“We think nothing of spending money on Pell grants or scholarships, yet we say to this group, ‘You’re on your own,’ when they graduate from high school,” said Samuel Halperin, the commission’s executive director.

“About three-quarters of these kids eventually make it on their own,” he added, “but maybe they’d make it better if given the chance.”

Single copies of the full report may be obtained at no charge by writing the William T. Grant Foundation Commission on Work, Family, and Citizenship, 1001 Connecticut Ave., N.W.; Washington, D.C. 20036-5541.

A version of this article appeared in the January 27, 1988 edition of Education Week as Economic Prospects Said Bleak for the ‘Forgotten Half’

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