Years after the Great Recession there is one age group still having a really tough time getting traction. Across the country there are over five million 16 to 24 year olds who are neither in school nor working. This idleness, experts warn, puts these young people at a increased risk for opioid addiction. For this first edition of WBGO INVESTIGATES, Bob Hennelly went to Cumberland County where over 1 in 5 of young people find themselves idle and opioid addiction is taking a terrible toll.
It's Columbus Day Weekend. Thousands of people are enjoying the annual Deerfield Festival in Cumberland County, by many measures the poorest county in New Jersey where in some towns the majority of households struggle week to week to get by. According to the national Opportunity Index, a non-profit advocacy group, there are close to 120,000 disconnected 16 to 24 year olds—not in school and not working in New Jersey. Cumberland County native thirty one year old Eric Manoloalmodobar, has three young boys. He makes his living taking pictures of foreclosed properties for the real estate industry. He blames the combination of the opioid crisis and a poor economy for the idleness of so many young people.
“There are a lot of foreclosures a lot of just bad property especially in our area. A lot of abandoned houses. Banks are taking up everything.”
But the properties. That must be depressing to see so many foreclosed houses.
"Yeah, yeah it is a lot of tension also especially when you go to the property and the people don’t know the bank is taking their house. It gets hot sometimes. I am just there to photograph the property for the real estate company.”
James Adams is 20 and living at home and does not have a job but sells art he makes and does contract work. He says Cumberland County is a tough place for the 16 to 24 age group.
“The Opioid epidemic and then there is income disparity which is a national issue. But it is even worse on the East Coast, especially in New Jersey with the high population density also the fact that there have been cuts in education and in public housing. I am an artist so I would like to go to a community where the arts are flourishing so of course it is not going to be around here."
He and his girl friend, Mikhala Oliver hope to move to California. Oliver says that education related debt has had a severe impact on both her mother and older brother.
"My mom is $40K dollars in debt. She did not got to college. She went to like a trade school thing and there helping pay for it but she has to pay for some of it. My older brother went to college to mortician school that wasn’t accredited and he didn’t know that and he paid for that and so now he is paying for that and for his community college and he has no money to do anything except work and go to school. He can’t even come here."
Over at crafts tent section of the fair their are several vendors trying to close sales. James Gravely, a long time resident says he says young people don’t have the family and community support they need.
"Drugs are a big issue because, in my opinion, kids, they don’t have that guidance at home and they fnd that guidance in the wrong place with people who end up getting them in drugs. Even here, I see a lot of kids running around, there are no adults around,they are doing whatever they want—and I think Boys and Girls Clubs is a great thing. There are people out there who willing to take these kids and mentor them and help them get where they need it be."
Gravely says making the wrong bet on what to do after high school is something he has seen in his on family.
"My daughter case in point. My oldest daughter. She went to college and she didn’t get the degree. It did not work out the way she wanted but then she ended up with a big bill and she ended up things, turned around for her. She went back to college and now she is about to graduate nursing school. And my other daughter, and it is hard—she went to RIT in Rochester, New York—got a degree in gaming and now is having a hard time finding a job."
25 year old Craft vendor Lauren Morvan, mother of 2 year old, makes extra money selling holiday themed wood lawn ornaments. She says what she went to school for did not work out and that addiction was a painful detour.
"I am actually a recovering addict my self um drugs eh. I am going on nine months clean. Drugs are definitely —I am very concerned for my son when he grows up what he is going to come across. So i am going to be the strictest parent with him with drugs, because me being a recovering addict. I didn’t even know I was getting addicted to it. I did not even know. One time i was taking them for my migraines. The next thing you know I am addicted."
Flavia Alaya, is a Bridgeton resident, scholar and author, and nationally recognized expert on the history of Bridgeton and Paterson and has been a long time member of New Jersey’s Histric Sites Commission. She says Cumberland County was once a place of prosperity that drew people for good paying jobs.
"So the Cumberland Nail and Iron Works kicked up virtually at the time that Paterson began its rebirth right after the War of 1812 and became the driver of not only industrial development but of urban growth. The iron industry and the glass industry came together here and then the agriculture industry found serviceability in both industries with canning and preserving of food."
It was where Charles Franklin Seabrook figured out at how to freeze the vegetables that the region produced in abundance.
"Mr. Seabrook kind of invented the packaging of foods for supermarkets and the freezing of food for supermarkets. Of course south Jersey, although it modeled that industrial development it moved else where and that process now goes on an industrial scale in other parts of the country."
