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A new analysis by researchers at the Brookings Institution found that 17 percent of the people aged 18 to 24 in the nation’s most populous cities and counties are unemployed, and their prospects aren’t good.

Hidden amid the nation’s impressively low 3.6 percent unemployment rate is a troubling subset of young people unprepared for the modern economy.

A new analysis by researchers at the Brookings Institution found that 17 percent of the people aged 18 to 24 in the nation’s most populous cities and counties are unemployed, and their prospects aren’t good. Nationally, this accounts for 5 million people.

The largest share of these, 37 percent, are between 18 and 21 and have only a high school diploma or less. Another 25 percent are between 22 and 24 and have completed no more than high school.

This is an important demographic because not only do these young people tend to have few plans to continue their education, they also are the most likely to become parents at an early age.

Other surveys have found that unmarried parents tend to fit into these categories, as well, and that their children are more likely to engage in risky behavior, including the use of illegal substances, than the children of better educated, married parents. Married parents tend to be better off financially than unmarried parents.

This subset of unemployed youth, then, is at risk of burdening social programs and the criminal justice system. And, the Brookings survey notes, the United States does a woeful job of trying to help them navigate what for them is a difficult adult world.

“What we lack is a sense of urgency, political will, and imagination,” wrote Brookings fellow Martha Ross. “We should tap into the intelligence and assets of the young people described above, and help them grow into their potential.”

Among the survey’s recommendations are to establish public “re-engagement centers” that could help those who never finished high school to become educated and trained, as well as to provide job training programs specifically tied to the needs of local economies.

More funding for remedial reading and math programs could help those who struggle to obtain jobs or further education, and at-risk young people who enroll in college could benefit from better support systems that help them complete their courses of study.

The largest concentrations of these young people are in some of the nation’s most troubled neighborhoods. They encompass one-third of all young adults in Detroit and a quarter of those in the Bronx, the Brookings report said.

In many cities, they represent a hidden subculture of despair and hopelessness that ends up perpetuating itself from generation to generation.

In Utah, lawmakers have attempted to get at this group through an Intergenerational Poverty Initiative, which attempts to define the problem and apply a variety of resources.

16 comments on this story

The worst thing the nation could do is to assume these people lack the will or the potential to improve their lives. Many lack basic skills or suffer from anxiety or other mental problems that inhibit their progress. Many were raised in families that have experienced generation after generation of poverty. They tend to disappear into the shadows during good times, when unemployment is low and conventional wisdom says anyone can find a job.

“We do ourselves no favors when we consign millions of people to the margins of the labor market when they could be helping to shape our collective future,” Ross wrote.

It’s worse than that. We do ourselves harm.