By: David Williams, CEO – Genesys Works
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The cycle of poverty is not easily broken.

I’ve seen this firsthand over my three-decade career with organizations that address the consequences of poverty, issues like access to food or decent shelter. While treating the symptoms is important work, the real challenge is to break the cycle.

Economic status is, to a large extent, passed down from generation to generation. According to social mobility researcher Raj Chetty, the chances of making it from an impoverished childhood to an affluent adulthood are lower in the U.S. than in many other developed countries. Among youngsters who grew up in the bottom one-fifth of the economic scale, very few Latino (7.1 percent) and even fewer black (2.5 percent) children ever make it to the top fifth of household incomes.

There are many reasons for the perpetuation of poverty among people of color, but I believe a major obstacle to social mobility is the lack of opportunity for youth from underserved communities to understand their true potential and pursue what is possible. Students who don’t know anyone in their family, school or community who has gone to college or has chosen a professional career may never know that that path is possible for them. And, if they aspire to pursue a specific career path, it may be difficult to find the guidance and support they need to succeed.

Millions of young people across America between the ages of 16 and 24 are neither in school nor working. Termed opportunity youth, they are also disproportionately young people of color and from low-income backgrounds. The Aspen Institute estimates that there are currently 4.6 million opportunity youth, representing 1 in 9 members of this age group in the U.S.

According to Opportunity Nation, young adults not in school or working cost U.S. taxpayers $93 billion annually in lost revenues and increased social services. Several organizations, like Year Up and Per Scholas, are helping to connect disconnected youth to jobs that give them purpose and a pathway to economic independence.

They key is to reach these students before they become disengaged from school and work by presenting them with meaningful career opportunities while still in school, allowing them to try a potential path they may have never known was possible and to taste success in the world of work.

How do we do this? High school career readiness programs can take many forms, but it’s important that students be exposed to what it takes to work in a competitive, corporate environment. They should see why continuing their education beyond high school is critical to advance their career and build relationships with mentors. And they must have the opportunity to hone in-demand soft skills like public speaking, collaboration and critical thinking.

This approach to high school career readiness is preventing students from becoming opportunity youth. At Genesys Works, a workforce development organization providing pathways to career success for high school students in underserved communities, the skills training and corporate work experiences we provide have resulted in 100 percent of our students graduating from high school, with 95 percent going on to enroll in college. And with a focus on in-demand fields, such as information technology and finance, our alumni outearn their peers by most measures.

For instance, Dionne Griffin was homeless in high school. He had the opportunity to complete a high school career program and internship with Ecolab, a global provider of water, hygiene and energy technologies. Dionne earned four major scholarships, which fully funded his college education at the University of Minnesota. There, he received his bachelor’s degree in housing studies. Griffin now works for the city of St. Paul in planning and economic development, helping others access affordable housing and a way out of the dire situation he once faced himself. The internship opportunity he received in high school opened doors, transformed the way he thought about his future and ultimately changed the trajectory of his life.

Griffin is just one example of what can happen when we enable students to explore their potential and start down a career path while still in high school. Motivation plus real opportunity is a powerful formula. By exposing youth from low-income backgrounds to what is possible through the right opportunities and support structures early on in high school, we can help break the cycle of poverty and move more teens into the economic mainstream. These young adults, our society and our nation will greatly benefit as a result.

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About Genesys Works

Genesys Works provides pathways to career success for high school students in underserved communities through skills training, meaningful work experiences, and impactful relationships. Our program consists of 8 weeks of technical and professional skills training, a paid year-long corporate internship, college and career coaching, and alumni support to and through college.  Our goal is to move more students out of poverty and into professional careers, creating a more productive and diverse workforce in the process.  Since its founding in 2002, Genesys Works has grown to serve nearly 4,000 students annually in Houston, Chicago, Minneapolis/St. Paul, the San Francisco Bay Area, and Washington’s National Capital Region.   To learn more, visit genesysworks.org.

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