Executive Summary

Nov. 15, 2012 - Download PDF Version

During the twentieth century, the United States raised living standards by creating the best-educated workforce in the world. The nation’s success rested on local, state and federal investment in high quality, universal primary and secondary schooling, coupled with affordable higher education.1 But public investment is now on the decline. Over the last decade, funding for education fell as a share of total public spending. Meanwhile, rising tuition pushes college out of reach for millions of young people. Education is fundamentally connected to jobs, which is currently the top priority for most Americans. Yet, the federal government has also cut major training programs for disadvantaged youth at the same time that the Great Recession wiped out an estimated 2.7 million jobs held by young adults.2  Together these factors have created a perfect storm of reduced opportunity for America’s young people.

Young Invincibles and National Priorities Project compared major federal investments in young adults to the economic challenges facing the next generation. Researchers have analyzed investments in children under age 18,3 but very few have studied programs targeted at young adults. We focus on education and training because, more than any other category, they shape individual economic opportunity and our country’s future economic competitiveness.4 Our findings are disturbing: 

  • The federal government currently spends more annually on the war in Afghanistan than on education. As states made deep cuts to education funding in recent years, federal education funding barely held steady, and the nation’s young adults fell from 1st to 12th globally in educational attainment.5
  • The federal government cut $1 billion from job training for disadvantaged youth over the past decade. Currently, underfunded training programs reach fewer than 5 percent of the 6.7 million disconnected youth — those not connected to work or school and most in need of help.6
  • Reduced investment in job training for young adults affects young people of color disproportionately, as they are more likely to be eligible for assistance. While the unemployment rate for Americans ages 16 to 24 is 16 percent — more than twice the national average — the unemployment rate is 17 percent for Latino youth and 26.7 percent for African American youth.
  • Looming automatic budget cuts, known as "sequestration", will cost thousands of youth jobs in 2013. AmeriCorps, which has already sustained cuts in recent years, creates 80,000 youth jobs a year — though in 2011 it received a record 582,000 applications. Cuts from sequestration could pull nearly $40 million dollars from the program in 2013, in addition to reducing funding for nearly every other education and training program.

These facts make it clear: further cuts to youth services would be disastrous for young adults and hinder economic growth. Though we face fiscal challenges, cutting investment in our nation’s future will not bring this country prosperity. In fact, we already invest far too little in higher education, training, and job experience for the next generation. It is no surprise that nearly half of young adults fear that they will end up less well off than their parents.7 Investment in young people should be expanded, while continued disinvestment will push the American Dream further from reach.


See, for example, Claudia Goldin and Lawrence F. Katz The Race Between Education and Technology (Harvard, 2008).

Rory O'Sullivan and Alistair Johnson, "No End in Sight? The Long-Term Youth Jobs Gap and what it Means for America" (Washington, DC: Young Invincibles, 2012), http://younginvincibles.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/No-End-In-Sight-7.9.12.pdf.

First Focus, Children’s Budget 2012.

Donna Cooper, Adam Hersh, and Ann O’Leary, The Competition that Really Matters: Comparing US, Chinese, and Indian Investments in the Next-Generation Workforce, (Washington, DC: The Center for American Progress, 2012), http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/economy/report/2012/08/21/11983/the-competition-that-really-matters/.

John Michael Lee Jr et al., The College Completion Agenda 2011 Progress Report, (College Board, 2011,) 7, http://completionagenda.collegeboard.org/sites/default/files/reports_pdf/Progress_Report_2011.pdf.

Clive Belfield, Henry Levin, and Rachel Rosen, "The Economic Value of Opportunity Youth" (January 2012), 1, http://www.civicenterprises.net/MediaLibrary/Docs/econ_value_opportunity_youth.pdf.

7 State of Young America: The Poll (Washington D.C.: DEMOS and Young Invincibles, 2011), accessed October 31, 2012, http://www.demos.org/state-of-young-america.