As fathers who have lived through their children’s adolescent years, we are keenly aware of the challenges young people face as they transition to adulthood. Our children were fortunate: They had connections to supportive adults, to financial assistance, to mentors and to the social capital they needed to navigate this challenging time. And the support they received didn’t stop the day they turned 18.
The same cannot be said for the more than 43,000 Maine children currently living in poverty. Because of that, these kids – 17 percent of the youth population of Maine – are more likely than children like ours to experience homelessness or involvement in Maine’s foster care and juvenile justice systems. Once involved in these systems, youth are less and less likely to live up to their full potential.
You don’t need to look much further than recent headlines to see that Maine youth, especially disadvantaged youth, are not living up to their full potential. In an era of increased divisiveness there is one thing on which we can all agree: the current systems are not working. The consequences of this are dire, to the individuals involved and to the state as a whole. It costs the state $250,000 a year for a young person to be incarcerated at Long Creek Youth Development Center and $33,864 per year to fill a bed in a youth homeless shelter. Involvement in one state system often leads to the unintentional consequence of involvement in another, as the individual systems are isolated from each other and unable to meet the complex needs of the youth.
Given the size of our state, we can ill afford to let even one child fall through the cracks. Maine currently faces one of the most challenging workforce crises in the state’s history. Businesses around the state are struggling to find skilled workers. According to an estimate by the Maine Development Foundation, helping vulnerable young people succeed has the potential to add more than 6,000 workers to the state’s labor force. Analyses from the national Opportunity Youth Network found that a $30,000 one-time investment designed to connect a young person to education or training and work will save taxpayers $65,230 over a lifetime, while generating $105,500 in new tax revenue. Maine alone stands to gain $29 million in savings by investing in just 1,840 of its most disconnected young people. In a state of our size, that can make a huge impact. Seen in a prudential light, the best investment the people of Maine can make for the future of our state is in its young people.
A new policy brief from the John T. Gorman Foundation, “From Adolescence to Adulthood: A Blueprint for Helping Maine’s Youth Succeed,” examines the challenges Maine’s young people face and highlights innovative efforts that are improving outcomes for these high-potential young people. The commonality of these different interventions is that they are comprehensive, coordinated and flexible.
One of the initiatives featured in the brief, the Mitchell Institute Promise Scholars, offers comprehensive support to young people in Maine who have experienced adversity. The Promise Scholars program demonstrates that when provided with comprehensive supports, in addition to financial help, young people facing some of life’s most difficult adversities can earn a college degree, make lifelong connections, learn leadership skills and gain the confidence that people believe in them and want to see them succeed.
The brief concludes by calling on the state’s policymakers to create a statewide coordinating body for youth; increase access to community-based programs; develop community-based housing options, and, importantly, make investments that prevent systems involvement in the first place.
We believe every child in the state of Maine should have the opportunity to succeed. Our obligation to this population is partly a financial one – yes – they are our state’s workforce pipeline. We need these young people to contribute to our economy and lead our civic institutions.
But as parents and citizens of Maine, we have a moral obligation, too. We need these youth to be as equipped as they can be to successfully raise the next generation of our kids. These are the children of our neighbors, the children of our friends and family. We must do better by them. The future of our state depends on it.