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OP-ED: Invest in Pa. YouthBuild programs

Michael R. Galvan and Jacqueline Martino-Miller
YouthBuild Pennsylvania Coalition
In this file photo, a Crispus Attucks Youthbuild Charter student works in the courtyard section of the Royal Square Community Garden Wednesday in May 2016.

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania faces a unique problem. Despite job growth and decreasing rates of unemployment, the number of Opportunity Youth (OY) in Pennsylvania has remained stagnant at around 10% to 12% over the last 10 years. OY are young adults, aged 16 to 24, who are neither in school nor working.

The disconnection rate, or the rate of OY in a given area, can range from as low as 9% in Allegheny County and as high as 18% in Philadelphia. Nationally, Pennsylvania ranks in the top half of states for youth disconnection. Case studies from Philadelphia and Berks counties have shown that a large portion of these young adults have a high school degree or less (76% in Philadelphia and 81.8% in Berks).

The addition of a global pandemic, COVID-19, further endangers employment opportunities for youth in Pennsylvania. According to Mathematica, in April 2020 more than 25% of youth aged 16 to 24 were unemployed. Young people are uniquely poised to suffer unemployment in a global pandemic: Industries where youth work — retail and hospitality — are also the hardest hit with social distancing orders. Most jobs that youth perform cannot be done at home, and this pandemic is specifically causing major interruptions in the education system like we have not seen before.

Thankfully, a resource exists for OY in Pennsylvania: the YouthBuild Pennsylvania Coalition. Made up of six partner sites across the commonwealth, the coalition serves adults age 16 to 24, helping them complete high school diplomas or its equivalent, get vocational training, and build better futures for economically distressed communities.

There is a greater need for YouthBuild than ever before. The value of post-secondary education is rising while the costs of attainment are leaving too many behind. Upward mobility, a dream for so many, is now increasingly a reality for so few. The high school graduation rate is projected to decline through 2032. The lack of affordable housing is fueling an eviction crisis nationally and locally. And finally, the impacts of a global pandemic on our economy and education system has dramatically increased barriers for youth to succeed.

We can change that.

In the last three years, approximately 1,243 YouthBuild Pennsylvania participants built 66 houses and rehabbed at least 292 units of housing. Since 2014, YouthBuild Pennsylvania participants demonstrated increased voter registration and lowered recidivism rates. 88% of students who graduate from YouthBuild programming enter into some sort of post-secondary education, job training, or employment opportunity.

Years of empirical research offer clear evidence that the YouthBuild model works. In fact, for every $1 spent on YouthBuild programming, there’s a return on investment of $10. That’s why, this year, we are calling on members of the General Assembly to invest in YouthBuild programs for their first time.

Within York City, Pennsylvania, Crispus Attucks York and its Crispus Attucks YouthBuild Charter School have rehabilitated over 17 single and multi-unit properties as affordable or transitional housing for low-income individuals and families over the past 20 years of the school's YouthBuild program operation. The YouthBuild program has helped reduce the shortage of units available for low-income households in the York area while providing valuable, hands-on job training and education for our youth.

The case is clear now: the General Assembly should invest in YouthBuild programs across the Commonwealth. By investing in YouthBuild, the General Assembly not only invests in our students, but they will invest in our communities. It’s time we Build a Better Future, together.

— Michael R. Galvan is director of the YouthBuild Pennsylvania Coalition.