The social problem affects young people in the U.S. aged 16 to 24 years. The U.S. Department of Labor (2017) estimates that in 2017, “about 1 in 5 people in this age range—6.7 million people—were neither working nor in school” (p. 19). Not only does this mean a looming unemployment crisis in the US, but it also implies that there are consequences for other aspects of the lives of urban youth, such as health and finances. Although young people of all racial and social groups are affected, this social problem is especially relevant to representatives of minorities. Overall, there are three spheres where unequal opportunities manifest most of all – healthcare, education, and employment.
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Unequal access to education has long been a social problem in the U.S. The U.S. Department of Education (2021) acknowledges the fact of inequality based on socioeconomic backgrounds. Students from middle- and high-class families continuously perform better at average scale scores, such as NAEP Basic and NAEP Proficient. Even though there was some improvement in the average grades of students of lower status, the overall educational inequality remains. Furthermore, the study by Taylor and Cantwell (2018) shows that representatives of racial minorities “are concentrated in less selective, lower-resourced institutions” (p. 19). As a result, they have fewer chances to enroll than the general white population does.
Employment opportunities represent another sphere of problems for urban youth. Data from surveys of young people show that many encounter career obstacles (Flanagan et al., 2021). Some of them are the result of pandemic-related job losses. Others encounter employers’ pessimistic attitudes regarding their skills and work experience. However, there are also indications that racism also influences the decision-making of employers. Flanagan et al. (2021) write that “identity, oppression, and privilege, therefore, provide an important lens through which to understand young people’s experiences in the labor market and workplace” (p. 4). Discrimination also affects young women, as women, in general, earn less than men. Subsequently, women, racial minorities, and members of lower-income families have more obstacles to employment.
Health inequality is another problem that representatives of urban youth face today. Assari (2020) argues that “statistically, non-Hispanic blacks are more likely to have lower income, health issues, such as asthma, COPD, obesity, ADHD, depression, and anxiety, than non-Hispanic whites” (p. 7). Simmons et al. (2021) have observed a higher rate of COVID-related hospitalizations among African American minorities young people than among non-Hispanic ones. Particularly, many minorities have limited “access to safe housing, transportation, or medical care that could affect the risk of exposure” (Simmons et al., 2021, p. 5). Therefore, health disparities are also evident among young people in urban settings.
Primary Causes of the Problem
Urban youth inequality has both systemic roots as well as immediate causes. American mindset has always favored those who can achieve financial well-being. However, racism and prejudices have also shaped the way many Americans behave today. At the same time, current policies in a way support social inequities. Current regulations, particularly in the field of education and healthcare sphere, serve as the immediate basis for youth inequality.
The reasons for unequal opportunities in education include the lack of funding, the absence of corresponding research, and the discrimination of minorities. The lack of funding is evident in the way schools receive finances. Most of the schools are locally funded, while universities and colleges have high tuition fees. At the same time, Bernard (2021) notes that “the decades of misguided research”, further corroborated the idea of unequal funding among politicians (p. 31). Finally, discrimination policies continue to affect enrollment in educational institutions. In essence, any young person who is not from a well-off family is not of the white majority, or lives in an area with insufficient school funding will receive an education of lower quality.
Employment issues stem from two major causes – prejudices and lack of trust in young people. The issue of discrimination is self-explanatory – many employers still harbor biased feelings towards minorities. Assari (2020) writes that “U.S. society is built and functions around certain strong and hard-to-change social structures such as segregation, which place NHBs [non-Hispanic whites] in a relative and systemic disadvantage” (p. 6). Meanwhile, the prejudice against young people’s inexperience is entirely racism-free and logical – employers do not believe that hiring youth will bring more benefits than creating problems. Combined with the racial stereotypes held by many managers, distrust of urban youth’s qualifications prevents them from getting equal employment opportunities.
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Low incomes are a major cause of inequities in healthcare opportunities. First, the U.S. healthcare policy is not particularly friendly toward low-income citizens. Approximately 27 million people do not have health insurance because their annual incomes are not sufficient to cover the expenses, which is particularly true of young people who only start earning (Dickman et al., 2017). Second, the lack of adequate income prevents young people from accessing qualitative medicine and medical equipment. Recent decades have seen major medical breakthroughs, yet new technology is expensive. Low-income people cannot afford to buy it, which has a direct impact on longevity (Dickman et al., 2017). Ultimately, income inequality underscores the reasons behind health disparities in young people.
