Civic leaders initiate a new effort to rescue disconnected young people and save society money.

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Some people cost society more than they contribute to it, but it doesn’t always have to be that way.

Wednesday night, civic leaders and residents talked about how to turn things around for young people who, without effective intervention, may end up costing all of us.

The Seattle Foundation and United Way of King County convened the meeting in conjunction with the White House Council on Community Solutions.

Gatherings like it are happening around the country. Their common starting point is a report on disconnected youth by researchers at Teachers College Columbia University and the City University of New York.

Approximately 6.7 million people between 16 and 24 are neither in school nor working. That’s an obvious problem, which the report flips around. It doesn’t call the young people “at-risk youth,” instead referring to them as “opportunity youth.”

How we classify issues affects how we deal with them. Thinking of kids as problems will draw a different response than thinking of them as potential assets.

During a break, Norm Rice, a member of the White House council, and president and CEO of the Seattle Foundation, noted the many young participants.

“We have to understand who they are and what they want,” the former Seattle mayor said. “Young people have been stereotyped so much that we don’t see what’s really there.”

The report (seati.ms/ynBDqm) gives a good picture of how we lose if we don’t adopt better responses.

Opportunity youth cost taxpayers about $16 billion a year in Medicaid coverage. Tax dollars subsidize housing, pay for food stamps and other aid for people who aren’t supporting themselves.

And though opportunity youth make up a little over 17 percent of people ages 16 to 24, they account for 63 percent of all crimes committed by people in that age range. Dealing with those crimes costs taxpayers $188 billion a year.

Even when opportunity youth get jobs, the jobs tend to be low-paying, so they have little to contribute to the common good in the form of taxes or purchasing power.

The report said an opportunity youth who is 20 years old now, will, over the course of his life, cost taxpayers $235,680 and impose a social burden of $704,020.

Most of those young people can be either a benefit or a burden. We have to invest something to get a return, but it has to be a wise investment.

The more than 30 gatherings in cities around the country are intended to help forge solutions that work. Paula Boggs, Starbucks executive vice president, is also on the White House council. She said businesses have an interest in the fate of people in the targeted age group. The majority of her company’s employees are younger than 30, she told the group gathered at the Northwest African American Museum.

People from a variety of organizations and social-service agencies and businesses sat with young people in 11 groups and talked about obstacles to success and drew up lists of solutions.

One young participant, Nancy Villafuente, a member of Red Eagle Soaring, a Native American youth theater, said those at her table decided solutions need to consider the whole family.

Other groups suggested peer mentorship, life-skills training and an online clearinghouse for resources.

As you might expect, no one came up with a new and perfect idea, but the whole exercise is about reframing an existing problem, creating focus, urgency and energy to address in systematic ways a problem that ought not be taken for granted. The meetings, as Rice said at the end, are just the beginning.

Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com.