I’m currently in New Brunswick, New Jersey for the 4th annual Lend for America Summit, which is geared towards inspiring and guiding college students from across the country to start and expand organizations that serve America’s poor and create economic opportunity for them. Part of the reason why I am here, giving a talk to dozens of enthusiastic, bright young people, is that we will never solve the endemic problems of poverty, injustice, etc., unless more people graduate college and go into government, social enterprise, or non-profit work. This is not an opinion, but rather a fact: young people were one of the primary drivers of the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement against Vietnam, and countless other initiatives that fostered a more just society in America. What’s more, youth helped spur the recent Arab Spring, led to the downfall of the Shah of Iran, partook in the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, and so on. These are just a few examples of the ways in which young, predominately educated people have made the world a better place.
But more needs to be done. We now live in a country where, despite being the wealthiest in the planet, 1 out of 3 Americans are either in poverty (46 million) or at 150% of the poverty line or below (54 million). That number is breathtaking, shocking, unimaginable. We think of America as being the land of opportunity, but the sad fact is that if you are born in poverty here, you are likely going to die in poverty, and your children will live and die in poverty as well. We focus on the few ‘rags-to-riches’ stories, and mistakenly assume that hard work alone is enough to move ahead. That simply is no longer the case, in large part because the high-paying jobs of today require a college education (or more), and those living in poverty are far less likely to go to good public schools, and far less likely to be able to afford, or go to and graduate from, a four-year college. As a result, America’s poor are stuck in low-wage, low-skill jobs with little-to-no upward mobility.
So how can we solve this? The status quo is simply not going to solve the problem. Remember that when Lyndon Johnson launched the War on Poverty in 1965, the poverty rate was 19%; today, after five (5) decades of government and non-profit initiatives, the poverty rate has only dropped to 16%, while income inequality has increased and the middle class has been eroded.
The reason we need more students to tackle these problems are numerous. For starters, they bring fresh ideas and enthusiasm. They don’t know that something won’t work (because they are “naive,” which really means they aren’t jaded) and are therefore willing to experiment. They are interconnected through technology in a way that allows them to draw upon numerous, interdisciplinary resources that they can bring to bear on a problem in a unique way. And finally, I think that the financial collapse has steered a lot of people away from Wall St. and other jobs that are financially lucrative but create little-to-no social value.
Because my goal is to end poverty in America, and because I know I can’t do it alone (yes, there was a time when I thought I could!), I view part of my job description to be inspiring and mentoring young people that want to good. I want them to think bigger and more boldly; to be proud and aware of the power and potential of their enthusiasm; and to translate their energy into tangible actions that foster justice.
Yes, the problems we face are significant. Many Americans are either unaware of or jaded by these challenges. Ending poverty requires passion, energy, a sense of humor, a willingness to fail, a resiliency to overcome adversity, and an open mind. These are all traits possessed by younger people (or those young at heart and spirit!), and it is for this reason that I believe so much in the future. Indeed, I believe that there are statistical, sociological and micro/macroeconomic reasons to assert with confidence that poverty will be eradicated in our lifetimes. We must simply acknowledge that such a lofty goal will not happen of its own accord; instead, to paraphrase a famous quote by my hero Martin Luther King, Jr., the arc of history bends towards justice, but someone must be there to do the bending.