Role of the Family and Broader Community
However unpleasant it may seem, most of the future problems stem from the way children are raised. Families are particularly important because children learn their first lessons from primary caretakers. Consciously or not, children continue to hold the beliefs established in the family into adulthood, even if they attempt to resist the pressure. It is expected that parents and caretakers instill a civic attitude in children, which will promote open-mindedness and social equality. In reality, many people continue to hold toxic beliefs and pass them on to children (Assari, 2020). What is more important, these beliefs do not necessarily have to be verbally articulated. Children are intuitive observers who acutely notice the specifics of the caretakers’ communication and adopt them as well.
Probably, the most toxic belief cultivated in families is prejudice against people who are different. This is a multifaceted problem since it encompasses race, gender, and socioeconomic status. If parents’ behavior showcases disdain for minorities, the lesson young people learn is that inequality is normal. The family’s role is to prepare children and youth for adulthood. However, when they do grow up, their actions continue to support the toxicity of the caretakers’ views. When young people start their own families, they teach their children the same lesson. Thus, the cycle of toxicity perpetuates, with each new iteration of the family adding its layer of prejudice.
Although the family is the first socialization opportunity for children, the broader community is of equal importance. Younger people, by definition, are enthusiastic, easily swayed, and prone to strong influences. The pressure of conformity is especially problematic with the youth who lack the life experience to distinguish between proper conduct and toxic behavior. The role of communities is to regulate the behavior of young people. The community ensures that its representatives follow established rules. If people violate them, they are penalized socially, economically, and legally. Communities are supposed to uphold values of trust, tolerance, acceptance of differences, diversity, and overall dignity.
However, as much as communities can cultivate rules of proper conduct, it can also have a negative influence. Many corrupt ideas are spread and followed for the exact reason that they are promoted by the majority. Examples of such beliefs include racism, discrimination against women, and income-based favoritism. Therefore, communities must uphold the norms that prevent inequality. Urban youth is especially vulnerable to toxic ideas because young people are exposed to socioeconomic disparities (Bernard, 2021). First-hand observations of inequality force higher-income people to distance themselves from poor individuals, while lower-income youth becomes jealous of richer people primarily because the community supports this viewpoint in the first place.
“Urban Employment Demonstration Grants for Youth and Young Adults” was a social program directed to alleviate the employment issues of young people. The program encompassed seven cities: Baltimore, Camden, Detroit, Houston, North Charleston, and St. Louis. The idea behind it was to award the cities with two-year grants “to develop projects to address the workforce needs of disconnected youth and young adults (ages 16–29)” (U.S. Department of Labor, 2017, p. 7). These programs made partnerships with the cities’ employers possible. These arrangements facilitated access of young people to work training, legal aid, assistance with shelter, transportation, and even allowed on-the-job hiring in some cases. Although the two-year timeframe was limited, the grants showcased effective solutions, such as the involvement of mayors, more deliberate staffing, and maintaining relations with civic entities (U.S. Department of Labor, 2017). This program showed that it is possible to support disadvantaged young people provided authorities and employers are willing to cooperate.
The pandemic has accentuated the importance of remote learning for young people. Even if COVID-related restrictions cease to be relevant, the convenience offered by remote learning services will enable many young people to consider education opportunities that were previously unaffordable. Naturally, many people may not have the technical means necessary for remote learning, such as laptops. Briggs et al. (2021) argue that community-based programs “provide technology and Wi-Fi access to program participants”, thus eliminating the socioeconomic disadvantage (p. 5). Essentially, this is a win-win scenario for all sides involved. Young people benefit because they do not have to pay for relocation and computer equipment. The community benefits since its representatives are enrolled in educational establishments, thus improving the statistics. Finally, institutions receive motivated students who are not burdened by socioeconomic limitations.
