Houston, We Have a Problem

Failure to Launch

An acquaintance of mine teaches at a public high school in the heart of Detroit. Many of her students have no parent available to them. Parents are in absentia for various reasons including drugs, prostitution, prison, working two jobs or a night shift. All of these reasons give them little to no overlap with their child(ren). These kids are literally raising themselves. They attend school hungry, tired, with no supplies and frequently late because they depend on the unreliable city bus schedule for transportation.

But they are trying. With little to no support, they are showing up and doing what they can under the circumstances. Many don't know where else to go to stay warm and get some food. Many just want out of the circumstances that have them trapped, but are very troubled and do not graduate. And some fall into the same circumstances that caught their parents. It's a miracle that any of them make it out.

For those of us who are parents with a full support system in place: our health, two fully engaged parents, grandparents, neighbors, enough money, enough babysitters and enough time -- we know how difficult it is to raise one child into a happy, healthy, prosperous and productive citizen. The fallout of any of that critical network of support can trigger a cascade of bad circumstances for any family and the children.

So imagine your 9th grader fending entirely for him/herself for just one week or one month. Imagine him/her doing it for their entire childhood.

The ranks of the workforce in America are mostly filled by younger workers who attain skills through education and job training. The American economy depends on a steady influx of young skilled workers. Decisions made by young people -- or decisions made by their parents -- that take them out of the education system or the ranks of the workforce and throw the trajectory of their future success off course have seismic consequences that we all eventually feel. And eventually we all pay.

I am referring to more than just high school dropouts. This includes young adults 16 to 24 dropping out and disengaging from education and the workforce. (estimated at 6.7 million) Recovery and re-engagement of this type of dropout is a national matter with deep implications for our economy, local communities, and young people themselves.

The Value of You

Human capital is intangible accumulation of experience, talent, character, education and fund of knowledge within every individual. We begin to nurture that capital from the moment of birth, and the more we can pack into a person during their lifetime, the more valuable they are to our society. The most impact on any human being happens between the ages of 0 to 5 when the brain is fresh with billions of neurons absorbing billions of bits of information. The most influential person in a human's life at that time is by far a parent, usually mom. If she is an addict, under-educated, a child herself, or if she doesn't have support, then her time, energy and focus is not on her children, it is on survival. Anyone familiar with Maslow's Heirarchy of Need pyramid understands where that puts a person.

Human capital is the vein of gold in any society. Many moms are struggling, putting their children at risk of not reaching their full potential, and many Americans -- young and old -- are not enrolled in school or participating in the labor market. That is human capital that we need to elevate our circumstances as a whole. Leveraging the talents and abilities of every individual is in the best interests of everyone...and here is why.

The Value of You + Me

As folks come together to form communities, human capital builds to become social capital. When human capital is optimized -- high levels of education, ethics and integrity, reciprocal dynamics are evident and produce such things as good will, fellowship and familiarity. In turn, these breed trust and loyalty. These are the building blocks for what has been dubbed the next level of intangible qualities called social capital. It is the inherent collective value built into the network of who you know, and the economic benefits that arise as a result of your social network. These benefits include: trust, reciprocity, mutual aid, information, exchange of ideas, cooperation, collaboration, collective action and security. Human interaction and contact breeds mutual interdependence, respect, familiarity, confidence, security and bonding networks. When people truly care about each other, it increases social capital, which increases values within the network.

Every community strives for social capital, but it simply cannot be achieved without the investment in the foundation building blocks of human capital. Cities and civic organizations clamor for social capital. Social capital increases at barn-raising, in neighborhoods with large porches, walking trails, bike trails, concerts, green spaces, schools, parks, outdoor cafes, churches, cultural events, recreation facilities -- anywhere where people can be with people in a positively charged social atmosphere. People in your network become currency as the things and people they know become yours by proxy. The core idea is that social networks have value, and they only have value when the individuals at the barn-raising have value and can be trusted.

