More than 5 million young people are looking for work. College is increasingly unaffordable, while youth jobs are few and far between. For years lawmakers have been cutting programs that help young Americans find a productive path. And as if that weren’t enough, budget cuts scheduled for 2013 may hollow out what’s left of federal education and training programs.

Thanks to the debt deal struck last August, “sequestration” — an array of automatic, across-the-board spending cuts — threatens to slice more than 8 percent from nearly every domestic program in the federal budget, including most education funding and other programs that invest in young people.

The same lawmakers who wrote sequestration into law in 2011 are now sounding the panic button about the harmful effects these cuts would have. Sequestration would indeed be terrible, but it’s also a red herring. Of course we shouldn’t reduce our investment in programs that help young people contribute to society. But panic over these looming cuts has obscured a much larger issue: Lawmakers have long underinvested in young people, and all Americans will pay the price.

Earlham College/Flickr

Earlham College/Flickr

A report that I co-authored with the organization Young Invincibles should serve as a wake-up call to Washington. We revealed that education and workforce development have fallen as a share of total public spending in the United States. That’s one reason why tuition at public universities has risen sharply, pushing a diploma out of reach for millions of young people. Meanwhile the federal government cut major job training programs for disadvantaged youth by $1 billion over the past decade.

At every turn, doors of opportunity are closing for this nation’s young people. Deep budget cuts in 2013 would be one more devastating setback.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Our report also revealed that the federal government spends more on tax breaks for oil and gas companies than on programs for disadvantaged youth and far more on subsidies for livestock feed than on employment for young people in AmeriCorps. And the annual budget for federal education programs in science, technology, engineering and math — the fields that promise the best wages to young people starting a career — are equivalent, in budgetary terms, to less than two weeks of Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthiest 5 percent of Americans.

Many lawmakers have said deficit reduction benefits the next generation because less borrowing reduces future interest payments. While long-term deficits eventually must decline to a stable share of the U.S. economy, it’s foolish to reduce deficits by cutting investment in education and training — because it doesn’t actually save taxpayer money. As we cut services for disadvantaged youth, we all pay the greater cost in welfare and criminal justice that are the last recourse for young people who never find productive work

In the coming weeks, Congress will negotiate over sequestration and a host of expiring tax laws, including the Bush tax cuts. This is our chance to re-align spending and tax policies with investment in young people. American prosperity depends on young Americans finding their way — overcoming steep tuition bills and insufficient new jobs — to opportunity.

OtherWords guest columnist Mattea Kramer is a senior research analyst at National Priorities Project and the lead author of the new book A People's Guide to the Federal Budget.

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