The Affordable Care Act was a response to the inability of many low-income individuals to access healthcare. An especially noteworthy provision was the reduction of healthcare disparities using newly created Offices of Minority Health (Orgera & Artiga, 2018). It was important because minorities were now specifically targeted by the government. However, the ACA also affected workforce diversity, as more representatives of minorities were encouraged to work as doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals. The most important result of the ACA was that it “sharply reduced the uninsured rate for people of color and low-income groups” (Orgera & Artiga, 2018, p. 7). Overall, as with other spheres, unequal access to healthcare demands corresponding actions from the authorities.
First, it should be evident that cooperation with the authorities is essential for achieving results. Business owners will not heed the opinions of minorities unless they are actively incentivized to employ young people of color or low income. Therefore, the first recommendation is to mobilize the community to bring the problem of unequal employment opportunities to the attention of mayors. Statistics are the most persuasive argument during debates on the importance of social issues (Assari, 2020). Communities should accentuate that among many job candidates with equal qualifications, preference is given to non-Hispanic whites.
The second recommendation concerns grants, which are effective in implementing initiatives. Grants are important for two reasons, which have to be considered by young people. First, they are extremely helpful in conditions when no funding is available. When young people have no financial support, grants can be a game changer since they provide the needed financial resources. Second, grants allow young people to improve their self-esteem. When faced with income inequality, many individuals are upset. Grants allow young people to feel empowered to counter income inequality with resources of their own. Therefore, more effort and time should be put into studying existing grant opportunities.
The third recommendation is to promote remote work and education opportunities. Many contemporary remote jobs do not require employees to show their faces. When communication is done primarily via messengers, physical exposure to interlocutors is eliminated. This implies that the ethnic, gender, or social identity of an employee becomes irrelevant as everyone is equalized in the virtual space. Promotion of such opportunities is a subtle way of addressing inequality of opportunities among young people without actually pressuring employers to hire minorities.
Finally, the family should be the main focus of programs that intend to change the status quo related to inequality. The importance of lessons learned in families cannot be overstated. Therefore, family members must teach the lessons of inclusiveness and tolerance. This is especially important for young people who are planning to start new families. Social support for lower-income families should be promoted to strengthen the concept of inclusiveness. Social programs should push for greater exposure of children of different ethnicities towards each other, as these experiences form the basis for future interactions.
Altogether, unequal opportunities for urban youth manifest in three spheres – employment, healthcare, and education. In each case, young people face different obstacles depending on their ethnicity, gender, and income. Causes for inequality are historic and are determined by current policies. An inequality mentality is cultivated in families and communities, which then propels young people to teach their children the same lessons. Necessary steps to fight the problem include intervention of the authorities, implementation of grants, creation of remote work and education opportunities, and promotion of inclusive values in families. Young people may not have created such an enormous urban gap, but they have the power to change it.
Assari, S. (2020). Understanding America: Unequal economic returns of years of schooling in Whites and Blacks. World Journal of Educational Research, 7(2), 1-14. Web.
Bernard, L. (2021). Education inequality in the United States: A wicked problem with a wicked solution. CMS Senior Theses. Web.
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Briggs, A., Spaulding, S., Spievack, N., Islam, A., Anderson, T. (2021). Serving youth remotely. Urban Institute. Web.
Dickman, S. L., Himmelstein, D. U., & Woolhandler, S. (2017). Inequality and the health-care system in the USA. The Lancet, 389(10077), 1431-1441. Web.
Flanagan, S. K., Margolius, M., Lynch, A. D., & Hynes, M. (2021). The state of youth employment. America’s Promise Alliance. Web.
Orgera, K., & Artiga, S. (2018). Disparities in health and health care: Five key questions and answers. Kaiser Family Foundation. Web.
Simmons, A., Chappel, A., Kolbe, A. R., Bush, L., & Sommers, B. D. (2021). Health disparities by race and ethnicity during the COVID-19 pandemic: Current evidence and policy approaches. Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation. Web.
Taylor, B. J., & Cantwell, B. (2018). Unequal higher education in the United States: Growing participation and shrinking opportunities. Social Sciences, 7(9), 1-22. Web.
U.S. Department of Education. (2021). U.S. national and state trends in educational inequality due to socioeconomic status: Evidence from the 2003–17 NAEP. Web.
U.S. Department of Labor. (2017). Urban employment for youth and young adults demonstration grants implementation evaluation. Web.