Exclusive Commentary

Changing the Trajectory of Impoverished Youth: Plugging Disconnected Youth Back into the Labor Market

Linda Harris, CLASP - Posted September 25, 2012


Increasing attention has been paid to the growing ranks of America’s youth who are disconnected from school and work, and who face endemic challenges to accessing opportunity. Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity recently asked several experts to address the challenge of “disconnected youth” and what we can do about it. Read what they had to say here.

These are brutal times for youth in the labor market with employment rates at the lowest level in more than 60 years. For youth from high-poverty households in low-income communities these times may unfortunately set the trajectory for a future of struggle and economic peril.

We know that youth from low-income households are five times more likely to drop out of school than those from more affluent households. In August 2012, only 38.9 percent of youth ages 16 to 24 (24.8 percent of black youth) who dropped out of school were employed.

Such a high degree of joblessness and idleness does not bode well for their long term economic success or family stability. With so few pathways available for these youth to gain the education and skills necessary to connect to the labor market mainstream they are all too likely to head the next generation of high-poverty households a decade from now. 

There are substantial social costs and deleterious consequences to the quality of community and family life associated with setting our youth adrift at such an early age. Any effort aimed at dramatically reducing poverty in the coming decade must be intentional in its focus on policies and strategies that reach out to disconnected youth.

Fortunately, there is a substantial body of knowledge about what works to transform the future for these youth and put them on the path to opportunity. There are no simple solutions, but communities like Boston, Baltimore, Los Angeles, Hartford, Kansas City, Philadelphia, and others have been working on this challenge and innovating across systems for more than a decade. 

The answers can be found in community partners coming together, leveraging resources across systems—education, workforce, justice, welfare. Working across these systems, community partners are able to build multiple education and training pathways that integrate high quality work experience, civic engagement, and career exposure opportunities. They also engage employers, provide caring adult support, and guidance, and facilitate access to support services. This complex work requires leadership, vision, and commitment at all levels of government and all sectors of the community. 

Despite the complexity of addressing the problem of disconnected youth, it is receiving increasing visibility at the national level. The Campaign for Youth, a coalition of national policy and youth serving organizations, the White House Council for Community Solutions, and the Federal Interagency Task Force on Disconnected Youth have all taken important steps in drawing attention to this problem.

This awakening to the youth crisis and the recognition that our economic success as a nation is intertwined with the fate of these youth should translate to increased public will to create the education, training, and work experience opportunities to restore hope, promise, and opportunity to poor youth. Without such interventions, they are destined to remain poor.

To print a PDF version of this document, click here.

Linda Harris is the director of Youth Policy at CLASP.

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author or authors alone, and not those of Spotlight. Spotlight is a non-partisan initiative, and Spotlight’s commentary section includes diverse perspectives on poverty. If you have a question about a commentary, please don’t hesitate to contact us at info@spotlightonpoverty.org.