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In the Nation's Interest

Trustee Blog: Letting Every Child Rise to a Bright Future

        With America facing an ever-changing economy and increasing competition from other nations, it's crucial that our country's youth – especially vulnerable African-American boys – be prepared to meet these challenges.  To ensure that these at-risk children become the successful workforce of tomorrow, a fundamental strategy is ensuring they stay on track and graduate from high school.

        A paper I authored earlier this year, Between the Bells, exposes the plight of young African-American males in my city of Memphis, Tennessee.  The high school graduation rate in Memphis is approximately 63%, and it's even lower for African-American males at about 50%.  To make matters worse, 95% of inmates in Memphis county prison facilities do not have a high school education, and that same percentage – 95% – of the entire Memphis prison make-up is African-American.  There are serious financial consequences to having so many of these young men incarcerated and so few completing high school.  The average annual cost to taxpayers for imprisonment is approximately $26,000.  If these young men were to graduate, they would not only be less likely to end up in jail but would also earn an annual average of $8,000 more than non-graduates, thus contributing to our economy instead of draining it. 

        By increasing the number of organizations – and enhancing existing ones – which mentor at-risk children, these vulnerable African-American males can stay on track to graduate from high school.  In Memphis, the results of community organizations – both faith and non-faith based – have been impressive.  Today, the Memphis Boys & Girls Club reaches 10,000 kids every week.  Their official membership numbers 4,000 children and they boast a stunning 100% graduation rate when members stay involved for five years.  If these at-risk organizations played a greater role and helped graduate 2,000 additional African-American boys annually, approximately $16,000,000 would be injected into our economic system.  This boost would help lower unemployment, which is absolutely critical for Memphis.  Here, the unemployment rate is far worse than the national average at more than 9%. 

        Along with mentoring organizations to help better the lives of African-American males, another critical factor involves support at the beginning of their education experience such as through high-quality early education.  A 2012 report by the Committee for Economic Development, Unfinished Business, details fascinating research on the benefits of early education, especially for underprivileged children.  The report includes a 2011 study conducted by economist Tim Bartik of the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research.  He estimated that children in very poor households (like for African-American boys) can see a rise in future earnings of up to 35% if they receive a robust education from birth to age five. 

        Despite the strain on government budgets, early education and mentoring initiatives can be strengthened; supporting them may simply require innovative ways to generate funding.  For example, Nebraska’s citizens passed a constitutional amendment to devote a portion of their state’s land trust revenues to early education and child care.  To help low-income kids in Pennsylvania receive a quality preschool education, the state offers tax credits to those that donate to local scholarship funds. 

        In addition to government involvement, America has a rich history of private organizations aiding those in need, and it’s the responsibility of today’s business community to continue this long standing tradition.  The philanthropy taking place at PNC Financial Services Group, Inc. is an excellent example.  The company created PNC Grow Up Great and PNC Crezca con Éxito to help mainly disadvantaged children prepare for success, awarding generous grants for programs in math, science, art, and financial education.  Furthermore, employees are given paid leave – up to 40 hours a year – to volunteer in education programs for children in need.  And, just recently, Goldman Sachs is collaborating with investor J.B. Pritzker to invest in “social impact bonds.”  As a result, millions of dollars of loans will be provided so at-risk children can receive high-quality early education.  By the business community developing more like-minded programs, not only would the lives of so many children be enriched, their own companies would be as well. 

Larry Jensen is a Trustee of the Committee for Economic Development and President and CEO of Cushman & Wakefield/Commercial Advisors.  A recent profile of Larry Jensen and his commitment to community can be read here

Trustee blogs are the views of an individual trustee and not the official policy of CED.