The connection between the beginning of a new school year and Labor Day is for most of us a calendar coincidence. Both milestones are worthy of fanfare and commemoration, but the link between the two seems largely a matter of timing. A report released last week by the New Haven-based public policy research group Connecticut Voices for Children suggests, however, that the state’s labor picture and our collective aspirations for schoolchildren are directly connected. Without better access to “high quality” public education leading to higher education and job training opportunities, current trends of soaring youth unemployment and wage disparity along racial and ethnic lines in the state will continue to degrade the entire state’s economic outlook, according to the report.
In the dozen years between 2000 and 2012, the unemployment rate in Connecticut for workers between 16 and 24 rose from 5.6 percent to 17.1 percent, peaking in 2011 at 18.2 percent. Additionally, a third of those youth looking for jobs are counted among the long-term unemployed, who have been out of work for more than 26 weeks. That is significantly higher than the national average of 27.7 percent. Couple these sobering figures with the state’s aging population and persistent difficulties for workers aged 55 and older to find new work when they are laid off, and a picture emerges of a state with a shrinking population of higher-income workers and a growing population of unemployed or underemployed youth settling for low-income jobs.
This is an inversion of the formula for economic growth, and state policymakers do not seem to have a lot of near-term tools at their disposal to turn things right side up again. The usual strategies — job training programs or business incentives — are essentially unanticipated expenditures and forgone revenues enumerated in red ink. They always come up short, like most stop-gap measures.
Newtown is singularly responsible for bringing a new emphasis for school security to nearly every school district in the nation this year. But is there a town somewhere that will inspire us to take up the cause of our children’s economic security? The places where that tragedy is most acute — our inner cities — so far have failed to inspire an across-the-board commitment to provide young people the educational foundation they need to succeed. Sadly, the inspiration must come to us child by child, place by place, tax dollar by tax dollar. Connecticut’s best bet for addressing its growing labor conundrum is the long game we initiate every year on the first day of school.