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The Honorable Alexis M. Herman

Kids at Risk: Turning Point and Opportunity

September 3, 1998

Thank you Sheila Burke for your introduction and your leadership here at Harvard and throughout the years. Let me thank all of you for your invitation, your welcome, and the opportunity to share my Labor Day message at the John F. Kennedy School of Government.

I first spoke here in 1974 and it is an honor to be back and to be joined by two great former Secretaries of Labor, Robert Reich and John Dunlop. And it is a special privilege to be at an institution named for a President who viewed Labor Day as an opportunity to challenge the nation to better the lives of young people.

In fact, on Labor Day 1962, President Kennedy delivered this simple message to America's youth: Go back to school.

"There is no doubt," he said, "that anyone without a high school diploma has a hard time finding a job today--and will have an even harder time in the years ahead as jobs require an even higher degree of skill and training to perform." President Kennedy's words ring more true as we mark Labor Day 1998.

Thanks to the hard work of the American people, we have much to celebrate this Labor Day. Our economy is the strongest in a generation and our workforce is the most productive in the world.

Since families last gathered for Labor Day, unemployment hit a 28-year low--and it remained below 5% through the entire year. Inflation fell to its lowest point in three decades. We created over 2 million new jobs--adding a total of more than 16 million new jobs since President Clinton took office. And the President's common sense economic strategy has produced the first balanced budget in over a generation.

We are living in the midst of not just a strong economy--but a new economy. An economy powered by technology, fueled by information, driven by knowledge. An economy with tremendous opportunity.

But I have not come here to focus on this good news, as important as it is. I have come today to one of the nation's leading public policy schools to focus attention on one of the nation's leading social policy challenges.

I am here to talk about targeted strategies for young people who are not a part of our current prosperity but who are critical to ensuring continued prosperity. I am here to talk about providing hope to left out kids in left behind communities. To make sure that young people from rural areas have a real chance--and that youth from the inner city are in the inner circle of opportunity.

In short, I am here to talk about how we can assure employers the workers they need, young people the jobs they want, and our economy the wages and tax base it must have.

It all starts with one word: skills.

Despite occasional news reports to the contrary, we don't have a worker shortage in this country. We have a skills shortage. High skill jobs are growing at three times the rate of other jobs. At the same time, 52% of adults have a high school degree or less. It's little wonder that the Council on Competitiveness cited worker skills as America's number one challenge as we enter the next century.

And there is a trade impact. A key to taking full advantage of open markets abroad is opening the doors at home to opportunity and skills for all workers. Now more than ever, bridging the gap between Americans and jobs means thinking in new ways about education and training.

Bridging the skills gap also will help close the wage gap. Over the last twenty years, high school graduates have seen their real wages slide by more than 10%. High school dropouts have had a real wage decline of over 25%.

The message is clear: the new global economy is unlimited to those with the right skills--and unforgiving to those without.

The Clinton Administration has launched a number of creative strategies to bridge the gap and boost skills. We enacted the Workforce Investment Act last month with bipartisan support. This landmark legislation streamlines the job training system for the 21st century. Secretary Reich played a key role in creating and shaping this vital legislation--and we thank you for that.

We have developed an innovative school-to-work initiative that links classrooms to careers. We instituted Hope Scholarships to pay for the first two years of college for every American. These strategies will help millions of Americans who are in the workforce or in school succeed in our increasingly competitive global market.

But we must do more. And I believe we have a special responsibility to help young people develop a strong attachment to the workforce at an early age.

Just who am I talking about? Almost 15 million young people between the ages of 16 and 24 are not enrolled in school. About 90% don't have a college degree and 70% have a high school degree or less. That's over 10 million kids.

Today our national unemployment rate is 4.5%. But it's not 4.5% in all neighborhoods. During the Clinton Presidency, we've seen encouraging signs that unemployment even in the inner cities is declining--and wages are showing some modest gains.

But the fact remains that a majority of the out-of-school youth population in high poverty areas don't have a job. That's true in black communities, white communities, Hispanic communities, and Indian reservations.

And if there is one statistic above all that stands out for me as Secretary of Labor, it is this. Twenty years ago when I headed the Women's Bureau at the Labor Department the annual unemployment rate for black teens was over thirty percent. Twenty years later, I returned to the Department but that statistic hasn't gone anywhere.

The annual unemployment rate for black teens is still over thirty percent. And it has been at that level each and every year for the last twenty years. My friends, that is unacceptable.

We can't comfort ourselves by assuming that these young people will ultimately make their way into the workforce. Because when we take a hard look at this population, we see that they live in communities where jobs have dried up. Support networks have broken down. They face a new world economy without the skills to get ahead. And they face an old world where discrimination, too often, holds them back.

For these kids, the delicate operation of attaching to the workforce won't happen on its own. And that's something that should concern us all. Because when young people cannot fulfill their potential, America cannot fulfill its promise.

Millions of young people--many of whom are not in school--are the workforce of tomorrow. This pool of young adults is a population that will grow by more than 20% by the year 2010. As America's workforce grows older, it is these young people who will be called upon to help support retired workers well into the next half of the 21st century. And too many of them don't have what it will take to get ahead.

