4 million young people left to drift

When the dismal unemployment numbers were released on Friday (at the same time that oil prices were surging to record highs), I thought about the young people at the bottom of the employment ladder.

Below the bottom, actually.

A shudder went through the markets when the Labor Department reported that the official jobless rate had jumped one-half a percentage point in May to 5.5 percent – the sharpest spike in 22 years.

The young people I'm talking about wouldn't have noticed. These are the teens and young adults – roughly 16 to 24 years old – who are not in school and basically have no hope of finding work. The bureaucrats compiling the official unemployment rate don't even bother counting these young people. They might as well not exist.

Except that they do exist. There are 4 million or more of these so-called disconnected youths across the country. They hang out on street corners in cities large and small – and increasingly in suburban and rural areas.

Disconnected and hustling

If you ask how they survive from day to day, the most likely response is: “I hustle,” which could mean anything from giving haircuts in a basement to washing a neighbor's car to running the occasional errand.

Or it could mean petty thievery or drug dealing or prostitution or worse.

This is the flip side of the American dream. The U.S. economy, which hasn't produced enough jobs to keep the middle class intact, has left these youngsters behind.

“These kids are being challenged in ways that my generation was not,” said David Jones, the president of the Community Service Society of New York, which tries to develop ways to connect these young men and women with employment opportunities, or get them back into school.

It is extremely difficult because, for the most part, the jobs are not there and the educational establishment is having a hard enough time teaching the kids who are still in school.

So these kids drift. Some are drawn to gangs. A disproportionate number get involved in crime. It is tragic, and very few people are paying attention.

The economic policies of the past few decades have favored the wealthy and the well-connected to a degree that has been breathtaking to behold. The Nation magazine has devoted its current issue to the Gilded Age-type inequality that has been the result.

Just a little bit of help to the millions of youngsters trying to get their first tentative foothold in that economy should not be too much to ask.

It's not as if these kids don't want to work. Many search and search until they finally become discouraged. The summer job market, which has long been an important first step in preparing teenagers for the world of work, is shaping up this year as the weakest in more than half a century.

As their ranks grow, so does their potential to become a destabilizing factor in the society.

More important, the U.S. needs the untapped talent (and the potential buying power) of these young people, just as it needs the talents of the many other Americans of all ages whose energy, intelligence and creativity are wasted in an economic system that is not geared toward providing jobs for everyone who wants to work.

America needs to dream bigger, and in this election year, job creation should be issue No. 1. If I were running for president, I would pull together the smartest minds I could find to see what could be done to spark the creation of decent jobs on a scale that would bring the U.S. as close as possible to full employment.