The “American Dream” is dead, say nearly half of America’s young people. This startling statistic comes from a recently released nationwide survey conducted by Harvard University’s Institute of Politics, which polled Americans ages 18-29 regarding their attitudes on political issues.

The same survey also showed that while just 16 percent of youth believe that the U.S. government is offering solutions to problems, only 20 percent describe themselves as “politically engaged,” and 58 percent acknowledge that they do not really follow national news.

What a worrisome disconnect. How can anyone change a dysfunctional government while abstaining from the political process? How can we restore faith in the “American Dream” if the next generation of Americans has already given up? We now face the risk of self-fulfilling prophecies born of misplaced defeatism.

The truth is, the “American Dream” will live as long as Americans believe in the value of their own efforts, hold freedom sacred and work to elect responsible leaders who will do the same.

Young Americans are the nation’s largest generation, and they will soon control over the levers of power, whether they want it or not.

That is why it’s critical that we cultivate political engagement and civic responsibility in future generations. This demands serious participation; we must not allow the ideological echo chamber of the blogosphere and retweet-style “slacktivism” to substitute for the hard work of genuine dialogue and statesmanship.

While no one program is a panacea, I am convinced there is tremendous potential in the establishment of debate-based education and competitive debate teams in U.S. schools.

University studies have shown that, regardless of demographics, participation in debate improves academic performance and self-confidence and decreases high-risk behaviors.

Its citizenship benefits are equally powerful. I have seen its power to instill young people with critical thinking skills and personal connections to political issues of national importance. Debate students go on to carry that sense of concern with them for the rest of their lives.

Debating grabs kids’ attention because it is competitive. In pursuit of victory, students must learn to conduct research, evaluate arguments critically and consider difficult problems. They initially become engrossed in trying to win the game, but before long, they find themselves genuinely concerned with the issues themselves.

If you continue to believe in the “American Dream,” engaging young people is an important way to protect its survival. As a component of this, I urge you to show support for debate education in your local schools. If none is available, please reach out. The National Center for Policy Analysis’s numerous youth programs offerings can help assist you in bringing these critical opportunities to students in your community.

When young people are given the skills and confidence to effect positive change in their lives and their communities, they can find the strength of spirit to fight the growing trend toward apathy. When that happens, we should find no reason to doubt the continuing health of the “American Dream.”

Rachel Stevens is director of youth programs for the National Center for Policy Analysis. She wrote this for

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