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.