All of this means we have to stop looking at out-of-school youth as part of the problem and start looking at them as an asset. This is a pool of talent. It's time we tap it. And inaction comes at a heavy price.

The Urban Institute estimates that high school dropouts experience a reduction in their lifetime earnings of about $175,000. With about 500,000 of our youth dropping out of school each year, that adds up to $88 billion in lost earnings and productivity with each class. The study also found that the added crime rate from male high school dropouts adds another $33 billion cost to society.

But the societal costs go beyond dollars and cents. We know, for example, that extremely low employment rates in high poverty neighborhoods have profound effects on everyday life in these communities.

The groundbreaking work of William Julius Wilson has clearly demonstrated when work disappears, hope disappears.

The current deterioration of inner-city neighborhoods with gangs, crime, high levels of drug use and high incidence of single-parent households is diametrically opposed to an environment that sustains and promotes work. Joblessness and social disorganization reinforce each other in destructive ways, just as work and social stability reinforce each other in constructive ways.

And for young people in particular, that has a lasting impact. The best community development strategy--and best crime prevention strategy--is a job promotion strategy. It is the way to strengthen neighborhoods.

It's also the way to strengthen families. Over half of young white fathers who don't live with their children do not have full-time jobs. And only one in ten young black noncustodial fathers has full-time work.

It is hard to pay child support when you don't have a job. Not surprisingly, young fathers who work full-time, year round are seven times more likely to pay child support.

Earlier this year, I visited the Parents Fair Share program in Los Angeles. This initiative provides fathers with training for higher incomes and counseling for higher self-esteem. It promotes parenting skills and provides a strong support network.

I listened to fathers tell me they want to support their families. They want to re-connect. They don't want to be "Deadbeat Dads". They want to be "Upbeat Dads". They want to be good fathers and role models. That's what this initiative is helping them do.

When we help young people who are out of school move into hope, we reinforce families, we renew communities, and we revitalize America's ability to compete in the global economy. So what is holding us back?

Many of us are veterans in this fight. I began my career helping young men find and keep jobs in the shipyards of Pascagoula, Mississippi. Later, I was involved in the Carter Administration's efforts to address the issue in the 1970s. And we did some good. We touched people's lives.

Unfortunately, social science research--much of it done by scholars here at Harvard--shows us that however well-intentioned, many of these efforts fell short. Numerous studies have concluded that many employment programs for young people failed to show a significant positive effect.

There are a number of ways to respond to these reports. On the one hand, we can simply ignore them, keep doing what we have been doing, and expect different results. On the other hand, we could give in to the skepticism and simply give up. But in the new economy, these young people are in jeopardy of being permanently locked out--or worse, locked up.

Today two out of three prison inmates are high school dropouts. Youth crime rates exceed adult crime rates. And more Americans are behind bars than ever before.

Since 1980, the prison population has grown 179%. The parole population has increased 213%. And the probation population has skyrocketed 1565%.

As Harvard economist Richard Freeman has stated, "It is difficult to see any long-term solution to crime that does not include some improvement in the labor market opportunities for less-skilled youth."

A do-nothing strategy implies that the solution is incarceration. Well, I will not buy into a future that is based on giving up hope and locking up kids.

I believe there is another approach, a third way: Take an honest look. Build on what works. Abandon what doesn't.

Research and successful models teach us that there are two key strategies. Focus on the whole person. Engage the whole community.

What do I mean by that? Too often past programs were one dimensional. They took a narrow conception of the obstacles that out of school youth face. They ignored the fact that young people encounter a range of barriers into the labor market.

Education and training are critical. But we fool ourselves if we think that addressing one aspect of the challenge without looking at the others will solve the problem--that if we just put a young person in a job training program, that's the end of the story.

Looking at the whole person means using a broader definition of skills development. Skills encompass both "hard," task or career-oriented skills, and so-called "soft" skills, such as interpersonal relations, attitudes and behavior.

Someone training to be a carpenter needs hard skills. In this age, they need computer skills. Of course, they need to know how to nail a board. But they also need to know how to nail an interview.

They need to know about showing up on time, having the right attitude, and reacting well to stressful situations. Deficiencies in these latter skills are one of the major employment problems faced by out-of-school youth. It may not have anything to do with training per se, but it has everything to do with getting and keeping a job.

And we know from our efforts to help people move from welfare to work, that keeping a job is the real challenge. And that means addressing barriers like transportation and child care. Successful programs must go beyond any single area to tailor solutions to individual needs--to the whole person.

The second core principle is making sure that programs look at the whole community. In the past, many efforts failed because they left untouched the neighborhoods where kids live. We need to reverse pathologies and build on positive attitudes. And that requires enlisting the whole community to reassert the values that are already there and make them stronger.

It's not easy. But it really takes dealing with the basics. I call it the ABC approach--accountability, buy-ins and concentration.

Accountability from those charged with delivering services to the young people receiving them. Having an adult role model through one-on-one mentoring is also key. We know from research and evaluation of programs such as Big Brothers/Big Sisters, this pays off. When kids know that an adult cares enough about them to hold them responsible for their actions, that builds accountability.

