The Dismal Numbers Behind Disconnected Youth

Across America, one in seven young people — or 5.8 million individuals ages 16 to 24 — are neither employed nor in school, and the highest rate is among people of color.

NEW YORK, NY - MAY 03: A man takes a break from at a job fair sponsored by State Senator Jose R. Peralta and Elmcor Youth and Adult Activities on May 3, 2012 in the Queens borough of New York City. Representatives of over 60 companies met job seekers that numbered over one thousand. The Labor Department announced Thursday that weekly unemployment benefit applications fell 27,000 last week to a seasonally adjusted 365,000. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
National Journal
Kristen Lewis and Sarah Burd-Sharps
Nov. 21, 2013, 7:06 a.m.

At Meas­ure of Amer­ica, we have charted the share of 16- to 24-year olds in the 25 most pop­u­lous metro areas who are not work­ing or en­rolled in school; they are Amer­ica’s dis­con­nec­ted youth. Our latest re­port, “Halve the Gap by 2030: Youth Dis­con­nec­tion in Amer­ica’s Cit­ies,” shows that 5.8 mil­lion youth fit in­to this cat­egory. While youth dis­con­nec­tion is a na­tion­al epi­dem­ic, our re­search re­veals its dis­pro­por­tion­ate im­pact on young people of col­or.

Kristen Lewis worked for the United Na­tions for many years and holds a mas­ter’s in in­ter­na­tion­al af­fairs from Columbia Uni­versity.Afric­an-Amer­ic­an and Latino teens and young adults are far less likely to have a job or to be en­rolled in a form­al edu­ca­tion­al pro­gram than their white and Asi­an-Amer­ic­an coun­ter­parts. The av­er­age youth dis­con­nec­tion rate for Lati­nos is 17.9 per­cent, com­pared with 11.7 per­cent for whites. While Lati­nos are roughly as likely as oth­er young people to be em­ployed, they are much less likely to be en­rolled in school. In fact, 54.6 per­cent of Latino youth are en­rolled in school, com­pared with the na­tion­al av­er­age of 61.7 per­cent. Afric­an-Amer­ic­an youth are nearly three times as likely as Asi­an-Amer­ic­an youth and twice as likely as white youth to be dis­con­nec­ted from em­ploy­ment and school. In con­trast to Lati­nos, the primary chal­lenge for Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans is their at­tach­ment to the work­force. Na­tion­wide, 61.9 per­cent of Latino youth are em­ployed, com­pared with just 45.2 per­cent of Afric­an-Amer­ic­an young people.

Sarah Burd-Sharps is also a long-time vet­er­an of the United Na­tions and has a Columbia MA in in­ter­na­tion­al af­fairs.Ana­lys­is at the neigh­bor­hood level shows that com­munit­ies with large per­cent­ages of Afric­an-Amer­ic­an and Latino youth are the most dis­con­nec­ted. In Bo­ston — the metro area with the low­est rate of youth dis­con­nec­tion over­all — the rates for Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans (14.2 per­cent) and Lati­nos (18.6 per­cent) are much high­er than that of whites (7.2 per­cent). In Wash­ing­ton and Min­neapol­is — the second- and third-most con­nec­ted cit­ies — one in every five Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans ages 16 to 24 is dis­con­nec­ted. Fur­ther­more, dis­par­it­ies in dis­con­nec­tion rates between neigh­bor­hoods in the 25 most-pop­u­lous metro areas are most pro­nounced in the cit­ies where res­id­en­tial ra­cial se­greg­a­tion is pre­val­ent. In De­troit, New York, and Chica­go — the three most ra­cially se­greg­ated cit­ies — dis­con­nec­tion rates vary by as many as 30 per­cent­age points between neigh­bor­hoods.

Com­munit­ies with large shares of Afric­an-Amer­ic­an and Latino youth are the most dis­con­nec­ted be­cause they face a host of struc­tur­al and in­sti­tu­tion­al bar­ri­ers, in­clud­ing poverty and edu­ca­tion in­equal­ity. Six char­ac­ter­ist­ics strongly as­so­ci­ated with dis­con­nec­ted neigh­bor­hoods are low hu­man-de­vel­op­ment levels, high poverty, high adult un­em­ploy­ment, low adult edu­ca­tion­al at­tain­ment, and a high de­gree of res­id­en­tial se­greg­a­tion by race and eth­ni­city. Clearly, youth dis­con­nec­tion is an is­sue that is lar­ger than any single young adult; the prob­lem re­flects and re­in­forces the con­di­tions par­ents, fam­il­ies, and the lar­ger com­munity struggle with.

The in­sti­tu­tion­al­ized drivers of youth dis­con­nec­tion are even more evid­ent when one looks at the data over an ex­ten­ded peri­od. Youth dis­con­nec­tion rates by neigh­bor­hood from 2000 are strongly as­so­ci­ated with youth dis­con­nec­tion rates today in those same areas. Our re­port shows that neigh­bor­hood-level youth dis­con­nec­tion in 2000 ex­plains about 74 per­cent of the vari­ation in dis­con­nec­tion in those same neigh­bor­hoods at the end of the dec­ade (2011), even after tak­ing in­to ac­count pop­u­la­tion growth and demo­graph­ic change. En­trenched youth dis­con­nec­tion shows that it has be­come a norm­at­ive ex­per­i­ence in these com­munit­ies. When the young people who are dis­con­nec­ted today were in ele­ment­ary school a dec­ade ago, as many as three in 10 teens and young adults in their lives were not work­ing or in school — shap­ing their own ex­pect­a­tions about the fu­ture.

Solv­ing the youth dis­con­nec­tion crisis re­quires reen­ga­ging and re­con­nect­ing young people who are dis­con­nec­ted today as well as pre­vent­ing dis­con­nec­tion to­mor­row by im­prov­ing con­di­tions and op­por­tun­it­ies in dis­con­nec­ted com­munit­ies. But to really move the needle on this is­sue, the act­ors work­ing to put an end to youth dis­con­nec­tion must join to­geth­er and es­tab­lish meas­ur­able, time-bound tar­gets for re­du­cing the gaps between ra­cial and eth­nic groups and between neigh­bor­hoods.

In Phil­adelphia, the Afric­an-Amer­ic­an youth dis­con­nec­tion rate is 25.2 per­cent and the white rate is 8.9 per­cent — a gap of 16.3 per­cent­age points. The highest neigh­bor­hood dis­con­nec­tion rate is 30 per­cent, and the low­est is 3.2 per­cent — a gap of 26.8 per­cent­age points. Halv­ing the gap would mean no more than 8.15 per­cent­age points sep­ar­at­ing Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans and whites, and no more than 13.4 per­cent­age points sep­ar­at­ing neigh­bor­hoods. While the gaps would still be large, the needle would be mov­ing in the right dir­ec­tion. Set­ting clear tar­gets raises aware­ness, gal­van­izes re­sources and ac­tion, provides a gauge for as­sess­ing ef­fect­ive­ness and pro­gress, and en­cour­ages di­verse act­ors to pull to­geth­er to­ward the same ends — just what this stub­born prob­lem and the young people af­fected by it need.

The au­thors are co-dir­ect­ors of Meas­ure of Amer­ica, a pro­ject of the So­cial Sci­ence Re­search Coun­cil. Their most re­cent re­port ex­pands on their 2012 re­search, “One in Sev­en: Rank­ing Youth Dis­con­nec­tion in the 25 Largest Metro Areas.”

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