Many young people face challenges getting through college and often struggle to find gainful employment after graduation. But nearly 6 million others are stuck in a sort of limbo – they're neither in school nor working.
That's largely because of a lack of opportunity and social mobility in America, according to the national advocacy group Opportunity Nation. For those 5.8 million youths, between the ages of 16 and 24, not having a job isn't the only thing holding them back. Some communities throughout the country struggle with access to basic needs such as affordable housing, the Internet, quality health care and good schools, says Mark Edwards, executive director of Opportunity Nation.
For the past three years, the group has been measuring dimensions of opportunity in states and counties across the nation and scoring them in what it calls an "Opportunity Index," comprised of factors that can help or hinder a person's success.
"The American dream is about more than just unemployment," Edwards said at a forum Tuesday releasing this year's index. "Too often, the zip code where you're born does determine your destiny."
Sen. Robert Portman, R-Ohio, spoke at the event and said there are ways to recover economic growth and help struggling families that should not be partisan issues.
Policymakers need to look for new ways to raise revenue throughout America, by reforming what Portman said is an "antiquated" and "inefficient" tax code. Portman said working to lower health care costs and better align the education system with the needs of employers could also help turn things around.
"It's not that there aren't opportunities out there for jobs," Portman said. "There are 400,000 people out of work in Ohio, and yet there are 100,000 jobs being advertised. Here is a specific example of where our education system is failing us."
Indicators within a state or county, such as median household income, the number of violent crimes, and high school graduation rates, are predictors that can shape a child's trajectory through life, Edwards says.
One of those people is Michael Long.
A Florida native, 22-year-old Long grew up in a home where he says his father instilled in him the belief that by working hard and playing by the rules, you would come out on top.
"I am a firm believer that opportunity can't exist without hope," Long says. "At its most core and basic level, you have to have hope if you're going to have opportunity."
But that changed when as a young child, Long watched his father lose the business he created, the home he helped build, as well as his sense of hope.
Not long after, when the family had moved into a smaller apartment on the outskirts of Sarasota, Fla., Long says he learned his father had succumbed to the same drug addiction that his mother had fallen prey to years before.
That was one of two turning points for Michael.
"I think that's when I stopped believing in opportunity. I think that's when I lost hope," Long says.
Long says that's when he stopped "playing by the rules," and spent much of his youth moving in and out of juvenile detention centers and getting into fights. "When you don't have hope, you're willing to do just about anything," Long says.
And that's what he did.
In 2007, Long dropped out of high school as a sophomore. Although he returned a few months later, the time still had a significant impact, he says. He broke into people's homes, stole their property and even began selling drugs.
The second turning point came when a group of men broke into the apartment Long says he paid for with drug money and severely beat him while he was at home with a broken ankle.
"One of them had a hammer and the rest had guns," Long says. "The guns went straight to my head and the hammer went straight to my broken ankle."
"That moment, as painful as it was, made me hopeful again. How strange is that?" Long added.