White House: Close the Opportunity Gap, the Whole Country Gets Richer

If the United States closed the gap in labor force participation between White men and men of color 16 to 54, the total U.S. GDP would increase by two percent.

Today, the White House released a report that shows just how closing the opportunity gap and lowering barriers to achievement can help young people and the economy.

Some key findings are startling: If the United States closed the educational-achievement gap between White men and men of color ages 25 to 64, the average weekly earnings among all American workers would increase by 3.6 percent. And the share of working-age men of color who have a bachelor's degree would double.

Further, according to the report, if we closed the gap in labor force participation between White men and men of color ages 16 to 54, the U.S. gross domestic product would increase by 2 percent.

Programs that give disadvantaged youth greater opportunities to get an education, avoid the prison system, and join the workforce are critical for the future of the economy, says the White House.

Frederick Hutson is living proof.

Hutson has always been an entrepreneur. Today, his business is in technology, running a start-up that's secured $5 million in venture capital. Eight years ago, his business was in drugs, which landed him in prison.

The drug business was the only one hiring in his neighborhood. "That's the industry that had openings, so to speak," Hutson says. So he sold marijuana, and eventually went to jail for it.

At 23, he was indicted for distribution of marijuana and served a five-year federal prison sentence. It was the only time he had been in trouble with the law.

"Most of the folks that I went to prison with are economically driven," he says. "It's all to make money. No one is doing it because they think it's cool. It's a way for them to support themselves and their family members."

"There is a lot of untapped talent that's just lying dormant because it just doesn't have a focus." — Frederick Hutson, Pigeonly founder

Hutson always had the mind of an entrepreneur, but lacked the opportunity to apply it.

While serving time, he noticed a glaring problem: the high cost of phone calls from prison. After his release, he founded a tech company called Pigeonly that provides an inexpensive platform for inmates to make calls. The more that an inmate is able to stay connected to his or her support network of family and friends, the less likely he or she is to go back to prison, according to countless studies, including one from the Prison Policy Initiative.

Since launching the phone service in early 2014, he and his staff of 25 have saved prison families $8 million, he says. They also ship 250,000 printed photos each month from family members to prisoners.

As is the case with too many men of color, Hutson spent several years in the criminal justice system and never went to college. But he found a way to go beyond those circumstances. His story is like the many examples that President Obama cites in his My Brother's Keeper initiative, which seeks to invest in disadvantaged youth.

The facts are clear and well-reported: Compared to young White men, young men of color are less likely to graduate from high school, less likely to attain a college degree, more likely to go to prison, and less likely to be employed. Often, it's because many of these young people grow up in poverty and are treated unfairly by the criminal justice system.

"There is a lot of untapped talent that's just lying dormant because it just doesn't have a focus," he says. "When you see that it's possible, you see that this is available to you, you see that this is attainable, it kind of changes your whole thought process. You start thinking of things you never thought of before. You start getting involved with things."

As Hutson has shown, the right motivation changes everything, especially lives—including those of him and his employees, half of whom are convicted felons.