Dismal Numbers for Disconnected Youth

This blog post appeared as a commentary in the Huffington Post on July, 9, 2013. You can access the original article here.

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.

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.

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.”