Events in Baltimore remind us that the dropout-to-prison pipeline costs us all. What most of us don't realize is how much it costs: trillions of dollars in uncollected taxes and unearned income that never enters the economy. A 2010 study by Northeastern University estimates the loss in unpaid taxes over a single dropout's lifetime at $250,000.
Right now we lose taxes from 3 million dropouts a year. That's a $750 billion lifetime cost, for just one year of dropouts. A decade of dropouts means $7.5 trillion from Americans who will never earn wages and pay taxes. That's a lot of revenue lost. And a lot of Americans also, lost.
Yet we don't notice this, because these dark-skinned adolescents are largely invisible to leadership. We see their hoodies, we don't see them. So we wind up fearing them, with police chasing them down city streets — shooting to kill, not halt, them.
Dropouts who survive the streets often wind up in prison. Nearly 80 percent of our prison inmates are dropouts. It's a monstrous waste of human capital.
Since 1964, Job Corps has trained 16 to 24 year olds who are poor, do poorly in school, but are not in trouble with the legal system. Job Corps gives them the tools, the mentoring — and the time — to transform their lives. Trainees spend 10 to 12 months living in Job Corps centers, long enough to grow a self-expectation of success. Job Corps has graduated over 2 million Americans — almost 1 percent of the entire U.S. population. It works.
Let's expand Job Corps, significantly. If we expand Job Corps by a factor of 25, we could re-educate millions of dropouts. We would offer a road to adulthood for young Americans who now don't see any road to a future that isn't about drugs, prison or dying in the street. Job Corps has an 80 to 90 percent success rate: graduates who immediately get a job, go to college or join the U.S. Military. Not many colleges boast an 80 to 90 percent graduation rate.
Job Corps can open at least part of a solution path for America's 3 million school dropouts yearly. And that figure easily can rise, given a still-unsteady economy and under-resourced schools. One reason Job Corps succeeds is that it uses embodied learning. Trainees use their hands and their minds, instead of memorizing facts about history. They build things, and they build skills. And as they do, they can feel themselves improving.
Instead of currently reaching 60,000 trainees a year, if Job Corps reached 1.5 million a year, it could reach half of all dropouts nationwide. Many of the facilities needed to grow Job Corps already exist. The old Walter Reed Army Medical Center could be a National Service Academy. Other Job Corps Centers can be built, creating jobs and apprenticeships.
Right now it costs about $2 billion a year to run Job Corps. Expanded by 25 times, it would cost $50 billion a year. Over 10 years its cost would be $500 billion.
That's a lot of investment. Yet the return on the investment (ROI) is larger. Consider: 15 million dropouts re-creating their lives as income-earning adults who return nearly $4 trillion in taxes over 10 years. It would pay for itself.
There's more. Today, the cost of keeping one inmate in prison is $40,000 a year. Multiply that by even 20 percent of 15 million dropouts an expanded Job Corp could reach over the next decade: that's $1.2 trillion in cost. That's more than double the cost of expanding Job Corps, to create a useful alternative to prison.
Across our cities, millions of young Americans are waiting. Now America's adults need to step up. Because there's this thing about ROI: To get the return, we've got to make the investment.
Gabriel Heilig was a speechwriter for a White House conference on youth policy and wrote scripts for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on hiring Job Corps graduates. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.