Exclusive Commentary

Moving the Needle on Youth Disconnection

Kristen Lewis and Sarah Burd-Sharps, Measure of America - Posted July 7, 2014


The Great Recession may be over, but its pernicious effects endure in the lives of millions of young people. The downturn triggered a surge in the number of disconnected youth—people between the ages of 16 and 24 who are not working or enrolled in school. And especially alarming is the concentration and persistence of disconnection within particular communities, giving lie to America’s promise of equal opportunity.

Disconnection from the societal anchor structures of school and work during the transition to adulthood has serious consequences for young people themselves as well as society as a whole. Research shows that young people never entirely recover from long spells of disconnection; instead, they carry scars of their lost years for the rest of their lives in the form of lower wages, worse health, lower marriage rates, greater unemployment, more contact with the criminal justice system, and even less happiness.

Our organization, Measure of America, has worked to document the rate of disconnection within different groups, cities, and neighborhoods. Nationally, about 5 million young Americans were disconnected before the recession in 2007, but by 2010, that figure had swelled to 5.8 million—roughly one in every seven Americans between the ages of 16 and 24. Unfortunately, the tide of youth disconnection has been slow to recede, barely budging from 14.7 percent in 2010 to 14.6 percent a year later, with dramatic variations between racial and ethnic groups as well as between and within cities.

African Americans have the highest rate of youth disconnection (22.5 percent) and are about three times as likely as Asian Americans and twice as likely as whites to be disconnected in their teens and early twenties. Latino young people have the second-highest rate of youth disconnection (17.9 percent).

Among the 25 largest U.S cities, the youth disconnection rate ranges from 9.2 percent in Boston to 18.8 percent in Riverside-San Bernardino. The variation of rates from neighborhood to neighborhood within these and other cities, however, dwarfs the variation between them. The starkest inequalities are found in Chicago, New York, and Detroit, in that order, where gaps between neighborhoods are as large as 30 percentage points.

What do these three cities share, aside from high neighborhood inequality? This: Detroit, New York, and Chicago are the three most racially segregated of the twenty-five most populous cities.

Further, our analysis shows that most communities with high shares of disconnected youth in 2011 also had high shares of disconnected youth in 2000, more than a decade earlier—a relationship that holds true even when controlling for population growth and demographic change. The persistence of youth disconnection in low-income, highly segregated neighborhoods where adults struggle with limited education and high unemployment suggests both an absence of effective action on the scale necessary to make meaningful change and the presence of deeply entrenched human poverty, defined as a lack of not just income but also access to knowledge, strong social networks, and civic engagement. It also means that youth disconnection has become a normal and expected experience in these communities. Young people in today’s most disconnected neighborhoods were in elementary school in 2000, and at that time, as many as three in ten teens and young adults in their lives were not working or in school—shaping these young children’s expectations about the future.

Solving the youth disconnection crisis requires three sets of actions. The first step is to actively reengage and reconnect young people who are disconnected today. The second step is to prevent disconnection tomorrow by improving the conditions and opportunities that exist in high-disconnection neighborhoods. The third step is for organizations and individuals active in this area to join together to establish realistic, measureable, time-bound targets for reducing youth disconnection and work collectively to meet them.

This last point is a vital but overlooked key to moving the needle on youth disconnection. To make progress, the diverse actors who work with disconnected young people must not only agree to coordinate, but they should also decide together what success will look like. Setting a goal to halve the national youth disconnection rate from 14.6 percent to 7.3 percent by 2030 is appealing in its simplicity. But a national goal can feel too far removed from the individualized efforts that are needed within each community. A more motivating and meaningful aim would be to cut in half the disconnection gap between neighborhoods and between racial and ethnic groups within each metro area.

What would this mean in practice? In Philadelphia, where the African American youth disconnection rate is 25 percent and the white rate is 9 percent – a gap of 16 percentage points – halving the gap would mean that no more than 8 percentage points would separate African Americans and whites. In terms of Philly neighborhoods, where the highest rate is 30 percent and the lowest 3 percent – a gap of 27 percentage points – halving the gap would mean no more than 13.5 percentage points separating affluent Main Line suburbs from city neighborhoods like Kensington and Richmond.

While these gaps are still too large, meeting goals like these in cities across the country would represent significant and attainable progress—and a more hopeful and promising future for hundreds of thousands of young Americans. The time to act is now.

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Kristen Lewis and Sarah Burd-Sharps are co-directors of Measure of America.

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