Someone Has Done Their Homework

Sometimes it is simply circumstances that drive the course of a young life rather than bad decisions. Tragic disintegration of the family, death of a wage-earner, communication and literacy gaps where English is not the primary family language, catastrophic mental or physical health issues, and youth being forced into care-giving situations in their family can all impact the future earning ability of anyone. Youthful indiscretion leading to teen pregnancy, incarceration or failure to complete high school can also alter the ability for a student to reach their full potential, as well. Other young people are "under-attached" to the labor market despite some schooling or some work experience. (estimated at 3.3 million)

For every young person that fails to build a resilient economic foundation for their adult independence and blossom as contributing members of society, here is a breakdown of the economic burden that we all incur:

There is an immediate burden we all carry generated for persons 16-24 who fall short of their potential, and the future burden that is incurred over the rest of their adult lifetime. Calculations for these painful outcomes are derived from national surveys such as the American Community Survey, the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, Add Health and the Current Population Survey. From this we can calculate the lost earnings, lower economic growth, lower tax revenues and higher governmental spending associated with under-performing individuals in our communities.


Although the economic burden depends on age, there is an estimated taxpayer burden of $13,900 per year, and a social burden of $37,450 per year (2011 dollars) for every youth between 16 and 24 who are under-performing. This is only a fraction of the burden generated if the individual continues to falter. After age 25, individuals can impose approximately $170,740 lifetime taxpayer burden and as much as $529,030 of a social burden.

The estimated aggregate taxpayer burden and social burden over the lifetime of disengaged individuals can amount to a whopping $1.56 trillion and $4.75 trillion respectively.

The impact in certain areas is one of a drag effect on the local economy. In other areas, the impact can be more harmful depending on disbursement of these individuals. Re-engagement back into the workforce is the best medicine for them as well as for their families, society and the economy.

Who Moved My Cheese?

A short book written in 1998 entitled Who Moved My Cheese? examines how an individual deals with dramatic change. The “cheese” represents a person’s goals, and the “maze” represents life. The story is about how we all share the need to find our way through life during changing times. It is a simple demonstration of the dynamic nature of our existence, the fragility of our lives when things change, and how resiliency and perseverance are critical to success. This same concept can be applied to companies, industries and nations.

With the advent of the technological revolution, skilled jobs have shifted hard in the last two decades creating a disconnection in the American workforce. A large portion of laborers are being displaced, and on the other side, there is a desperate growing need for a technologically skilled labor force. Qualified candidates are in short supply. Helping the displaced workers find their “cheese” would help to balance out the workforce.

You Can Help Find New Cheese

Finding new ways educate those who need more than the average amount of support, and finding ways to connect workforce initiatives to the individuals who could most benefit from them is imperative to the advancement of us all. Educating disadvantaged students and retraining displaced workers and engaging individuals who are under-attached in the workforce can fill the economic vacuum in the workforce.

America’s economic burden from failing to invest in and support our youth has long term precipitous consequence and an unacceptable price tag. The critical need is for more education, better training, social support systems and a high level of visibility and access to all of these tools. By working together to close the gap and find time to mentor, train or give to an organization that is engaged in this work will bring about exponential returns for everyone.

Whatsoever You Do to the Least of My Brothers.....

What we don't need is more unsubstantiated judgment and condescension toward those who are in need of assistance. Clearly there are multiple reasons why people end up in the circumstances that they do, and but for the Grace of God and some remarkable good fortune, you and I have managed to avoid those same circumstances. Be grateful. Then roll up your sleeves. They need us, but the more important point that I am making here is that we need them. They hold the key to our success as a society and they all deserve a chance -- or two or three or whatever it takes -- to achieve the heights we aspire for them. We are all connected and rise and fall with each others' failures and successes. And I would point out that choosing haughty disdain of people you do not know and whose circumstances you cannot begin to understand over lending a hand is your epic failure.