- - Sunday, January 31, 2016

My favorite pair of boots is so worn that one of the soles has started falling off. I plan to replace them soon and my options are plentiful, thanks to Jan Matzeliger.

Matzeliger is not a modern shoe designer, but a black shoemaker who invented and patented a cobbling machine in the 1880s. Originally from South America, he moved to the U.S. where he worked in a shoe factory to study cobbling while taking classes at night to learn English. His invention eventually revolutionized the shoe industry, increasing the availability of shoes while decreasing the price of footwear.

My own family migrated to America over 100 years after Matzeliger. We were seeking the opportunity missing from our homeland in the Caribbean. Like Matzeliger, we found that the American dream is alive and attainable. In fact, the majority of blacks and Hispanics believe in the American dream, according to recent CNN polling. Some 55 percent of blacks even believe it’s easier for us to achieve the American dream than it was for our parents. The Atlantic finds that blacks and Hispanics are more likely to say the American dream is achievable for those willing to work for it, and they report being more optimistic than white Americans about their own future.

However, young people in America are much less optimistic — and young black Americans are actually the least optimistic. Just under 50 percent of 18-29 year-olds overall believe the American dream is still alive.

There is good reason for that: Youth unemployment is nearly double that of the general population, at 8 percent. That number is even higher for black youth, sitting at 12 percent, according to a monthly jobs report produced by my organization, Generation Opportunity. Counting those who abandoned the job search or who are working part-time instead of full-time, that unemployment rate hits 16 percent.

Other measures show similar decline. Young people face higher levels of poverty than previous generations, and the situation is even worse for people of color. The average black family accumulated $95,351 in wealth in 2013 compared to $677,657 for the average white family.

So what accounts for the stubborn optimism among blacks? The key factor is opportunity for mobility. My parents instilled in us that a strong work ethic and education are keys to achieving success in this land of opportunity. I hear similar sentiments from my peers. We have ambition and drive and believe those can propel us forward, despite the obstacles we face.

Different from the battles Matzeliger, our grandparents and parents fought, we face barriers to opportunity that challenge our socio-economic mobility. Education for example, remains a great path to success, yet our K-12 education system fails to prepare many young people for a career or life after high school. As few as one-third of fourth- and eighth-grade students are proficient in math or reading. Only seven out of ten students graduate high school, and only 6 out of 10 black males receive their high school diploma.

Our national conversation, meanwhile, urges students to attend college, but does little to ensure they’re prepared for it or to explore whether alternatives are better suited for some young people. Those who graduate in four years as well as those who don’t complete their degrees — often students of color — are usually on the hook for a year’s salary worth of student debt. Black, first-generation college graduates are especially prone to incurring student debt, with about half of us taking out more than $25,000 in loans for higher-education.

Many young blacks don’t think about higher education because they are behind bars. Of the 2.3 million people incarcerated in America, about 38 percent in federal prison and about half in state prisons are young people. Black youth represent 26 percent of juvenile arrests and 58 percent of youths admitted to state prisons. Incarceration deals a heavy blow to one’s earnings potential, reducing a person’s annual earnings by as much as 40 percent and leaving black males with 9 percent less income over a lifetime.

How can we empower young people of color to keep their drive going, in spite of the obstacles? Let’s start by eliminating hurdles imposed by government. Lazy, one-size-fits-all education policies and failed federal programs leave no room for competition and innovation in education. Policymakers should make room for choice in K-12 education by allowing students to take public funding to effective schools rather than leaving them at the mercy of their ZIP code. We can elevate the idea of choice to higher education as well. Young knowledge seekers should have access to certificate programs, apprenticeships, online education, and other high-quality alternatives to four-year degrees. This competition can provoke colleges to lower their costs, reducing and eventually eliminating the need for students to go into debt.

Let’s also turn to fixing broken aspects of our criminal justice system. By reducing mandatory federal sentencing, we can ensure that offenders receive punishments that fit their crimes. Jail time should not be the solution to every crime either. Judges and prosecutors should also explore alternatives to incarceration for those who make mistakes—especially young people. And after those young Americans serve their time, we can help them reintegrate into society by not treating their sentence as a scarlet letter. From removing the felony question on job applications to supporting job training programs, we can ensure that a young person’s lifetime potential isn’t cut short by a bad choice.

I am inspired by and celebrate the success, drive, and optimism of people like Matzeliger. His story — like those of many others — reminds us that where we start in life should not determine where we end. That is the promise of the American dream.

Patrice Lee is the national spokeswoman for Generation Opportunity.

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