Cumberland’s third act was as a major glass manufacturing hub.
"So, the glass industry melded itself into a one single sort of vast industrial Owens Illinois complex. It was a company town then in 20th century and when Owens Illinois left, boom it was just disaster.”
Alaya is not surprised that young people are having trouble getting traction.
"Of course, because there are no jobs here.If students get through high school there is no place to go. County College I must say has been trying to build an easier conduit for kids that are not graduating from school and hitting a wall offering programs that make them more saleable in the market place. There is a very strong nursing program but they can’t handle it all and they are even struggling to do as much as they do because they are underfunded.”
Downtown Bridgetown has just about as many empty storefronts as it does active businesses. Rosemarie Dequinzio, chair of the Bridgeton’s Historic Preservation Commission, remembers when things were different.
“Definitely, the glass jobs, Seven-Up was here. When I moved in there were quite a few big businesses that payed really well that you could raise a family on the wages that they paid you. Unfortunately they found cheaper labor, either down south or overseas and closed up. And they left their businesses. They left their buildings.So when you leave your building like that unattended it causes blight."
Bridgeton City Council President Gladys Lugardo-Hemple says the lack of local businesses makes the challenge of youth unemployment tough to resolve.
“Well, here in the south Jersey we have a lot of problems but unemployment is a big issue especially in our city of Bridgeton. We don’t have that many companies that come all the way here. We are not close to 55. We only have 49 close going to Delaware. But a lot of companies for some reason don’t want to come here so the unemployment is a big fact."
And so what I understand is that a lot of kids that I talk to at the Deerfield Festival, they go away to college. They get a big tuition bill and then they can’t find work and so they are in debt and they are not employed.
"Absolutely. It is sad to hear all that. But here there’re no jobs. Then when they graduate here they want to stay here and bring to the community what they have learned but there are no benefits for them to stay here so they go away. If you graduate here you want to make a difference in your community. You want to make changes but if you don’t have jobs it is difficult.”
While Cumberland County young people are dealing with a tough local economy the entire nation has gone through a profound shift in terms of how we even define work says John Fugazzie, the executive director of the Hudson County/ Jersey City Workforce Development Board. He says that years after the Great Recession it is still hard for unemployed young people to land a good job.
"The number of jobs is diminishing. A lot of jobs are being contracted jobs. So the competition for the job that is 40 hours with benefits is getting harder and harder to find and harder and harder to land."
Fugazzie says he gives the same advice to out of work middle-aged people as he does young people. If you can’t find work volunteer—keep being productive.
"Employers today, especially ones that are community minded will look at the resume of somebody who has done volunteer work, work for an organization as a big positive. The other thing a volunteer organization normally has low funding and they are more than willing to give you a chance to do skills that you may not get in the private sector so building your resume and putting these skills on your resume ‘hey I did social media marketing for a food bank in New Jersey is incredibly important.’"
Dr. Harriet Fraad, a family therapist, says young people in that 16 to 24 age group who are not in school and out of work are especially vulnerable to opioid addiction because they don’t have the affirmation that comes with the structure and motivation work or school provide.
"To get confidence, to get connection. To have others to share because one of the things that gives people a sense of belonging is they connect on a job . They are doing something together with other people to produce something, to create something. There is an enormous loneliness when the society says we don’t want you wherever you go and your not connected. Well if you have a cohort that doesn’t share any tasks. If you are not wanted by the whole society, that says no we don’t want you there is an outrageous loneliness and people turn to drugs in that loneliness. They are lost and lonely and that is something that is not being addressed."
Dr. Fraad said the country needs to find productive ways for young people to clear their student debt so they can move on.
"The hopelessness that you are saddled with debt. You are hopeless to ever pay it off. If you get a job it could be garnished and your salary can be taken. I have a client in this position who is very capable but always has to work under the table because he is afraid what ever job he gets will be taxed for his debt. We really need to find an exit from college debt. We are the only nation of all the western nations that have any prosperity that charges what we do for college and it is an outrage and it should be stopped.”
The crisis of disconnected youth is on the radar of community based organizations like the United Way but experts say more needs to be done. But time is of the essence, because the longer young people are unplugged the harder it is for them to reconnect. https://www.unitedforimpact.org/our-cause/our-focus/career-pathways-and-pipelines/
Click above to hear Bob's entire report.