Next, a buy-in which integrates and provides a sense of ownership to the community--everyone from employers to labor unions to schools to law enforcement to faith-based organizations. That requires local flexibility to design programs that are responsive to the needs of that particular community. The historical approach of narrow definitions and tight federal control added up to a recipe for failure.

And finally, we need to concentrate our efforts where the problem is concentrated. And we know a lot about where the challenge is greatest. Over half of black and Hispanic out of school youth live in high poverty areas as do about two out of five white out-of-school youth.

And I believe by following the ABC approach, by reaching out to the whole community, the environment can change from one where kids are dodging bullets to one where they're chasing opportunity.

Based on the lessons learned, and some successful experiments we are seeing take hold around the country, the Department of Labor is doing things differently. We are building on the whole person/whole community foundation.

We have pioneered a model youth opportunities initiative developed by local leaders with seed money from the Labor Department. It is in various stages of operation in 6 areas around the country, including here in the communities of South Boston and Roxbury.

This is not a big government, one-size-fits-all program. It recognizes what works in South Boston may not work in South Philadelphia or South Central Los Angeles.

It acknowledges that the road to solving this challenge is long, but it starts with a simple understanding: Teens and young adults in high poverty have the same hopes and dreams as their peers in the suburbs--they just haven't had the same opportunities and resources.

The initiative works with employers--identifying available jobs and the skills needed to fill them. At the same time, it is looking at the whole person and giving young people tools to find and keep those jobs. That includes everything from training to the fundamentals--writing a resume, interviewing skills, and non-traditional educational experiences that combine skills development with lifelong learning.

Finally, it is bringing in the whole community--involving groups from the police to local churches to area employers large and small.

In short, it is building a circle of support. It is reinforcing core values like work, responsibility and opportunity so that when these young people look ahead, they, too, can see a future. Young people like those who have joined me today from the Boston initiative and a young mentee from the Coalition of 100 Black Men in Atlanta.

It is their future--and others like them--that we are talking about. And that's why I am proud that President Clinton made a $1 billion commitment over four years to invest in whole person/whole community strategies that connect out-of-school youth people to real jobs. And the recently signed Workforce Investment Act has now become the authorizing mechanism to get the job done.

Again, the approach recognizes that the federal government doesn't have all the answers--and we certainly don't have all the resources. But we will invest in solutions that work--and we will offer principles but not prescriptions.

The Administration is coordinating efforts and leveraging resources throughout federal agencies in a new way. Because it's all tied together. Crime prevention without jobs won't work. Housing vouchers without safe streets won't work. School reform without opportunity won't work. And-- if we don't work together--in the end--young people won't work.

So as we move into a new century, we are also moving into a new way of doing business, a new way of tackling an old challenge. Faith-based organizations and other community groups need to keep up their work to strengthen the foundation of these neighborhoods. But we have to recognize that in order to get kids into meaningful jobs we have to do our jobs differently. And I conclude with these three challenges.

First, I am at this prestigious institution for a reason. I want to challenge Harvard and other educational institutions to take the issue of expanding opportunity for left out kids in left behind communities--and make it a priority. Elevate it and keep it on the national radar screen. Teach people across the nation, this matters. It matters to us all.

Equally important, for both higher education and neighborhood schools, keep working to develop innovative practical solutions that will change young lives for the better.

Second, I challenge employers to take a fresh look at their role. Right here in Boston we are seeing the difference that makes through the innovative work of the Boston Private Industry Council.

I challenge business in particular to strip away stereotypes about these young people. Look beyond race. Look beyond economic circumstances. Look beyond where they may live. Give them a chance. Yes, some may have made bad choices in difficult circumstances. Give them a second chance. Take leadership and take risks.

There's a lot we can learn from the success of welfare-to-work. Many businesses were hesitant to hire former welfare recipients. But they found that these new workers came in with great attitudes and stayed with higher retention rates.

The challenge and opportunity for employers is the same. They should understand this isn't simply about helping a poor young kid from the inner city. This is an economic investment in the future. It isn't charity, it's enlightened self-interest.

And third, as we talk about people doing business differently, I want to challenge law enforcement--cops on the beat, prosecutors, parole officers--to think anew about your role. You are not just a member of the law enforcement community, you are a vital part of the community.

Make connections. Find ways to work with parents to keep kids in school. Many parole officers today are helping young people get job training. Team up with community-based organizations. Team up with labor unions. Team up with human service providers. Team up with school districts.

As police chiefs around the country have told me, the best tool to fight crime is an economically vibrant community.

In the end, this challenge affects all of us--the solution will take all of us. And if we as a nation believe in opportunity, responsibility and the dignity of work, we cannot accept the status quo as a permanent reality. We must recognize the better some of us do, the better all of us do.

We don't have a person to waste. We certainly don't have a generation to waste.

So on this Labor Day, let us take on the challenge together. On this Labor Day, let us finally move high youth jobless rates from the statistics books to the history books. That's where they belong.

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